Originally published at The Well Versed
Though Brother Ali is musically independent, there’s a streak of interdependence that runs through the Minneapolis Rhymesayer’s speech patterns – which is to say, we’re all in this together. On the eve of the release of his latest studio album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, The Well Versed caught up with Ali to talk about why he no longer hates “this place,” why KRS ONE’s request for him to “unite the world” changed his life and why he’s decided to follow in the footsteps of Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte.
The Well Versed: I have to start with the cover of the new album that shows you praying on top of the American flag. Was that an idea you came up with?
Brother Ali: It was. This album is what it says it is. It’s more than the situation and condition that we as a society are in. The world and the people at the top –some call them the one percent – we know there are people that control the resources, they’re carving out a bigger piece of the pie for themselves and strangling people on the bottom and the middle class. We’re having more economic and cultural problems. Whenever there’s disarray we attack each other. Spiritually, culturally, economically we’re in a terrible condition. That’s the mourning in America.
Because of this time when so many people are suffering and there’s some much despair, people are in that condition together and it’s causing alliances and unity. There’s a lot of opp. As part of the occupy homes movement, I’ve seen people from completely different walks of life put their bodies and reputations on the line to defend each other. I’ve seen mid aged school teachers go to jail for a Mexican family or an African American woman to stay in their home. I never saw that in my generation. They say it happened in the Civil Rights times, but I never saw it. I saw black people getting shot with water hoses. That’s the dreaming in color. If I’m willing to do the work and fight back, there are better opportunities out there.
There are people that got mad and said you’re not supposed to put the flag on the ground. The flag was already on the ground. I found it there and prayed on it. I’m also a Muslim and that’s my flag too. That’s part of the symbolism. If we’re going to make progress, we have to stop seeing things that divide us.
TWV: To some degree, from the first track on the new album (“Letter to my Countrymen”) it feels like you’re coming full circle. Going back to songs like “Uncle Sam God Damn” and “Letter to the Government” they came from a place of hostility . This time, you start out saying “I used to hate this place.” What brought that change in you?
BA: Becoming aware of the fighters for human rights. Seeing how much progress they were able to make. Not wanting to give up after they made that sacrifice. People like Harry Belafonte, and Paul Robeson. They made huge sacrifices all their lives. Instead of walking away, I want to pick up that work they left off and keep pushing. Nina Simone made huge sacrifices. Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, right up to my time. It’s my time. I can’t walk away and be overrun by anger and righteous indignation.
TWV: I think apathy is one of those things we have to combat to change things. For people who don’t have an artistic connection to the struggle, what do you tell them to combat apathy and get them off the sidelines?
BA: That’s a great question. It’s about keeping track of our own humanity. This society we live in has pulled us away from nature, from relationships with each other and even with ourselves. We don’t have the time or the resources to sit and think or contemplate. What does this mean, what does my life mean? We’re seeing kids drinking more and doing harder drugs. We’re seeing people really lose it. We have to get in touch with that again. That’s what unites us. Even if we connect and realize we’re f*cked up. There are opportunities if all the f*cked up people get together. Just like Alcoholics Anonymous. Group therapy. People come together based on their troubles and there’s power in working together. I think we need to take it a step further and push back against the people who created the problems.
TWV: I wanted to touch on something you mentioned last time we talked. You said KRS ONE signed a book for you and told you to “unite the world” when you were younger. Have you gotten a chance to talk to him since then?
BA: I haven’t. You’d think that we’d cross paths all the time and it hasn’t happened as often as I’d like it to. The few times we’ve played at the same festivals I’ve tried to talk to him but it hasn’t worked out. I think we’ll see each other and reconnect. Who knows if he’ll remember? He may say he does because that’s what I do, we don’t like to let people down. He might remember the albino kid from 1989. Either way he changed my life and I love him for that.
TWV: What did that moment mean to you?
BA: It meant so much. Rappers were the people I looked up to. In some way that might not make sense to other people, but they represented me. People that never had a voice and being honest and forceful about how they feel. I felt like that was me. When I saw KRS, he was self-taught, it really empowered me ad let me know that I can figure the world out. He talked a lot about Malcolm. I read the autobiography after that and it set me on the course of Islam.
TWV: On the album, you say this is not a practice life –alluding to the fact that we don’t get a second chance. We have a lot of religious people who say we’ll get another chance. What do you tell people who have gotten passive and look forward to the other side about why it’s important to keep fighting?
