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.

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.

"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."

El-Amin fired Ali from his youth outreach job at the mosque—for being late. It was a tough lesson that Ali came to regard as an important one, though he cried at the time. To Ali, Arlene was his "other mom." He later thanked her by name in the gospel-flavored song "Waheeda's Hands," and paid tribute to her more vaguely in "Picket Fence." In that song, an older black woman tells him, "You look the way you do because you're special/Not the short bus way, I mean that God's gonna test you."

As Ali fell in with Islam, though, he fell out with hip hop. By the late '90s, he was working at UPS, attending mosque regularly, and hating the radio. He listened to the laconic mumble of Mase, the ascendant MC of the moment, and asked: This is supposed to be good?

He'd about given up on his own rap dream when a co-worker handed him a tape of the first two Rhymesayers CDs, a mix of the debuts from Musab and Atmosphere.

Our vehicle rolls to a stop next to a park in south Minneapolis, and Ali climbs out. We walk up to Ant's new house, which to me looks exactly like his old house, the spot where Musab first brought Ali eight years ago.

"That's when nobody knew Ant," Ali says.

Ant welcomes us in, looking like a meatier Antonio Banderas—a comparison that he apparently doesn't mind, as he's kept the mustache and ponytail for at least the past five years.

"What up, man? How you doin'?" he says, waving us down into the carpeted cellar, taking a stool. Ali's got the couch. I get a crate.

The other half of Atmosphere, Ant has been Ali's songwriting collaborator since 2000. His panoramic blues-reggae-funk has made him the most internationally acclaimed hip-hop producer out of Minnesota. "There's no samples on our shit," he jokes, lighting a cigarette and gesturing around to the four walls of records. "This is just for inspiration."

It's nearing 1:00 a.m., the standard hour for Ali and Ant to begin a "session"—their first night of talking and listening in preparation for the next album. As with so much creative work, the process can look a lot like loafing: They sink a half-hour into listing recent record purchases—rare Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters.

The Undisputed Truth began this way, in an exchange of raw samples and ideas, then as a performance of lyrics, then more exchange. "I'm all about making sure people are being who they are," says Ant.

Ali agrees. "There are times when he'll be like, 'I don't think that you would really say that this way. I've never heard you talk like that.'"

The duo's first track together was "Room with a View," a despairing look at north Minneapolis. Here, Ali rapped, "some parents only touch they children when a whip's brought/That's why bad kids do bad shit, just so they could get caught." The song opened Brother Ali's second Rhymesayers release and first CD, 2003's Shadows on the Sun. Ali says the album was funded by a friend who was beaten by Minneapolis police and settled out of court.

The new, 2007 material cajoles where previous songs blasted. "Letter from the Government" is an almost philosophical antiwar hymn compared to the old Public Enemy track ("Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos") that it paraphrases. "I got a letter from the government the other day/I opened and read it and burned that," Ali gently sings, sounding almost mournful. "Man, the way that I live don't concern that/Man, we gon' have to settle this another way."

The song is intimate, half-thought-out, like the one about his ex-wife—too personal for me to touch in print. "So as long as the core people close to me, it makes sense to them, then my music is what it is," says Ali. "If it comes out, and I'm being honest, and something bad happens, well maybe I'm a piece of shit. Maybe I'm beautiful. Maybe I'm both."

Some stars are anointed for their looks, their connections, their sense of what's cool. Brother Ali crashed the party.

One day in 1998, Radio K's weekly hip-hop program, The Beat Box, featured guests Slug and fellow Rhymesayers rapper Eyedea (Michael Larsen). Unprompted and uninvited, Ali headed down to the studio with a demo tape. Milwaukee-raised BK-One (Brendan Kelly), the show's co-host, soon became his DJ. Everyone else became his friend.

With his self-produced 2000 cassette on Rhymesayers, Rites of Passage, Ali announced a major new voice on the music scene, issuing a challenge to big-money rap on the third track: "Have you ever thought that every time you listen to a track/That's four minutes of your life that you can never get back?"

It's a ballsy artist who sequences another 12 tracks after that one.

But it was an MC battle that put Ali on the map. Having already faced off against master local freestyler Carnage at the Dinkytown sandwich shop Bon Appetit, Ali entered the national rap contest at Scribble Jam 2000. There, in Cincinnati, he went up against Eyedea—the odds-on favorite, having just won a similar event at the Rock Steady Anniversary.

Few of the other rappers seated onstage at the Ritz knew Ali, and the washed-out giant in a blue plaid collar shirt looked like an easy target for insults, the épée of the art form. Eyedea, a wiry teenager in baggy Rhymesayers T-shirt and crew cut, looked eager and energized as the DJ threw on the beat from Ghostface Killah's "Assassination Day."

"So what you're in my crew/Still you be the wackest," Eyedea began. "Yesterday he was like, 'Eyedea, come on, let's practice.'"

Actually, rehearsal had been Eyedea's idea: Along with the Unknown Prophets, both rappers routinely spent hours each day together making up put-downs about each other. (Ali and "Mikey" had ridden down in Eyedea's grandfather's Ford van, crowding into the back with a bunch of other kids.)

"You're my friend but the only way you'll beat me is if you pretend I'm your dick," Eyedea continued. "You're only dope...'cause Slug let you in the crew."

