Brother Ali: I Self Devine helped me love my reality
Note: Brother Ali is a Minneapolis rapper signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment and is one of our 20 Best Minnesota Musicians. Here, he speaks about his longtime mentor and labelmate I Self Devine, who celebrates the release of The Sound of Low Class Amerika at the 7th St. Entry tonight. The album is officially out May 8.
Brother Ali: I Self Devine is an entire community in one person. He's a big brother and an elder statesman in the Twin Cities hip-hop community. I don't just mean for rappers, but the overall culture of hip-hop: Spoken word, emceeing, rapping, producers, DJs, graffiti artists, breakdancers, activists -- all of these things come together in this one person.
I've seen people come into the hip-hop community here, and it's almost as if he's keeping track of everything. If he gives you that nod of approval, then you're a part of it. It's not an official thing, like "If I Self doesn't co-sign you, then you're not part of the scene," but his voice means something.
I Self was someone who was putting out really important records at a time when Rhymesayers was starting. He'd always been that figure that represents what hip-hop is about with supreme focus on the actual craft of writing songs and performing. The music that he makes has always been really creative, and really avant-garde. If you listen to Micranots' Obelisk Movements, it's really artistic and interesting. The way he was writing at that time, we'd always compare him to Thelonius Monk because the timing was so strange, but beautiful. As an emcee, his language and use of words is his own. He almost speaks his own language. Very flavorful, and individual. The people who are his fans, his music is life-changing to them. Extremely impactful for the people who get it. It's huge.
Micranots - "Illegal Busyness"
I don't have a cookie-cutter, traditional American identity in terms of race: European ancestry, born in a white family being albino, and then trained, raised, and mentored in the black community. Now, there's a new hip-hop audience culturally trained to embrace people who look like them. That was a really strange thing for me at first, because I didn't want to be embraced for being white in a black art form. I didn't want to be that cultural vulture appropriating and stealing culture to sell it to people who look like me who don't know any better. I didn't know how to address it, and I didn't find a place to be comfortable in it yet.
People would ask me, "You're black, right?" I wouldn't answer them, because I got a sense that they were trying to write the story "here's this white person saying these things." I didn't want to give them that ammunition to write that story, because I didn't trust the way that they'd handle it. I wasn't even sure about how I felt about it yet. I'd say "Flip a coin, and put that in there." That was my way of saying, "I'm not going to address this with you."
I Self and I had conversations where he helped me realize that it's a really beautiful thing that I was trained and raised with the experiences that I had, and also being able to speak to people who may not have had that benefit or opportunity to see life as I see it. I didn't have a choice but to see things the way that I see them. The contradiction that I had as a child: Growing up among black people and developing this deep, intense love for black people, but then also having this closeness and membership in the dominant group.
Going back and forth between these two realities was strange, and it forced me to always size things up and always try to keep track of hope and really celebrate humanity. That grew into a universal love of oppressed people in every scenario. To have that experience to see life in a way that society doesn't encourage us to see, we're encouraged to pick teams. We're encouraged to see it through the lens they've given us, which is first class citizens and then others. It wasn't that defined for me.
In 2003, we became dear friends. We went on a tour with Atmosphere for the Seven's Travels album, and that's when I went through my divorce. That's when I met my current wife, the one who's got me making all my happy, feel-good music. That's when I had the custody battle for my son. The new me that happened around that time, he was a huge mentor through all that stuff.
He was helping me navigate through a lot of those things. He would always ask me "What does your gut say?" On paper, I got divorced and met my current wife really quick. Pretty much immediately. After being married since I was 17, a lot of people were telling me, "No don't do that, it's too quick." But I had the feeling that it was right. He was going "Go with your gut. The deepest part of you knows what to do."
He's done a lot to mentor artists, myself included. He's the one who really helped me understand my role in this new era we find ourselves in. I Self Devine helped me accept, embrace, and ultimately appreciate, and love that reality. His name is so perfect: I Self Devine. He's an individual, and there's no other him that's ever lived in the world before. Most of us are a type, and we're one of five types. He's not a type. He's his own thing, grown from the ground like a tree. Devine, he really believes in people's agency, and people's determination. He's got his own spiritual beliefs too that he constructed himself. A lot of it comes from the Nation of Gods and Earths, the Five Percent Nation of Islam, but a lot of it is just himself.
One of the things he believes that really stuck with me was that before we enter our bodies we choose our life situation. We choose our parents, we choose where we're born, and we choose everything about ourselves. We should treat it like that. I wouldn't say it like that, but it's a very empowering concept. The realities of our life were chosen by us for a reason, and we should exercise them that way. We should look at everything in our lives as a virtue and a responsibility, and a building block for our life's work.
One of the worst things about being poor and marginalized is that you're invisible until someone's tearing you down for making a bad choice when these are the only choices available to you. For him to take kids who are largely in those situations and teach them to paint murals is an amazing thing. I've been around when he's been working on projects with these 12-year-old kids to literally have a physical impact on their neighborhood. This wall in an alley, or just a blank wall where people write their names, to put a beautiful piece on it -- it's part of everybody's world. The messages in those murals for the kids -- either they're painting their lives the way they see it, or reimagining their lives on the wall for the world to appreciate. That's enormous.
Take Big Quarters, who have made great music, but they're also teachers and community activists in the Twin Cities. We all met them when they were young. Zach was like 15 or 16. Devine used to take them record shopping and taught them the records to look for, and told them how to look for the good bass players on the back of records for good samples to use, or just great records to appreciate. Now they have classes where they do it for kids in an organized way.
Slug and Saddiq at Rhymesayers have always had the utmost respect for I Self Devine. He was the one already there, and laying down the framework for what is Rhymesayers. The people in Doomtree have had similar experiences. There's a general sense of leadership from him. He is the real leader. They would all acknowlege he is it.
I Self Devine plays an album release show for The Sound of Low Class Amerika with I Rule, MaLLy, Audio Perm, Toki Wright, Jimmy 2 Times, and Just 9, on Friday, May 4, at 7th St. Entry; 612.332.1775
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