Dark Star

Wrong image, wrong religion, wrong city: Meet Brother Ali, hip hop's unlikely savior

Brother Ali needs a ride.

A year from now, he might have a limo, or a cab stipend charged to Warner Music Group. For now, he takes the bus—he even has a song, "Five Line King," about humping home from a show on that route. The man who might one day be Minneapolis's biggest rap star is legally blind.

So I push back the passenger seat of my Camry, and he loads his 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound frame into my car. We take Lyndale south under a clear night sky in February, toward the house of his producer, Ant (Anthony Davis).

Nick Vlcek

"I do books on tape sometimes," Ali says, admitting that his vision problem makes him a slow reader. "I have A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, read by Matt Damon." He laughs. "I have The Art of War."

Sometimes the tape or the CD will be different from the original book, he says. "I have this hero thing with Bernie Mac, like he has a certain classiness about him that I want. But he has two books, and both are on CD, and both of those he just goes completely off the book, just talking."

Brother Ali has made his own name going off-book. At age 29, Ali Newman is the most acclaimed rapper from Minnesota next to his friend and label-mate Slug (Sean Daley), of Atmosphere. And he might have more commercial potential, judging by The Undisputed Truth, his third CD with local independent hip-hop powerhouse Rhymesayers, out this week. One minute, Ali's sonorous voice is a crowd-controlling force—as brash as anything since Run-DMC shouted down their own building-sized beats—and the next it's a whispery lullaby.

Yet as Ali's reading list suggests, he's different. My passenger is a blind Muslim albino who refuses to identify himself by race, though his swooping lashes and baldhead fuzz are transparent. He could be the ghost of a snowman, but he's not white.

"This is a piece of my puzzle now," he hollers on one new song. Brother Ali conjured this track, along with most of his music, in Ant's basement in south Minneapolis. Tonight, we're driving to that bat cave where rapper and producer render Ali's life in song. As Ali's midnight chauffeur, I'm hoping to find the missing piece of that puzzle.

To the future rap star, every open mic is an opportunity. Brother Ali debuted some of his earliest material at his grandmother's funeral, after most of the mourners had gone home. Having gotten his hands on the church microphone, he launched into a standup comedy routine—singing and rapping and making sound effects as relatives gathered around. He was eight years old.

To Ali, it seems as if he's always been performing. He was born Jason Newman in Madison, Wisconsin, and for a while his mom and dad moved him and his younger brother Nick to a new school or town every year, or so it seemed. They later moved to East Lansing and Portage, Michigan. But if Newman's early life in Madison overlapped with the early years of breakdancing or the interracial rap crew Fresh Force, Ali doesn't remember.

He was busy making the news himself. After his grandfather, John F. "Jack" Newman, retired from the UW news service in 1983, the veteran journalist and sportscaster took a class on clowning. The Wisconsin State Journal broke the big story. "From that grew Flash and Crash," the article reads, "a clown act he put together with his grandson, Jason Newman, 6. The Act performed at a parade in Sun Prairie this summer and in Jason's kindergarten class in Verona [a suburb of Madison] last June."

This behind-the-music story, according to Ali, is a lie. But when I tell him that his wife described the actual clown photos, Ali says that he's going to kill her.

In all seriousness, Ali says that he might have absorbed his knack for storytelling from his grandfather. To keep in touch with Jason and Nick long-distance, Jack Newman would sit down with a tape recorder and spin a tale, then mail it to them. "Sometimes it would be a cliffhanger, and we'd get a tape a week later with the finish to the story on it," says Ali.

Suspense was a constant for both grandchildren. In a way, Ali walked onstage the moment he entered any new classroom or playground: the new, fat, albino kid at school.

"I saw Ali struggle so much when he was young," says Nick Newman, who is four years Ali's junior. "With the vision, with getting treated so shitty when he was little. We went sledding one time, and these kids teamed up on him and beat up on him just because of the way he looked."

Like any budding artist, Ali wore all black, to the point where his parents told him to wear something that wasn't. (Years later, he would cover "A Boy Named Sue" by the Man in Black, Johnny Cash.) He avoided the sun, which burned his skin. While Nick was out riding his bicycle, Ali was in his room listening to hip hop—something that was on the stereo since before his younger brother could form a conscious thought.

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