Brother Ali in His Own Words

Opening up about everything from new album Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color to politics and religion

Part of Ali's artistic rejuvenation, and a renewal of his Islamic faith, came from a trip on Hajj, a sacred trip to Mecca.

It was whole month of November in 2010. There was a jazz musician from Oakland on the trip named Khalil Shaheed. He was in his 60s. I knew who he was, and he knew who I was. Me and him, right away, it was like, "Me and you are going to be roommates and we're doin' this together."

He was a child prodigy in Chicago. His instructor was in the house band there. So whenever his instructor couldn't make a gig, he'd be like, "Hey, why don't you go play?" He played with Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway — everybody in that time period. Then he ended up getting a permanent gig with Buddy Miles [but] ended up having some trouble with drugs. He spent some time in prison and that's when he got off drugs and became Muslim. He was the advocate for jazz in Oakland, and he opened a center in the hood where young kids could learn jazz.

But he was on Hajj that year because he found out he had lung cancer and it had spread to his brain. We were together for every moment of every day for that month. He was dealing with cancer, and I was dealing with losing my friend [Eyedea] and my dad. I'm a young dude on tour. He understood that.

We stayed in everywhere from luxury hotels some of the nights to literally outside on the ground with no tent on other nights. Everyone's wearing the same thing — you wear two cloths. No products or anything else. You don't wear fragrances. You don't wear jewelry. You'll be standing next to kings.

There are really poor people who walk there from Africa. They spend six months walking to Mecca to make it in time. They don't have anywhere to live. So any time you buy a meal, you buy three. You have your plate, and then you walk to a group of people and hand them theirs. You see people walking, and they'll share a pair of shoes. Someone will walk on them for a while, and kick them off and someone else will step into them. That was the first time I actually saw Islam, and people out there in the worst poverty conditions. In America, we don't even know that kind of poverty. They would look at our projects and trailer parks and say, "You guys are living the life."

Khalil came home and he passed away. His wife told me the day he died. "You know Khalil transitioned today and I want you to know that he was surrounded by beauty."

It made me conscious that this is my life. This is it, and it's going to be over very quickly. Khalil was like, "Man, just don't waste any time. Seventy feels like a long way from where you're at, but I was you 10 minutes ago." You don't have time to second-guess yourself. You got to know who you are and just do that shit. It's like the day your kids are born, but it lasts for a month.

He poured his newfound faith and determination into an album that marries the personal and the political. It grows from the outcry in 2007's "Uncle Sam Goddamn" and meshes with oratory inspired by African American scholar Cornel West. The writing happened last year in Seattle with assistance from producer Jake-One.

I started by taking trips out there for like a weekend or a week, like in between tours and stuff. I'd get a hotel and I'd just be like, "I'm gonna focus and write." I'd write the songs during the day and then Jake would come pick me up at night and we'd record what I'd written that day, so all that together was probably a month. On one of those trips I did "Letter to My Countrymen" and "Fajr" and "Work Everyday" all in like one day. And we were like, "Oh, that's what this album is."

Siddiq was just like, "Man, why don't we just get you an apartment there and you can go focus and finish and really do this album how it needs to be done?"

I stayed there for a full month and did nothing — literally, nothing — but rap. I didn't have any kind of structure except for my prayers. There would be times where I would get going working on something and I wasn't even looking at the time. Some songs took two days, but I didn't even think about it. Sometimes it took hours, it all felt the same. You get in the world of a song and you don't come out until it is done. And then I would sleep after that. I might go to bed at noon after being up for two days or I might go to bed at 9 p.m. and wake up, it's just weird.

I got to hang out with Jake-One every day. In terms of actually working on the music, we weren't really working on the music at that time. A lot of times I wrote them and recorded them myself. I recorded demo versions of them and then I would email them to him the same as I would if I was here. And then he'd call me on the phone and be like, "The voice you're using is too high. Why are you doing your voice all high? Do it low."

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