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.
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."
"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 takes...you 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.
These are but a few of Ali's words. On a record, a hook is a phrase or two. But his narratives are hooks within hooks within hooks. When thanked for his time, Ali nods and says, "It'd be this or my wife would be listening to me talk anyhow."
Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color comes out September 18. We'll highlight more of this lengthy conversation this week at blogs.citypages.com/gimmenoise/brother_ali.