Brother Ali: My fans are kicking the sh*t out of me over Trayvon Martin
Note: Brother Ali is a Minneapolis rapper signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment and is one of our 20 Best Minnesota Musicians. His latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, will be released in August. Here are portions of an interview following the One Million Hoodies March for Trayvon Martin held March 29 at the University of Minnesota, which drew between 5,000 and 6,000 people.
Brother Ali: The Trayvon Martin case is part of a legacy in our country that goes back to the very beginning. We created a racialized, second-class citizenship for black people. We had something back then called the refugee slave act, which basically meant that anybody black in America -- even in the North -- could be brought in under suspicion that they might be a runaway slave. We've always had this thing. Throughout time, after slavery, we had Jim Crow. We have a long legacy of the police killing unarmed black people that's still going on. We see about four or five of them every year.
As part of that legacy, vigilantes in the name of "protecting us" go out and hunt and target and kill black people. We saw this with the Klu Klux Klan, then lynch mobs, and we're seeing it with these vigilantes, like the Zimmerman guy. Every single one of these cases, all the way back to the beginning, we find a way to blame the victim. We find a way to let the killers off the hook.
The conversation that's coming out of this is showing that we've become very polite, and we've become deafeningly silent about institutional racism in our society. For a long time, we've given ourselves credit for work that we haven't completed. We've begrudgingly, at a snail's pace, doled out these concessions to our black citizens, but we've never really fixed the institutional problem.
Photo by Hilary Stein
There's this really damaging, hurtful idea that stifles progress, that we're post-racial. A lot of people think that racism isn't a factor in people's lives anymore, and that Obama is the final symbol that we're past racism. The reality is that whether or not we're bigots individually, hate black people, or say the n-word, we're taught to look at it on a really individual basis. We can say, "I as an individual, I'm not racist." But the reality is that racism has become an institution of its own, and it's also a part of every single institution in American life.
Racial lines, class lines, gender lines, sexuality lines, religious lines, nationality, all of these things. We as the people in the dominant group have an unfair advantage. I think that's why we don't talk about this. When we let George Zimmerman off the hook, we're really letting ourselves off the hook. We really are negating our responsibility in this thing. Whether or not we as individuals are bigots, we are benefiting from a system that holds some people back for the benefit of others.
Photo by Hilary Stein
We really need to take a grown-up, mature look in the mirror, and that's what we're missing. A lot of us can say, "George Zimmerman's a racist," or "Those cops in Florida are racist." The reality is that we have a system in place that keeps going, and we are the only ones who can demand for it to be different. In order to do that, we have to do some really serious soul-searching as members of the dominant, mainstream group. We have to really look and decide what kind of society we really want to live in, what kind of people we really want to be.
Also, this is a national security issue. This is a terrorism that black and brown people live with. The broader, mainstream society experienced on 9-11 what it felt like to be unsafe, vulnerable, and unprotected just based upon who we are. We started wars around the world for that. The reality is that 3,000 people died that day. We lynched 5,000 people in the South during Jim Crow. Since then, the numbers are in the thousands. Unarmed black people get killed by police, and unarmed, innocent people killed by self-appointed protectors of our society.
If we think we're post-racial, if we look at the statistics gauging quality of life -- everything from health care, to employment, to wealth, to home ownership, to education, to political involvement, dealings with criminal justice -- we see that every single aspect of life in America, black people are still on the bottom. We have to decide as the dominant mainstream, why do we think that is?
Photo by Hilary Stein
We stole these African people from their country, their homeland, robbed them of their religion, robbed them of their languages, robbed them of their family ties, robbed them of their cultural and historical lineage, robbed them of all property, called them 3/5 of a human being, called them property, and then since slavery is over, made them subject to all kinds of attack and discrimination. Do we think that these people have some sort of genetic or some sort of group commitment to not living life to the fullest? Or do we think that society has held these people back?
It's a spiritual question. It's a moral question. We have to take responsibility. When we don't talk about these things. It's a choice between guilt and responsibility. Are we gonna let it be silent and leave it the way it is, or are we going to take responsibility for it by actually working to correct it and have a public conversation that we've never had?
We condemned and ultimately killed Malcolm X for his critique of white America. When you look at him and the way he was telling black people to live to the best of their potential. All the people we condemn the most, the way that Louis Farrakhan had told black people to live to the best of their potential, the way that we look at Chris Rock talking about the difference between the black people who struggle and the black people who have given up. Where is that in the white world? Where is that in the dominant group?
Black, brown, yellow, and red people, gay brothers and lesbian sisters, Muslims, and Jews; these people have been fighting for their own dignity forever. They have no choice but to be in the fight. They've been fighting courageously. When do we get into that fight, and why hasn't it been successful yet? We're resisting it.
