Brother Ali in His Own Words

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

"Letter to My Countrymen" he had made for me, but then "Fajr," that big chorus was the beat, and I took all the stuff out. I just wanted to rap on just basic drums and the choir singing. And he was just like, "This is hella weird. Quit trying to be Kanye. Don't get too artsy-fartsy." That one worked out, and he started making stuff just for me.

Me physically being in Seattle made him focus on that record. 'Cause that whole time he's working with Rick Ross and 50 Cent and T.I. and Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa, but you know all those people are calling him. I made songs on beats that he ended of having to sell to them. Like, I lost songs off my album because of that, before we really got going. Then once he started making stuff for me, I didn't lose any of those.

I never turned the TV on. I don't watch TV anyway. Even in hotels I don't watch TV, and I don't have TV at the house. I literally read, listened to audiobooks, wrote — I wrote letters, essays, random things, free writing, I wrote songs, and digested music. That's when I became a big Kendrick Lamar fan 'cause I got to really sit with his album, not just like half a song in the car,, but like really sit with what he was saying. A lot of jazz music, music that just really gotta let it sink in, you can't just listen while you are doing the dishes or something. That was amazing, man, and I think I'm going to do that every time I make an album now.

Along with his artistic awakening, Ali has taken on an even more vocal political role in 2012. He rallied with the Million Hoodies March following the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's controversial killing, banded with Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello and other musicians in Madison to support the overthrow of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and even went to jail with several other Occupy Homes protesters back in June.

We were in jail, for real. We were in jail jail. They didn't take us to Chuck E. Cheese — we were in jail. I was the first person that went in and I was the last person that they let go about 10 hours later. The guy that took my fingerprints was shaking. He was like, "I'm sorry, Brother Ali, I'm just a little nervous." We had to re-do my fingerprints a few times.

Being in for civil disobedience, one of the most challenging parts of it was being in closed spaces with my fellow arrestees. Their social blind spots and their privilege and how uneasy they were with the whole thing was alarmingly clear the whole time. These are good people that are putting themselves on the line, but they got a lot to learn.

There's four or five of us from the Occupy thing. All white, young men in a holding tank. And two young African-American dudes, who were just arrested for whatever, come in and they're all talking. I'm trying to be quiet — not trying to say anything because they record everything. I keep on trying to tell them to be quiet, but they just keep on running their mouths. One of [the protesters] says to these two guys, "You must be confused about why we're here." I'm just like, "What does that mean? That you guys are supposed to be here and we're obviously not supposed to be here?"

Then, there were amazing people in there too that I hope to be friends with for a long time. There's a guy name Joe who is a middle-aged, middle-class, white school teacher in St. Paul. He worked with the City Council a lot. I was really inspired by him. There was a young lady named Annetta. She was a Marine for a long time and she didn't even plan on taking part. She just kind of showed up to see what was going on, but then when she saw it, she was so moved. She turned out to be highly intelligent, very focused, very lucid. She could have a lot of fun being who she is, but she's out here going to jail. Then there's a young guy, a young Filipino brother, named David Gilbert, who worked hard on Keith Ellison's campaign. So now they've become more active. Activism has become the new solution. So they were very, very inspiring.

In Minnesota, in the North, in liberalism, we like to talk about what's right and wrong in very nonconfrontational ways that keep us very safe in our little insulated bubble of privilege and entitlement. When we talk about these things, but we're not willing to put ourselves on the line or give anything up, that really is self-serving. That's soothing us and lulling us to sleep in our own privilege. That actually does more to keep these injustices alive than not saying anything.

We pacify ourselves. It's kind of like moral masturbation, in a way. We get to sit at a dinner party and say, "I can't believe how crazy Michele Bachmann is, ha ha ha" and drink some wine and go home and go to bed. That makes us feel like we're on the right side of things. It actually stops us from dealing with this feeling that we have. A struggle we have with injustice. It stops us from doing anything about it.

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