Brother Ali Interview


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Over the past eighteen years, Brother Ali has earned wide critical acclaim for his deeply personal, socially conscious, and inspiring brand of hip-hop. Under Rhymesayers Entertainment, he’s unleashed a series of lauded projects, establishing himself as one of the most respected independent voices in music. The latest chapter in that celebrated journey is All the Beauty in This Whole Life, a fifteen-track collection produced entirely by Atmosphere’s Anthony ‘Ant’ Davis.

All the Beauty in This Whole Life is Ali’s first official release in five years and represents the newest and most refined chapter of his life’s journey. “Each of my albums are the result of the pain, growth and eventual healing that I experience. Articulating the pain and navigating the healing allows the people who really feel my music to travel with me. It’s not only that we hurt together, we heal together as well.”

Last year, Brother Ali’s debut album on Rhymesayers Entertainment, Shadows on the Sun, celebrated its 15th anniversary. To commemorate this occasion, Brother Ali will embark on a special headlining European tour kicking off next week, 11th March in Amsterdam where he will perform the full album each night.

We were fortunate enough to catch up with Brother Ali recently. Read the interview below, or alternatively listen to the interview in it’s entirety unedited via the SOUTHSIDERS Spotify podcast.

You’re currently on tour celebrating fifteen years since the release of Shadows on the Sun. What is the live dynamic like doing an anniversary tour opposed to touring your latest record?

When I made the Shadows on the Sun record I didn’t have the idea that an audience was listening to me. I was just making music for me and Ant, Ant produces both the first one and the latest one and I just wanted to make him laugh, he was my audience of one. So if I made him laugh or made him react in any kind of way, that was the only standard. Then when I got an audience, even if it was a medium sized audience, you know I don’t play arenas, sometimes I play big festivals but usually I play for about five hundred to one thousand people per night, sometimes less, I started realising that these people are really listening, I better say something that is meaningful and if all of these hearts are open to me then I better say something that is good for these hearts. So that has affected the music, I didn’t realise it until I looked back to the first album and really listened to it and memorised it but having an audience changes the music, it changes most people’s music. It’s something I’m conscious of and I’m trying to get back to a point where I’m just making music for myself, I think that’s better.

And on that note – your latest single ‘Sensitive.’ I think this is a really interesting time for hip-hop with a generation of artists like yourself, Atmosphere and even Jay-Z, that are moving in to a space that has never been occupied before in this genre, making music with context that wasn’t possible ten or fifteen years ago.

Yeah, I mean I definitely think the age we are has something to do with it. But the thing about my particular group of underground artists is that we have always been very vulnerable in our music, especially me. I think all of us have. I think Slug has, I think Murs has, Sage Francis etc. That’s something that honestly Jay-Z is catching up to. When I came out in the early 2000’s, everybody’s narrative was about overcoming and their triumph over their challenges – “I made it and look how big I am now, look how poor I used to be and look how rich I am now, look how nobody used to care and now everybody wants to be around me” – this whole thing about what champions we are. During that time we were making vulnerable music already and then during 2010 when Barack Obama was still president over here in the states people were all about money, all about being successful and I made music about the political climate and how it was really bad for poor people and how poor people are really struggling, at that time that wasn’t very popular. Now because we have a president that is very brash and really… a narcissist and overtly is racist, now people are dissatisfied and now people are starting to talk about the politics and the political climate, but I’m talking about the spiritual reality of individuals. That’s part of being a part of the underground to think “okay, this is where we are but what are we talking about that we should be talking about?” For me that’s what I want to be.

“You know if Chance the Rapper talks about Jesus he is kind of seen as a unique thing, “this is a Christian rapper.” But if Jay-Z talks about Allah, you know “Alhamdulillah, [I run through them all]” like that’s not weird, nobody would say that’s weird…”

I recently seen what I considered to be a phenomenal piece of film-making in If Beale Street Could Talk adapted from the immensely talented James Baldwin. It got me thinking about a specific narrative I have seen reoccurring over the years in black America with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me and yourself on your latest album with ‘Dear Black Son.’ Why do you think this narrative between father and son within the African American community still holds so much weight now as it did previously during Baldwin’s era?

