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Exclusive photos by Daniel Yang
Sitting across a conference room table is a bald-headed, light-skinned man with a tuft protruding from his chin like a white flame. The tall, bellowing rapper Brother Ali has been telling stories for decades, and spends the next four hours at this table, located in the Rhymesayers offices in Uptown Minneapolis.
He tells stories with such irrefutable flair — slapping the table for emphasis, uncurling an occasional laugh, and reeling the listener in slowly — that it's hard to interrupt. In the past year, I've had several talks like this with Ali — about Trayvon Martin, his mentor I Self Devine, and the Occupy Homes movement — and each has defied paraphrasing. Aside from sequencing and condensing, these are his stories told in his words. These intricate narratives about his life and his art live in Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, which is his fifth solo album, out on September 18.
After confirming that the title's first half — the Mourning half — is a furious reference back to Ronald Reagan's famous "Morning in America" campaign ad ("That's the one that started this whole neo-con thing we got going on"), Ali shifted over to talking about Dreaming in Color:
I've had a recurring nightmare for a long time. The nightmare is that I'm performing at First Avenue and the few people that are there don't really care. It started out with being at a packed show, opening for Atmosphere, and when I'm about to go on stage, I'm not ready. We don't have our beats, or something goes terribly wrong and we don't please the people. Over 10 years, it's turned into "I'm here, ready to say it, but nobody cares."
I take that as an insight to how bad I need that validation from people. The reason I make the [provocative] statements I'm making, though, is I'm actually trying to challenge them. There are people that do hear, but the people that don't want to hear, they have a message converter in their brain that turns it into something else. Knowing that about myself, knowing how much I want that validation, I have to almost cut against that to make sure that I'm not just doing what people want me to do. I have to risk the fact that everybody could leave me.
During a six-month period of time on tour, practically everyone in Ali's life did leave him. As documented on the song "Stop the Presses" from his new album, these days in 2010 were the equivalent of rock bottom. Ironically, this was at a time when his career was taking off both financially and critically.
I was on tour, my DJ had left, [my producer] Ant couldn't work with me, my tour manager couldn't tour with me, I did 10 months on the road, my dad died, my friend [rapper Eyedea] died. I wasn't around my wife, so when I was it was like we didn't even know each other. We almost broke up, and my kids were going through all kinds of stress and struggle.
But I was making the best money I'd made. I got to meet more of my heroes, and had some legitimately famous people being like "Yo." Approaching me, and being honored to be around me. It was cool. It's nice when someone's like, "What you do is really fresh."
I won't say his name, but there was a guy who was a legitimately rich and famous rock star in the '90s. He was like, "Man, I think it's so awesome that you and [Atmosphere rapper] Slug are doing what you're doing even though you don't make any money." I was like, "Man, I bought a house, I haven't worked a job in 10 years, I live great, my wife doesn't have to work, I put my wife through college, all this stuff."
He was like, "That's cute, but you guys are the leaders of a genre of music. Even if it's a sub-genre or a counter-culture kind of thing. In the '90s, you guys would be millionaires. Are you a millionaire?" I'm like, "Ah, I'm not." In the street, they say don't count other people's money. I don't know if you were to liquidate the assets of Rhymesayers and everybody gets what's owed to them, where Slug or [Rhymesayers Entertainment CEO] Siddiq would be? I don't know. But I don't think so. [laughs] He's like, "You guys should be multimillionaires. There are people who do what you're doing and have had the impact you made in the '90s that are multimillionaires."
That one in particular kinda hit me. Uh, ouch. He was like, "Atmosphere should be Nirvana." He knew me, he knew all my records, he knew Eyedea, he knew Atmosphere, he knew Immortal Technique. He was so cool. We exchange emails. Actors and actresses hand me a few hundred dollars and say, "Gimme everything at the merch table. Just keep doing what you're doing." All that is cool. But it doesn't translate to anything but a story. That doesn't pay my taxes, and it doesn't get me and my wife back to happy living with each other. That doesn't get our kids back on track. That doesn't bring Eyedea back. It's just cool.
@gimme_noise oh great, does he talk about how he says doesn't like to preach but really ends up preaching a lot.