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

Hip hop became Ali's way of getting respect—and an audience. He breakdanced at his first-grade talent show. He rapped Whodini's "One Love" in second grade, wearing what he hoped would look like Run-DMC gear: a powder-blue Easter suit and laceless Payless shoes.

By the time he reached ninth grade in Michigan, he'd recorded his first song on a friend's four-track: "Kickin' Poetry," which blatantly bit "Poetry" by KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions. Ali had the entire school rapping along at the talent show that year, Nick recalls. "He really gained his acceptance through his performances."

Ali got into more fights, however, and still carries a head scar from the beatdown he describes in 2003's "Win Some Lose Some." In another incident, Ali was the one instigating things, loudly telling his friends not to stand for the national anthem before a homecoming basketball game at the rich rival school. Scheduled to perform at the dance afterward, Ali never made it: He was hauled off by police for fighting, along with the rest of his crew.

Nick Vlcek

"My friends were there to start shit, but I didn't see it that way," he says. "I was like, man, this is institutional racism." Everyone in the group was black except for him.

Born to parents that any census taker would describe as "white," Ali had stopped identifying as white to his friends. After catching KRS-One speak at Michigan State University (Nick had the MC sign his Bulls cap), Ali picked up The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and read it as quickly as his eyes would allow. Malcolm put to words something Ali had sensed since he was very young: that whiteness was a lie, a fiction learned by both devil and bedeviled.

"I just always viewed myself this certain way, and when I was a kid, I never understood it," he says. "My friends and their parents and their grandparents would be like, 'No, you're just black.' And I was like, 'Yeah, okay.'"

Black kids made fun of him, but not the way white kids would. "White kids would be like, 'You know your mom and dad don't want you, you freak,'" says Ali, putting on a flat Midwestern accent. "'You probably died and came back to life.' I'm talking about deep-to-the-bone 'you're not a human being'-type shit. Black kids would just be like, 'Come on, Santa Claus. Come on, Casper the Friendly Ghost. Come on, Donahue.'"

Ali told himself he was adopted, though he looked just like his redheaded brother. His refusal to call himself white would eventually cause confusion in the media. "I know way too well that I don't live a black life, and that I do benefit from white privilege," he says. "And that's why I still get freaked out by race, because of the fact that I've been so close to people who bear the brunt of it."

The lesson he learned from black friends was to look people in the eye. He began performing at conventions held by NOAH, the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. "I used to go rap at 'em," Ali says, laughing. "But so many of the people seemed so depressed. I wanted to be like, 'Man, at least don't show people that you're sad about what you are.' I know I got that from black people."

In 1992, the Newmans moved to a rented house on the north side of Minneapolis. The neighborhood boys were rough enough that they tried to steal Nick's bicycle out from under him. Like many kids in the area, Ali went to Robbinsdale Cooper High School, and he stayed there after moving with the family to New Hope a year later. His parents divorced soon after, and Ali left home at age 17, moving back to the North Side.

By the time he finished high school—"it was touch-and-go there for a little bit," says his counselor at Cooper, Claudette Thompson—Ali was married. He'd also found a new audience that valued him for something other than his rap skills.

While still in school, Ali started visiting Masjid An-Nur on Lyndale Avenue North, the same mosque attended by Congressman Keith Ellison. (The representative remembers Ali as a "good speaker and an intelligent, insightful young man.") It's a black-led congregation, founded in the '70s in the spirit of international Sunni Islam. Although Masjid An-Nur welcomed everyone, the new arrival hardly went unnoticed.

"A Caucasian albino kind of stands out," says Arlene El-Amin, whose son, imam Makram El-Amin, performed both of Ali's weddings. (Arlene is also mother to local basketball star Khalid El-Amin.) But Ali felt as if he'd come home. Where Christianity began with original sin, he said, Islam started by saying, in his words, "Human beings are great, and our ability to make choices, to fuck everything up, is part of what makes us so great."

Ali studied to become an imam, giving lectures on Fridays, and inviting Arlene El-Amin to dinner with his family in New Hope. "I think they were probably taken aback," she says. "Not only did he embrace Islam, which was something that they were not familiar with, but he chose to embrace Islam in a predominantly African American community."

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