Yeah, I think that’s very very brilliant that you picked up on that because you know Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me, that book is written… both his piece and my piece the tone of them both come from the letter that James Baldwin wrote to his nephew at the beginning of The Fire Next Time. So my song is a song in that style and Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an entire book in that voice of James Baldwin. I think that one of the beautiful things about that tradition is that it really is about people teaching people how to survive in the face of adversity and that is honestly what draws the whole world to it. If you interact with it on a really surface level then black culture and when you say black you basically mean the diaspora of Africans taken, especially out of West Africa and brought around the world as servants and slave workers but ended up being cultural leaders. So you could look at it on a surface level and say “they dress really cool, they talk really cool, they sing really well, they dance really well and they write really well” – and that is all very true but the important thing for me to remember is that all of that beauty and all of that coolness and joy and complexity and genius is in the face of immense suffering. So these are people who have figured out how to hold on to their humanity and really know what humanity is and what a human heart is about. So when we honour that music and listen to that music, the question becomes “how intent are we going to be on learning what it means to be human?” I think that is the link in all of that.

Speaking about the political climate and current adversity – being a devout follower of the Islamic faith I wondered what the climate in America is currently like because on this side of the pond at least it seems Islamophobia is at an all time high and with the current leadership that is in place it also appears as if it has given narrow-minded people carte blanche to say and do as they wish. Has this been the case for yourself and have you noticed differences pre and post changes in governance?

I mean it’s interesting because the U.S. is really polarised so both the right and left are using identity and fear and tribalism to drive their agenda. This view isn’t going to be popular because I usually align more with the left than I do with the right but this is a critique I have of the left too. On the right they use identity for the majority dominant white culture to say “these people are going to come from Mexico, these people are coming from these Muslim countries and they are going to destroy your civilisation” and the same is being said in Europe and the U.K. as well. Then on the left the response is to promote candidates that are people of colour or are women or are gay or, you know, not from the dominant group. On the one hand it is really cool, for example I live in Minnesota which is in the middle all the way north in the U.S. and there are a lot of Somalian people who live here, beautiful people, and our congressperson is a Somali woman who is younger than me and that’s great, I love seeing her in that role. She’s a back Muslim woman like my wife and my daughter and that’s cool, I really like that. But the question will become because [we voted for] we are so happy that someone from our tribe who looks like us and represents us, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to have the tools, even if they have the integrity to do the right thing, do they have the skill set? And are we really behind them? Are we really going to protect them as a community? So this congresswoman tweeted about the people here who spend money influencing congress so that the U.S. will give more money to Israel than any other foreign country and ignore their human rights violations. The U.N. and everyone agree Israel are doing things they are not supposed to do and the U.S. doesn’t have anything to say about that or Saudi Arabia you know what I mean? So as a Muslim, I don’t like how the government is operating in Saudi Arabia and there are a lot of Jewish people who don’t like the way the government is operating in Israel, they are very very similar. Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen and Yemen is really important to the Muslims, it is a really important place. The prophet Muhammad blessed Yemen and he also blessed Syria and now those two places are in ruins, anyway… so yeah. It has become really polarised and people are really digging in to the identity of their tribes which is not a good thing. You have to have love for your people, you should love your people, you should honour the best of your people but when that becomes the reason that we vote and the reason we go to war and the reason why we act because of our tribes, then we are moving backwards, that’s not progress to me.

Yeah. I think dwelling on identity politics can build barriers rather than break them down and I think you have hit the nail on the head with that point. Touching on hip-hop and the Islamic faith – what was it about the Five Percenters within hip-hop that really inspired you as a youth – the KRS-ONEs, the Chuck Ds, the Ice Cubes, the Rakims, the GURUs, and why do you think the Islamic faith has found a voice within this culture more than any other?

