ABOVE: BROTHER ALI. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARSHALL FRANKLIN
Born with albinism and into limited means, Brother Ali is no stranger to adversity. Finding solace in music at a young age, the emcee immersed himself in hip-hop culture, using it expertly as a vehicle for hard truths and unabridged storytelling. Over the last decade of his career, Brother Ali has never shied away from examining contentious matters or inciting his listeners to do the same, but in recent years, his social and political convictions have become an overarching theme in his music as well as an intrinsic part of his identity as an artist and activist.
With his latest album, Mourning In America and Dreaming In Color, the Minneapolis rapper has invested much of his creative energy into shedding light on the shadows of a worn-out and wounded nation. As an emcee, he gives his listeners more than just a glimpse into his own struggles as a critically thinking man in a less-than-perfect world. Currently on the War & Peace Tour with Immortal Technique, Brother Ali will be performing at the Highline Ballroom, this Wednesday, April 9. In anticipation of the show, we spoke with him about community, underdogs, and the possibility of a brighter future.
LEA WEATHERBY: What was your musical background like growing up?
BROTHER ALI: Since I was about seven, the older kids who lived on my block were b-boys, so I got into hip-hop in the mid-’80s, mainly through dancing and the cultural aspect. I liked Whodini when I was a kid, because they would write these little essays on a theme, and that stood out to me so much as a song writing technique. Then the late ’80s happened and Marly Marl changed rap production forever and Big Daddy Kane and Rakim came into the picture, then the words took over and gave me the sense that my inner strength could become power in the world.
WEATHERBY: You had a lot of obstacles early on in life; when did it all really come together for you?
BROTHER ALI: I’ve been doing it ever since I was eight years old, but when I would move to a new school and I looked different and people were looking at me crazy, the fact that I could perform really transformed my image into a positive thing. It really was a way of identifying and a way of surviving that social outcast fate. The stage used to be the only place where I felt like I was in control, like it was the only place that was set up for me. It’s not this way anymore, but the stage was my place to be free.
WEATHERBY: What changed?
BROTHER ALI: I don’t need the stage like I used to, I used to need it for a sense of personality and a sense of self, which is what it was in the best way and in the worst way it was an ego thing. I’ve come to a place where I no longer need it for ego reasons and now it’s just a place for expression.
WEATHERBY: For some artists, the performer alter ego begins to take over. Have you ever struggled with something like that in this business?
BROTHER ALI: There are times where I still have to fight it, but it’s not the reason that I get on stage anymore. When I started, I did it for personal and cultural reasons. I was part of a community of people that were voiceless underdogs and outcasts and we made music. Then business became a part of it, and the music became a viable commodity and kind of shifted the reasons I had for doing it. I always was very careful to be myself, but to some extent I was doing certain things to please my customers, reclaiming that has been really empowering.
WEATHERBY: Is it hard to maintain that balance?
BROTHER ALI: It’s not even anymore. I’ve always been low maintenance. I didn’t buy things that required me to always be so highly competitive in business. My wife and I, we both come from not having anything and not expecting to have anything, so me and my family are very happy living the simple life.
WEATHERBY: In what ways would buying things affect an artist’s professional image or make business more competitive?
BROTHER ALI: I know a lot of people who have built a reputation for themselves with crazy fly cars or jewelry and have an image to maintain. And it’s very freeing to not have that, because my fans don’t require that of me. But when people who come from having absolutely nothing get some money when society viewed them as worthless, there’s more of a need to project success as a symbol of beating the economic trap that they’ve been put in.
WEATHERBY: Do you notice a similar dichotomy with artists in the music industry?
BROTHER ALI: When a white artist doesn’t have those same demands on them, they don’t respond that way in their music and there’s an unspoken reality there, they’re kind of spinning it. If you look at Lorde’s “Royals” or Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” those are all white artists basically saying that, “I’m better than the other rappers because I shop at the thrift shop, I don’t have to wear gold chains, I don’t have to spend a lot of money to think I’m cool,” and that’s because some artists come from situations where that’s not required of them because they’re not trapped economically. I’m not mad at any of these artists, but it’s wrong to celebrate them as though they’re morally superior.
WEATHERBY: Do you think that hip-hop is a misunderstood genre, especially in terms of what’s popular now?
BROTHER ALI: Hip-hop started out as a black folk art, and it’s a cultural thing in its raw form. There’s still a lot of great hip-hop music being made for cultural reasons, but those aren’t the people that you hear, even in the underground those people don’t get a lot of support and love.
WEATHERBY: How do you feel about the newest generation of the underground?
BROTHER ALI: I think they’re amazing, but there’s a lot of pressure to not really be talking overtly about social things. There was a time in the underground where it was basically accepted that you were not going to make money, but now that underground hustle has made people some money and it’s the new way to become mainstream and that movement is building. But there are artists that still do this for cultural reasons that I really appreciate.
WEATHERBY: What is it about hip-hop that has such an impact?
BROTHER ALI: The way that hip-hop was created and all of the traditions that it has within it. Hip-hop became useful for people without a voice all over the world and that to me is just proof of the genius in the genre.
WEATHERBY: Have you ever received some backlash from an audience after performing a politically charged song?
BROTHER ALI: Yes. There have been times where the mode that I’m in doesn’t match the mode of the event and I definitely have done that. I went through a period where I was so consumed with certain political and social things and I’ve made things weird, but it’s truly out of love.
WEATHERBY: You channeled a lot of emotion and personal tragedy into a single song, “Stop the Press.” Was that a conscious decision?
BROTHER ALI: The albums I did prior to Mourning in America and Dreaming In Color, were really autobiographical. Normally, I would have made a whole album like that. Made a song about Eyedea, about my dad, about relationship issues, about being more successful. I could have made that album and it probably would have done great, but that’s not the album I wanted to make, I wanted to make a social and political album so I just made one song for people that have been following the story to catch them up.
WEATHERBY: Have there been any experiences recently that have validated the choices you’ve made as an artist or an activist?
BROTHER ALI: It seems to me that when we’re growing it’s a series of life-affirming validation. We set out on a path that makes the most sense to us. Eventually, we hit a brick wall and we’ve got to move on. I think a lot of creative people have that where they really get in a mode. I’ve been in a few phases like that, and I’m kind of in one now; I just started working on new music, and it’s not sounding like the last project.
WEATHERBY: Would you consider what you’re working on now a departure for you?
BROTHER ALI: Yeah, it’s kind of a different tone and it feels good, I don’t really know how to define it yet. That last album that I made had a very specific feeling, but I’ve kind of grown from that. I think I was experiencing a lot of despair and a lot of heartache and a lot of pain and was crying out of that. That last one was about fighting what’s wrong with the world, but this one is really about healing.
WEATHERBY: All things considered, would it be fair to describe you as hopeful?
BROTHER ALI: Definitely, faithful. I think hope is based on faith. I think there’s a difference between hope and optimism. Cornel West talks about that a lot, that optimism is this idea that’s not connected to anything, things will get better but why? Based on what? Nothing. It’s really shallow. Hope is a little bit different, hope is the idea that if I’m willing to sacrifice and put the effort into the world then something will reward that. The way I see it is that hope is really tied to a force of good that is in control of all this, one that is loving and doesn’t let our good work, our sacrifices and our hope, go unrewarded.
BROTHER ALI WILL PLAY HIGHLINE BALLROOM TOMORROW, APRIL 9. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.