BA: I mean that’s it. This is our one chance to live this life. That line comes from a comedian who’s a friend of mine and a Muslim named Azhar Usman. He does a comedy project called “Allah Made Me Funny.” He’s a deep scholar in Sufism. He shares a lot with me. One of the things he shared with me was that “this is not a practice life. We have one chance to decide who we want to be and what kind of life we want to live.” I’ve been in different stages. All kind of weird places but I think it’s all going in this direction. I am who I’m going to be and it’s time to get out here and do something instead of just making music about it. I had to go put my hands on it.
TWV: On “Work Everyday,” you break down the economic and political con game. We’ve seen the ebbs and flows with the black power and civil rights movement. From what you’ve read and seen, is this time period different or will we be pacified again?
BA: I think we’re just beginning. They say it gets worse before it gets better, I think that says something about the human condition. We get complacent and go to sleep and then we wake up. On that song I said, “greed can never leave well enough alone.” If the people who were stealing from us had just left it the way it was, they could’ve stolen from us forever. They’re doing too much now. People who used to be in this privileged, white suburban middle class bubble that didn’t communicate much with the outside world – that bubble bursts. The greedy made it so they can’t passively enjoy life so a lot of them are in the struggle.
TWV: Do you have any advice for bridging gaps of distrust among groups who may not traditionally work together?
BA: I think the number one thing is understanding. that’s the key ingredient in every relationship. We have to stop being so fearful of each other and listen more. That F word they say about gay people. I said that on my first record. I was uninformed but I had to people around me that took care of me… James Baldwin was one of my favorite writers and I had the courage to read his experiences about being gay. It made me understand to a certain degree and realize there are certain things I can’t understand. One thing it solidified is that a human being has a certain right to live with a level of dignity. That’s what we need to keep track of. That’s the starting point.
TWV: To switch things up, you have a track with Bun B, how’d that come about? That surprised me.
BA: That was a sample. Jake made a song with a sample. When I made the song, I sent it to him and got his permission to use his voice. He’s one of those dudes that everybody loves and respects.
TWV: Anymore collaborations in the works between you two?
BA: I think so but I don’t want to force it.
TWV: “All You Need” feels like a very personal song, is that based on a true story?
BA: All of my personal songs are real. If they’re not, some are just stories. On the Bite Marked Heart, I have a song where my wife kills me. Obviously that isn’t real, but all the songs that feel personal are real.
TWV: What made you want to open up about losing a child?
BA: I wanted people to get a window into that. When I was explaining to my son where pain in his family comes from, I wanted to shine some light in my personal life and connect it to that social thing. In oppressed communities there are generational cycles of pain that feed each other.
TWV: You touch a little on shame in that opening verse about the mother not taking the child to the ER. How do we get over the shame of asking for help?
BA: That’s a great question that I don’t know I can answer. I come from a religious tradition that says a human being was eve held to standards other than being human. Our concept of what sin is, is a little different. We’re taught that the best state for a human to be in is one of growth. That’s what’s expected of us, to grow and improve and be comfy in the reality that we’re not perfect. Part of what makes us special creations is that we have this thing we have to wrestle with. I struggle with that too. There are no quick answers.
TWV: On that same verse, you said God forgives but you didn’t. Have you forgiven?
BA: Yeah. The first verse I’m talking to her and how tore up I was. The second verse is me talking to him so he can understand why she is the way she is and there’s a reason behind that. I was hoping to show that I’ve forgiven.
TWV: Are there any other tracks that you want people to look out for that mean a lot to you?
BA: In my mind you hit on some of the standout ones. “Mourning in America” is about violence and murder in American culture. How hypocritical we are. We really feel the pain when somebody kills us. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it towards the end of his life and it’s still true that the United States “is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” We deal out more death in the world and in our neighborhoods than any other country in the world. We hear people talk about how great Obama is and I was a supporter as well. But we have these drone attacks that kill thousands. We still have wars going on where we’re killing people. In Chicago, the number of teens who kill each other is equivalent to a war zone. We kill prisoners, we kill black and brown men. A lot of black and brown men. We kill innocent people because somebody kills our innocent people.
“Fajr” is about the dawning and this new opportunity we have. That’s one of my favorite songs.
TWV: It seems like the media, with the assistance of the government is able to dehumanize people. Where do you recommend people go to get a more nuanced portrait?
BA: Al Jazeera English. It’s damn near impossible to get that station. We get 500 channels and not one of them is Al Jazeera English. If you really want to understand better what we’re doing, that’s a great one. Democracy Now is great. It’s important to pay attention to who owns and who pays people. Somebody is always going to serve who pays them. If we look at CNN, MSNBC or Fox, they’re all owned by the same people. It’s the Democrats vs. the Republicans but we never get to the bigger issues or make any real progress.