Yeah, that’s a great question. Well first of all there were west African Muslims in what’s now called America before the Europeans ever got here. There was literally thousands of ships, there is an equatorial current from West Africa, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, you know sub-Saharan West Africa, if you are able to get a ship into the ocean there is a current that brings you to North America. So the Malian empire sent thousands of boats here. So the West Africans were here interacting with the first nations original people long before the Europeans. Then of course you have the Atlantic slave-trade that brought people here, it also brought people to the U.K. and to other places in Europe and the Caribbean and other places, and a lot of those people were also Muslims. So if you think of all of those countries in West Africa the majority of them are Muslim but all of them are a high percentage of Muslims. So a lot of the enslaved Africans were Muslims and this was a new type of slavery that didn’t just enslave the body and make people work with their bodies, but also sought to rob them over a period of hundreds of years, rob them of any outward memory of their language and their culture, their name and their tribe and their religion. So basically you had these movements in America and in other places to bring these African people back to Islam. And one of them was the Nation of Islam, another was the Moorish Science Temple of America, another one is the Ahmadiyya movement and then the Five Percenters come out of the Nation of Islam, out of Temple Number Seven where Malcolm X taught. The Five Percenters come out of there and this man Clarence 13X took the teachings that he learned in the Mosque and applied them to the street and the thing about them is they actually rhyme. The lessons are conversations between Elijah Muhammad and his teacher [Wallace Fard Muhammad] and this is the question “who is the original man?” Answer; “the Asiatic black man, the maker, the owner, the cream of the planet earth, father of civilisation, god of the universe,” they rhyme. A lot of them rhyme and there is a certain way of verbalising the answers that comes out of black genius and black tradition. So they started having ciphers, were you would stand in a circle and people would question you about these lessons and you would have to quote them verbatim. And also cipher in Arabic is called sifr which is zero. So sifr is zero in Arabic and the cipher is a zero, so this comes directly from Arabic, there is also a practice in Sufi Islam of having a circle of people called a hadra which means people stand in a circle and chant and invoke and invite the spirit of the Prophet Muhammad to be in the circle, also the whirling dervishes you see in Turkey. So all of this stuff is connected but it was those ciphers that lead to the hip-hop ciphers and the idea of that oral tradition, they are so directly related to each other. Also Afrika Bambaataa when he started the Universal Zulu Nation so much of the spirituality of those lessons comes from the spirituality of Islam. So Islam has always been the unofficial religion of hip-hop. You know if Chance the Rapper talks about Jesus he is kind of seen as a unique thing, “this is a Christian rapper.” But if Jay-Z talks about Allah, you know “Alhamdulillah, [I run through them all]” like that’s not weird, nobody would say that’s weird, that’s a Muslim rapper or that’s a different thing to see a Muslim rapper. Islam has always been the unofficial religion of hip-hop and hip-hop is the current language of Muslim youth well, youth around the world but Palestinian youth speak hip-hop, same in Pakistan, same in Senegal, same on the streets in, you know, the U.K.

We like to have a little bit of a tradition here at SOUTHSIDERS where we round up our interviews on a recurring note, more than anything it’s to help settle a debate between the writers at the site. What album do you prefer between Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx or GZA’s Liquid Swords?

Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords..?

Yeah. What one would you choose?

Ah man… I can’t answer that! [laughs] Probably Cuban Linx. Although I mean they are both masterpieces and are both classics. I mean Ghostface has always been my favourite Wu-Tang member even back when they first came out, I really liked his energy and I loved the look in his eyes when he was rapping.

He has been the most consistent as well, he has just kept it at that top tier for so long.

Well yeah, but when they first emerged he was just one of the guys, just one of the fellas and they were all great but then over the years he is actually the one who has developed the most as an artist I think.

We’ve all got our tickets and we’ll see you in Glasgow when you come through.

Awesome. Thank you so much Jason, I appreciate you brother. Peace.

Brother Ali is about to embark on a European tour celebrating 15 years since the release of his classic LP Shadows on The Sun. Be sure to pick up tickets HERE.

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