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Interview: Brother Ali

Interview: Brother Ali

Wednesday 15th February, 2017 12:00PM

Over the last 17 years, Minneapolis' Brother Ali has established himself as a highly respected hip hop artist, speaker and activist. During the course of his relationship with these callings, he's released a bevy of critically loved records, received mentorship from Chuck D and Rakim, and graced the late night talk show stages for Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon. Brother Ali's work has led to profiles by Al-Jazeera and NPR, speaking engagements at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, and even skirmishes with The US Department of Homeland Security over his critique of American human rights violations. Along the way, he's connected with audiences across the globe through his intimate songwriting, energetic performances and uncompromising values. With a show at Auckland venue The Powerstation alongside Atmosphere scheduled for next weekend, we asked Brother Ali some questions about what makes him tick....

UTR: I understand that you started rapping as a child while growing up in different parts of the Midwest. Could you give us a window into the sort of rap music that was popular (or you connected with) in the areas you grew up in, and how hearing music like that and experiencing the culture around it made you want to pursue rap on a deeper level?

BA: Hip hop was expressing so many aspects of life that I never saw on TV or heard on the radio. We didn’t have the internet then so everyone had to watch the same 30 cable channels and listen to the same 10 radio stations. They only played mainstream music and you almost never heard or saw anything that wasn’t from the dominant culture. Rappers were talking about everything from love, to politics and telling stories about serious issues like crime and comedic ones about using the bathroom. It was all inside the music.

There is often a bit of discussion about the difference between studio rappers and rappers who can really present a good live show. What makes a good live rap show for you, and who are some of the people you've been able to look to over the years for guidance in this area?

There’s a live Boogie Down Productions album called Live Hardcore Worldwide and that album shaped the way I present my shows. KRS ONE is so commanding and in the moment and clear. His energy is so incredible and his talking to the audience is just as amazing as the songs. I love watching Common perform because he’s got so much energy and control of his body and voice. Yasiin Bey on a good night is a spiritual experience. You never know what Ghostface is gonna say in his crowd banter.

Shadows on the Sun
 wasn't technically your first album, or even your first album with Rhymesayers, but it was probably the point at which a lot of us overseas started to first hear about you. When you think back to that point in time, what sort of expectations did you have for what you intended to do as a rapper, and looking back, how have things played out in comparison?

That was my first real album. The project before that was really a demo tape to show the people who saw me rock little stages around the Midwest know that I could actually make songs. Shadows was my announcement to the world that I’m an artist. I did everything from bombastic rap songs to funny stories to deeply emotional autobiographical songs. That was my announcement to the world that I have something offer and need somebody to hear me. After that I started developing and exploring those areas more. Undisputed Truth was all about sharing my most impactful personal movements. Us was about empathetic understanding of each other through story telling. Mourning in America was my political and social justice album.

If you had to do it all again and start out as a rapper in 2017, how do you think you'd approach what you're doing? Do you have any thoughts on the way rappers hone their voices and get them out there in the modern era?

I’m learning a lot from young artists because they’re so incredibly free. They sing even if they can’t do it well. They put the rhyming words wherever they want. If they don’t want to adhere to the meter of the beat for part of the song they just take the drums out and go nuts. They also are teaching me it's okay to put out one song here and there without it being a single or focus track. You can just drop a two minute beat with a verse and half a hook like, “Oh yeah, here’s something I tried tonight".

Rhymesayers is a pretty important thing to a lot of rap fans around the world. What was the vibe and feel like with the crew when you started releasing music with them, and how did you become involved in that world?

Rhymesayers started as a crew of rappers who were hungry to be noticed and decided to work together to make that happen. In order to grow, it became a small business and record label. The early days were a lot wilder and less predictable. It was more of an adventure but a lot less sustainable. Now things are becoming more organised and it’s a beautiful thing to witness.

Do you listen to much rap these days, or do you find yourself exploring other types of music? I'm wondering who and what inspires you musically, and why?

I love Chance [The Rapper] and Kendrick [Lamar] because of how spiritual and free they are. Chance talks to you for the entire verse and then busts out in song. Kendrick has every syllable perfectly placed like a fine tapestry. But both of them communicate so much beauty and layers of meaning and humanity that it makes me love them. Rapsody and Sa-Roc are more like the great traditional spitters but they’re both very gallant young women. They shed an entire new light on what I’ve always loved about hip hop.

Over your career, you've consistently made music that speaks to the activist spirit, and taken part in activism, either though talks, appearances or direct protest. How early on did this all become important to you, how were you introduced to these ideas, and why do you continue to connect with them?

I’ve always seen hip hop as the world’s chance to recognise and fully benefit from the black genius that raised me. To me, anything that offers undeniable proof of the humanity of black people is a political statement. It could be a funny ass dance record, but it can show that black people are multidimensional nuanced human beings. It actually teaches the world how to be human. Activism and spirituality are inextricable from hip hop.

As important as the words are in rap, production is pretty crucial as well. Who are some of your favourite rap producers at the moment and why?

I really appreciate Flying Lotus. The culmination of the entire legacy of black music is in there. It's jazz and blues and gospel and funk and rock all in that texture.

The cover art to Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color depicts you taking part in prayer on an American flag. It's a powerful image, and speaks to the fact things like being an American and practicing Islamic faith should and can be easily compatible. I'm wondering how the situation in America at the moment is looking from your perspective? Big question, I know...

It’s two-fold. On one hand Muslims are the scapegoat community used to strike fear in the American public so they’ll give absolute power to the ruling class. On the other hand, the anti Muslim actions have brought about compassion in open hearted people to stand with us in really touching ways.

Throughout your career you've been plugged in with some very interesting individuals and organisations, and I feel like you probably find out about a lot of really helpful and progressive people and collectives a bit earlier than a lot of us. Who do you consider to be some of the more crucial figures and groups out there doing stuff to make things better for people right now?

IMAN in Chicago and its director Rami Nashashibi are doing incredible work to bring together faith communities and cultural workers to heal and build in one of the most famously challenging neighbourhoods in America.

Ta’leef and its director Usama Canon in the San Francisco Bay Area of California are creating and inspiring culturally relevant and authentic spaces where Muslims and seekers can be exposed to and transformed by the Islam of Beauty.

Muslim Public Intellectuals like Dr Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Dr. Sherman Jackson, Imam Zaid Shakir and Dr. Ingrid Mattsen are helping a new generation of Muslims define what it means to cultivate our souls and be agents of mercy in the modern world.

There’s an artist New Orleans named BMike who’s created an amazing compound of transformative art called Studio Be. The only way to describe it is to say it’s an experience.

Brother Ali will be performing alongside Atmosphere at The Powerstation in Auckland on Saturday 25th of February. Tickets are available via Ticketmaster.


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