Brother Ali On Life, Music & America
Matthew Leeb: Where are you from originally?
Brother Ali: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but I moved away from there before I was old enough to remember. I was raised in different cities throughout Michigan until I was 14 or 15. That’s when I moved to Minneapolis, and I’ve been here ever since. So Minneapolis is home, it’s the only place that I ever really put roots down.
ML: What type of music was playing around the house as a kid?
BA: A lot of Motown stuff. My dad liked Classic Rock and Blues. He also listened to a little bit of Jazz, he was a big Charlie Parker fan. My mom listened to a lot of Adult Contemporary; Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, that type of stuff. By the time I was seven, I started going outside and listening to Hip-Hop, that’s really what touched me as a little kid. From Hip-Hop I started wanting to know where the samples came from and I got really into Soul, Blues and Jazz.
ML: When did you start making music?
BA: I first started rapping for my friend when I was eight years old, and I actually did a performance at my grandmother’s funeral. After that, I started doing all types of talent shows and just never stopped. I recorded my first song when I was thirteen, it’s always been what I’ve done, and I’ve never really tried to do anything else.
ML: When you dropped Rites of Passage on cassette and were hustling that at shows did you ever see yourself where you are today?
BA: It’s strange, because the lane we’re in didn’t really exist before us, so I never really had a specific vision of where I was heading. But even when I was little I knew that I had something to say, and that there was something unique about me that should be heard.
ML: I know Rhymesayers has been an integral part of your musical journey, tell me a little bit about your relationship with them.
BA: I started out just being an admirer of theirs and just looking up to them. They were all about 5-6 years older than me when we met. They were established and organized, putting their own artists out and releasing albums, which really touched me. The more time that I spent around them I realized that they were really incredible, high-caliber human beings. Now I’ve been living these past twelve years with them and we’ve just become dear friends and family to each other.
ML: Where do you see yourself drawing inspiration, from?
BA: I think it’s really the best of all the genres I listen too. It’s the best of Jazz, Hip-Hop and Soul; as well as the experiences I have in life. I think most artists get their inspiration from the same places. We take in the art that we think is dope and put our own spin on it based on our own experiences.
ML: What are you listening to nowadays?
BA: I try to keep up on new music. There’s a lot of new Hip-Hop that I like a lot. For a while I was really bored, but there are definitely some people now that are doing some incredible things. I think a lot of people’s favorite right now is Kendrick Lamar, to me he’s the best artist to come out in a long time. I also love the new Nas album.
ML: Favorite Rapper?
BA: Jay-Z. There was a long point in time where I was denying that, prior to him it would have been Chuck D, KRS or Rakim. I just didn’t want to give them up but Jay took it, he made it possible, he earned it.
ML: Speaking of Chuck D and Rakim, what was it like touring with Rakim?
BA: Most of the time when you meet your heroes and you spend some time with them, you realize they’re just people and that initial shock wears off. There is something about Rakim that just never wears off. He is so loyal, dignified and cool. He just has a presence that I never get used to.
ML: Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Chuck D?
BA: Man, Chuck has really done a lot to make himself available, and he does that for everybody. He is really supportive of young people trying to do something cool. He’s really been a great mentor to me. He’s very encouraging with a lot of the stuff that I do and has made me feel completely validated.
ML: What does Mourning In America and Dreaming In Color mean to you?
BA: The ‘Mourning In America’ side of it is that the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak and not let people suffer silently or invisibly. We really need to highlight that and tend to it. It’s really about the deep level of despair. That poverty, suffer, sorrow, misery and death we’re experiencing in our society right now is paid attention to and to really call it what it is.
The ‘Dreaming In Color’ side deals with this new reality that we have where people that used to be divided or see themselves as entitled had this feeling that they were what America is all about, and that they didn’t need to reach out and help other people. Now, there’s a new kind of awareness going on which creates opportunities from this generation coming together. That has given me a great deal of hope, so that’s what ‘Dreaming In Color’ is about.
ML: Has it always been a conscious choice for you to convey a sociopolitical message through your music, or is that more of something that just comes out from being honest with yourself?
BA: I think it’s always been a part of it. I’ve always been a serious person and have always really cared a lot about justice, so it makes sense that my career has gone along the tracks it has, and over the years has become a lot more political and social. A lot of my music is autobiographical. Sometimes it’s just about the act of rapping, there’s nothing wrong with just rapping for the sake of rapping.
ML: You recently took your first trip to Mecca, how would you describe that experience?
BA: It was a really life changing experience. I came to grips with so many realities, like the reality of God, the reality of death, the reality of being accountable for what we do. It’s a one life to live type of thing. It taught me that this is my job to be a person, this is not a practice life and it’s going to be over very quickly. I need to take advantage of every opportunity. It had a huge impact on me personally and in the music that I make, in the sense that it taught me that I can’t waste time being indecisive, and that I have to be firm about who I am and what kind of man I want to be.
ML: How would you describe the state of the world that we are living in today?
BA: I think that the prevailing theme is that the people in power have extreme power and they’ve used it to become extremely corrupt. The common person has very little to no power alone, but there is great power in numbers, and that’s the message I hope to get across.
ML: How would you explain America to someone who had never heard of it before?
BA: America is a project. It’s not an original country. Kenya is a country because there have been people living in Kenya since the beginning of time; same thing with Germany and Mexico. America is a project, it’s a made up country by people who came from a variety of other countries, who thought they had the opportunity to start fresh. We started this country by stealing the land from the people that we’re here killing now. The infrastructure and wealth was built by importing stolen human beings to work for free. With those realities there is also the idea that this was going to be a place for freedom, justice and equality. So we have two realities, this idea of who we are that goes up against what we really are to a lot of people. America to me means the struggle to reconcile what we think we’re supposed to be about with what people actually experience.