Abdu Ali, a Musician with Restless Charisma, Shares Their Camera Roll With Us

Published April 1, 2019

Seeing Abdu Ali take the stage for the first time is to encounter a restless charisma. The Baltimore native taps into a sensuous sublime whenever they perform, directing a room with the energy of a cult leader. In recent years, their live shows have only gotten more multifaceted, multiplying the bodies on stage and experimenting with live drums, harp, and saxophone. Ali draws on many influences — rap, punk, soul, jazz, Baltimore club — leaving listeners with something unconventional, but never inaccessible. At its core, the music is the result of an off-kilter relationship to pop melody and a life-affirming thoughtfulness. Ali is a visionary, and their creative spirit extends far beyond the music, whether that’s booking the rapper Princess Nokia (before she was certified cool) or tweeting about the need for black creatives to start their own magazines to circumvent media’s traditionally white gatekeepers. They host a bi-weekly podcast called drumBOOTY and this April, their debut album, FIYAH!!!, will be released. Interview caught up with Ali recently, over ramen and edibles, to look through their camera roll, which contain pictures from behind the scenes of their new music video for their single “Chastity” and some very important screenshots.

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“My album is a reinterpretation in music form of this magazine FIRE!!, which was created in the 1920s by some of the greatest black writers of that time: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurmon, Richard Nugent. They had this collective in Harlem called ‘Niggerati Manor.’ Wallace and Richard were queer. Zora Neale allegedly was too. Same thing for Langston. He was gay, allegedly, but no one really talked about it then. So, essentially, it’s a black queer literary magazine that provides all this really explicit, blunt content about black people shit. The zine rebelled against the respectability politics of the time — that you gotta be an upstanding black person, you can’t be gay, you can’t be queer, you can’t be anything that can be seen as immoral by the white Christian authority. FIRE!! was considered too raunchy to get funding from the NAACP. I fuck with the magazine because it brings perspective to how we’ve been out here as queer black folk being the fire to the flame protesting against capitalist and Christian patriarchy. We be thinking we’re on some new shit right now, being unapologetically black and queer and putting our middle fingers up at society, but people been doing this for years.”

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“There’s all these black musicians making avant garde or experimental music, right now. And you can see it in writing and video, too, with filmmakers like Terrence Nance. There’s a lot of black surrealist art being made right now. I feel like there’s a movement going on, but it’s not being discussed or elevated enough or given that critical framework.”

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I’ve had drumBOOTY for about a year and half. I created it because a lot of podcasts are stuffy and boring. I have friends who are young, black, queer, and creative but chill. They have social-political, intellectual conversations but in a causal homegirl kinda way. On top of that, I’ve always been inspired by the art of the talk show. We grew up in that era of Ricky Lake, Jenny Jones, and, of course, Oprah — talk show mania! I was a fucking fan even as a little kid. There’s a reason why we tune into Sally Mayfield or Phil Donahue or Dr. Oz or whoever. There’s an art to hosting, and it’s always been something I Iow-key wanted to do growing up. A podcast is the medium for me to do that, as well as talk about things that aren’t talked about enough, like reproductive justice or color-ism in the black community.”

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“Right now, I’m discovering what compassion means — to not only support and have compassion for others and all living creatures but to have compassion for yourself and to learn to love yourself. There’s a lot of things about me I wanna change. I’m always so hard on myself. I’m not doing the work. I’m not gonna be this person. You have to tell yourself, ‘No, you are enough. You’re okay.’ I need to have compassion for myself. I’m trying to work through that this year. Healing is a slow journey. It’s not gonna happen overnight. I spent so many years not working on healing from the traumas that have happened in my life, and I don’t want healing to happen late like a lot of past generations, who only came to terms with the past in their elder years. I want to start that process of healing now.”

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This is one of my favorite stills from the ‘Chastity‘ music video. It’s giving me real anime vibes. It’s so serene and emotional, yet not too cluttered. I feel like it’s a dope reflection of how I distance myself in my brain sometimes.”

“When I saw this article about climate change making a rat extinct, I gagged because we always think that rats and roaches are gonna survive the apocalypse, but actually their death might be the first sign of it. How the fuck are rats dying? They eat anything. They’re monster survivors. It really tripped me out reading that. I texted a screenshot of this to my friends and none of them cared. I was just like ‘Y’all this is serious, this rat is going instinct.”

 

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“Noél Puéllo is a Philly-based designer who I love. I’m buying this dress. It’s just a really beautiful piece of art. I was gonna wear it for the album cover, but it couldn’t come in time. So now, it’s gonna be my performance outfit. At first, I thought I wanted a sexier costume, but I feel like this is more in line with my work and how I want to be perceived. I feel it’s really futuristic.”