Eyedea shrugged, as if to say, "What'd I say?" and the room roared. Ali grinned and took the mic. He'd heard worse.

"Rhymesayers for life, motherfucker," he began. Then he took his first shot: "So what, I'm a motherfucking albino/That distracts the stupid ones while I murder you with rhyme flow/Thought you was a man while we was driving to Ohio/But you be on the ride home knowing that you my ho."

Ali chopped the air with his free hand, emphasizing the "my" before "ho." Then he delivered the punch line: "At least I got a tape."

It was a mild dis in retrospect: Eyedea and Abilities' first CD was on the way. But with one phrase, the audience was Ali's. He didn't win the contest—Sage Francis did—but the upset was the talk of Scribble Jam.

"He just totally killed me," says Larsen seven years later. "I think it did a lot for him. Suddenly his name was all over."

Since that date, a lot has changed in Ali's life.

He divorced his first wife and kept custody of their son. "You have a genuine goodness inside you/Wonder if I was ever like you," he raps on "Faheem," a new song named for the six-year-old.

Ali once announced at a show, "I'm gonna bring my sweetheart to the stage," remembers spoken-word artist Desdamona, who appeared on Rites of Passage. "Someone yells my name," she says, "And I was like, 'What? Ali and I are friends.' And then someone hands him his son, and he walks out with him."

Another new track finds Ali elated over not being broke—rare is the rap icon who brags about a new couch from Ikea—and finding new love. He met his wife, Tiffany, at New York's SOB's. "Which is pretty amazing," quips Slug, "'cause it's an Atmosphere show, so she's like one of three black people." Ali took her to a diner for breakfast, Tiffany Newman says, and they talked for eight hours.

Meanwhile, Rhymesayers has grown from a staff of one to about eight, depending on how you count the interns, and recently signed a distribution deal with Warner Music Group's Alternative Distribution Alliance. Yet Ali has somehow escaped the backlash that comes with success. His résumé reflects the embrace of a broad music scene: collaborations with Mint Condition singer Stokley Williams in the fusion group Ursus Minor; tours with Rakim, GZA, and MF Doom; radio spots for Marshall Field's. Ali gigs at Muslim conferences, where previous music tended toward the ummah's equivalent of Christian rock. Former local NAACP vice president James Everett says that Shadows on the Sun inspired him to convert to Islam. "I took my shahadah the following week," he says.

The rapper knows which way Mecca is from the Rhymesayers' new office above the label's record shop, Fifth Element. In fact, he might be Islam's first genuine preacher, albeit one not out to make any converts. His signature song from Shadows on the Sun, the proud-to-be-unconventionally-beautiful anthem "Forest Whitiker," drops the G-word dead center without excluding a soul: "To everyone out there, who's a little different," he raps, "I say damn a magazine, these are God's fingerprints."

That "everyone" seems to be expanding. In January, B96 personality Peter Parker played the lead single from The Undisputed Truth, "Truth Is," putting it in a call-in competition up against DJ Khaled's "We Takin' Over" for the station's "New Music Face-Off." On the track, Ali raps over a retro reggae beat dressed up for the club:

Our songs are supposed to be the voice of our soul

Not bought and sold, not all controlled

Bring a little fire when the world get cold

Let me shed a few tears, and to me, you went gold

Without bashing corporations or the latest equivalent of Mase, Ali simply asks for "more." The response from regular listeners was immediate and overwhelming. "Truth Is" won by 88 percent, leaving management "confused," according to Parker.

"When I came out here from Boston last year," the DJ says, "I'm like, 'Yo, what's up with the Rhymesayers?' And everybody at the station was like, 'Meh, they're local, we don't play them.' I'm like, 'They are Minnesota hip hop.'"

Performing "Truth Is" live recently at a hip-hop conference in Moorhead, Ali mimicked B96's slogan: "Blazin' 100 percent hip hop and R&B."

"I say that's bullshit," he said gently. "You motherfuckers took about 10 percent of hip hop and you pushed it at us all day. I like some of it, but I personally want more."

Back in Ant's basement, Ant and Ali are talking about why saxophones suck. "They just do," says Ant.

"Unless you're Coltrane," says Ali.

"Flutes are tight, though," says Ant.

"Anthony's always wanted an oboe," says Ali. "I don't know if he knows what an oboe is, I think he just likes the word 'oboe.'"

They talk like this for hours, turning to the subject of what it means to be a man.

"All these motherfuckers wanna be pimps now," says Ali. "There used to be pride in being a man, being the rock of the house."

I'm hanging in there, looking for a clue about Ali's art in this epic bullshitting session. It's there somewhere, maybe in the wall of old records—sample sources so numerous that Ant regularly burns time searching for things that he picked out just the day before. He plays new compositions for Ali, the MC's bald head hung in concentration, grooving slightly, the way he does in concert.

Ali is used to waiting everyone else out. He's the last person out the door at the show, as loved ones look on patiently, his ride waiting, watching him greet every fan and sign every autograph. Ali says that people who listen to his music are his friends, if they've listened closely. And, in truth, they probably know him better than most.

At last, I give in. Ali is going to have to get a ride home with somebody else. I offer my goodbyes and thank yous, already anticipating the CD in the car, the clarity of that beat: "A piece of my puzzle now."

Ant sees me out the door, then grabs another beer from the fridge. It's 3:30 a.m. on a Wednesday night, and Ali has another story to tell.

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