I think that this issue is bigger than the Trayvon Martin case, but it's a great case study. We have people looking at this kid now. We were shown the pictures that the family gave to the media. Pictures from a few years ago. His football picture, class pictures. They say, that's when he was a kid. If you see him now, he's got tattoos and he smokes weed, and he's wearing a hoodie. What we're saying is that unless black people are culturally acceptable to us, to our standards, unless black people go out of their way to please us and to not be threatening to us, we should all accept that we're inherently afraid of them.
Photo by Hilary Stein
Not to mention that as a young black kid living in America, your only real cultural currency is the fact that you're cool, you're scary, or you're sexy. Those are the things that we actually place value in. That's why it's such a beautiful thing for black kids to see themselves in the president. We downplay that symbol, because we don't understand what it means to see on TV and on the radio. Everywhere you're presented "look how cool Jay-Z is, look how sexy Beyonce's ass is, look how scary Omar from The Wire is." This is a cultural currency that we leave kids. And when they spend that currency, we say that Trayvon was a thug, so he deserved to die. That's basically what we're saying. To even bring that into the conversation, that's the underlying suggestion. Unless he was Steve Urkel, he deserved to die.
I get so much push back from my fans, and this is hip-hop music. I'm a socially conscious artist who talks about these issues a lot. My fans who follow me on Facebook and Twitter are kicking the shit out of me for speaking about this. They say that I'm race-baiting. They say that this is reverse racism. Those are just two code words for "I don't like talking about racism and it doesn't affect my life until you start talking about it." I'm getting a push back that's saying, "How dare you."
Photo by Hilary Stein
For Obama, that's the greatest thing he's said about race in his entire presidency. It was very subtle. He said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon Martin." The way I understood that is that "Yes, I'm president, but my son could be wearing a hoodie and tattoos and get murdered for it." Newt Gingrich said, "That's despicable and how could you bring race into this." Now we're in a situation where if you even talk about the racial inequities, or barriers people experience because of racism -- if you even talk about that stuff -- you are somehow the racist. Race doesn't exist until people start talking about it.
For people who live with this reality -- racial justice, racial equality -- that's central to the way I was raised and has always been a central theme for me. When we start talking about these issues and getting the push back from people and the comments, we're damaged by that. We feel like people are looking at us like we're crazy.
All the friends I've talked to have mentioned how healing the Million Hoodies March for Trayvon Martin was. To be able to go out and actually feel like we're doing something. The work attracts like-minded people and brings our hearts together. It was really dope to me that the event was started by a young white lady who has a son with a black man. Her son's father was falsely accused of a crime. A lady said, "a tall black guy robbed me," and her boyfriend was the first tall black guy they found. It took something like two years to get him off. They took out loans for lawyer fees, just for him to live life. She was moved to start the event. The leadership to get things together, the hosting, was a black-led thing that while people joined. The white people were joining a black movement.
Photo by Hilary Stein
That's the only critique I would have of the Occupy thing. This outcry and fight for dignity of human beings is something we need to join. We're not creating a new movement. We're newcomers to the movement. We're late to the party. When I spoke, I spoke entirely about white privilege and how this is a conversation that white people need to have among ourselves. It was a healing experience.
There's going to be a lot more. Occupy Homes, Occupy the Hood, Occupy Wall Street. It's going to be a big spring and summer for people coming out and really working together. That's the only positive thing we can do with this pain. Speak up within our circles of influence. I've got 300,000 followers on the internet, but we all have people who listen to us at the Little League game, or people who listen to us at school or in the front yard. We all have our circles of influence. Speaking and working with other people is what we can do with all of this hurt that we have.
Everybody got together around 6:00 on the steps outside Northrup Auditorium. Probably about an hour of just talking. There were about 20 speakers who came up. It was hosted by Kenya McKnight; one of the main organizers was Anthony Newby. About an hour of speaking and an hour of marching. A lot of singing and togetherness, a lot of anger, a wide variety of emotions. It was a great democratic moment.
It was entirely peaceful. Any time you get a group of people who have that cocktail of emotions, grief is a process that we're all kind of going through. You cope with grief in a personal tragedy, but also a group tragedy. There were people who were wanting to go into the street. The permit was for the mall area there. From what I saw, the police did a good job. They were present, but they weren't aggressive. They were not being aggressive in any way. They had the right posture. They allowed the moment to happen.
There's a lot of energy around activism right now. Let the people say what they need to say, and let them demonstrate what they need to demonstrate. I'm not a big fan of police, but when they're right, they're right.
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