The reflective voice of rapper Brother Ali caught our attention this year. He's the mind behind a new album out today, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color (UPDATE: stream the album below), which blends deeply personal experiences with a broader look at society. He's inspired by Jay-Z, Chuck D, and Dr. Cornel West -- but in a different and important way by the tumult in his family.
On "Stop the Press," Ali unfolds a particularly heavy time in his recent history. Losses of professional relationships, his pal Eyedea, and then there's this passage: "Got a phone call on the 4th of July/ My dad died, he committed suicide/ Shit should've been there for him/ Had to fly home from Europe to bury him." During a recent conversation at the Rhymesayers HQ in Minneapolis -- a ton of which ended up in this week's cover story -- Ali opened up about that moment. Here's a portion of his thoughts.
Brother Ali: I'm the center of my family's solar system. When I am gone, that's gone. For better and for worse. If I am happy and I'm feeling good, then the whole family is happy and feeling good. If I'm even a little upset or displeased, then they all suffer. I struggle with that. It's a blended family, based on me. Everybody is there in that family because of me.
It's a huge responsibility that I think I have about a B+ average in managing. There's certain times that I handle things pretty wrong just because of how sensitive everybody is to how I feel. I'm very expressive. Exactly how I feel about something is never a question to anybody.
My father and I have had years where we didn't talk and there's been physical altercations between us and stuff like that. He had a really bad temper, and I do too. I think I just try to control that stuff a lot better. He was fundamentally dishonest. That was kind of really near the core of who he was. He was what he needed to be to get what he wanted. So I would say that my dedication to being honest is me pushing back against what he was doing. And that I have an A+ on -- almost to a fault a lot of times.
I knew when I was a little kid that there was something very wrong with this man. He would say things to me that I would just be like "Man, I don't think you're supposed to do that as a parent" I remember saying that to him when I was probably seven. He asked me "Did you hear that fight me and your mom had? Really bad...who do you think won?" and I'd be like "I don't think you're supposed to ask me that." That's a very mild example.
He just fought against reality. The distance in between what his life was, and what he thought it was supposed to be was unbearable for him. It caused him to move around a lot. It caused him to reinvent himself a lot. It caused him to start new families a lot. It caused him to start a business, start a job, quit, close the business, move to another city and do it again. He was just perpetually searching, and he struggled really hard with alcoholism his whole life.
I always thought to myself, "He's going to get old." He's been married, was it four -- I think five times. He's going to have no one there left, and me out of my sense of duty as a Muslim, to never break family ties and take care of your parents no matter what. He's going to live with me and that's going to suck. But I'm going to do it, and I'm going to try to make the best of it. I just always knew that would happen.
I was backstage at a festival in Europe, and it was the 4th of July. Because I remember saying to my DJ dude, I'm like "Man, we gotta do 'Uncle Sam Goddam' tonight, because it's 4th of July and we're in Europe."At that time, I was reading Cornel West's memoir Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud on my Kindle. He was talking about a calling in life that you have no choice over. I've been rapping since I was 7 years old and never tried to do anything else. He talked about what that means and his struggles with women in his life, and doesn't pretend to the answer to things. He talks about having wives, ex-wives and kids, and having to travel around and see everybody. As successful as he is, he never has money because his money is going in so many different directions. It just moved me so much. I was just at the part in the book where his dad died.
And when I read that, two things came across me. I was like "Man, the situation that my dad's in now is the best he's ever done... and maybe not. Maybe he'll grow old with this lady." She's not much older than me, his last wife. So she's much younger than him and could take care of him. So I'm like "Man, maybe not" but then right when I had that thought, I got a text from my wife that said "I need you to call home the first chance you get" and I started dialing.
I was like "My dad's dead." I knew it. I could just feel it. When I got that call, my wife started talking to me right away. I was like "I kinda think he probably took his own life." She's like, "He got in a car accident and so and so." And I remember telling my wife "You know it's going to be important if we find out that it's not what we think it is, that we don't judge him or be mad at him about it."
When I got there and found out that that's what it was. He had been struggling with all of this stuff. He got to the point where things were the best that they had ever been in his life, but that the drugs and the alcohol were still calling him. And he felt like "I could build my life up as great as it could possibly be, but because I am so weak to this alcohol, to get that, I could loose it all and I can't control that." So he left a note for his young wife, and they had two young kids. Left a note and went out and smashed his car into a bridge.
So I went home -- not even home -- I went to Philly, to be with his young family who I didn't really even know. I had met them, but I didn't know them at all. Like stayed for a week and handled all that, then I went back to Europe and just the way the schedules happened.
I don't really suffer depression as a regular thing. It's weird because that suicide thought is something that flashes in my mind sometimes, but it's never deliberate. It's weird. There will be times where I will be on top of something. I could walk over and look off this thing, and I will have to back up. Someone will be like, "Just jump" for no reason. It's 100 percent because it's such a real part of my life. People who are raised around violence and murder, murder is part of their life. So if they kill somebody, it's different than if somebody who's never been around violence. It's different.
But that's not part of my day to day life. And even times, when things are supposed to be bad, I don't experience them until later. When I'm in the moment of something being bad, I'm in such a combat mode. I'm so focused. Have you ever been in like a really traumatic situation and it turns into slow motion? It's almost like the Matrix or something. Where the world is moving slow, but you can move within it. That's how I get in those situations, and then I deal with them later.I lost both of my parents. I didn't have tears for either one. I've never cried about either one of them. So I don't know. Am I repressing all of that? I don't think so. Does that mean I'm terrible? I don't know, maybe. I don't know.
I had an experience with both of them, where as a kid, I remember the point where I realized that I wasn't the son they wanted. And that all the extra shit about me, was not what they want. And I cried then. As a teenager. One of my dear friends -- I learn a lot from women -- was like "You mourned back then. You already mourned that. So when they physically die, you have already mourned it." So that's what I do.
I'm sad for his wife. I'm sad for her. I'm sad for the kids. I'm sad for my son, because my son was cool with him, but for myself? It's just like "Man, that's part of life." And there's times like when I went on Hajj, I think he would've thought that was cool. And I thought about it when I was on Hajj. He always got kind of a kick out of seeing me do stuff like that. So he would've thought that was cool. Stuff like that.
Stream Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color here:
Brother Ali performs an album release show at First Avenue on October 5.
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