Words: David Scott / Shots: Bilal Chawala
As rap resumes go sharing a stage with KRS-One at the age of thirteen, tour buddy with Rakim and being close friends with Chuck D is impressive; but if you’re after a character reference then you could do worse than ask US National Security – they’d know more than most, they’ve had him under surveillance for the past five years.
Welcome to the world of Brother Ali. White Muslim convert, legally blind, albino, activist and acclaimed hiphop artist.
We caught up with Brother Ali in Liverpool on the final leg of his European tour with Dilated Peoples to talk music, activism, religion and how hard it is to travel when you’re on the wrong side of the US Government.
David Scott: So for unfamiliar hiphop fans -- who’s Brother Ali:
Brother Ali: I’m an independent MC from Minnesota. The people who were my heroes when I was growing up were KRS-One, Chuck D and Rakim. KRS-One took me on stage with him when I was thirteen, Rakim took me on tour with him for a year and Chuck D is a close friend to me – I’m on his album, he’s on mine – I have that as my foundation but the music I make is personal to me. I talk about whatever is pressing on my heart at the time.
Early on [2001’s Shadows on the Sun] you hear me talk about being broke, in danger and having to fight every day. The middle part of my career is autobiographical – striving to be fulfilled. I’ve been married twice, I have a son who’s been with me his whole life – we were homeless together for a while and we rebuilt our family together.
DS: The obstacles that you’ve faced in life, do you think that’s made you a better artist?
BA: Definitely. But I don’t know. Miles Davis always used to say – he took a lot of exception on the misconception that black people made the blues because of suffering, he used to say ‘I’ve never suffered – both of my parents are rich.’ I wouldn’t trade it – I wouldn’t want to be blind to people’s suffering; I wouldn’t want that.
DS:And that’s what you talk about on your last album [2012’s Mourning in America, Dreaming in Color]?
BA: Lately my own life has been stable but I suffered for a long time and the people who I suffered with are still suffering. You look at the catastrophes in the Philippines or Haiti; we see these terrible things and we mourn for those people and they dominate our culture. But we have manmade catastrophes and its domination – white supremacy, male supremacy, hyper and corporate capitalism – people are dying, lives are being torn apart and there are precious human beings suffering. We don’t hear them because they’re not the ones tell the stories. The majority of them are suffering at the hands of a minority.
Wealthy white men are causing people to suffer at different degrees and that’s part of the trick, is that we because of who we are we suffer at different degrees; if you’re white but not wealthy you’re suffering, your life is not your own, your life is still serving the elite but you suffer in a different way than you do if your an Arab, Mexican or Black in America.
DS: So there’s a hierarchy of suffering?
BA: Absolutely – that’s the way people in power have made it, you don’t have to police the world; we police each other. I started realising many of the people that listen to my music are relatively privileged. So the idea is to say something to them about the things that I know, that they don’t, and that they’re not told. So the third phase of my career is primarily about that – I still want to rap really well, put on great shows, to present from my heart – I still do art for the art’s sake but it’s just the art has to be about something.
DS:That certainly came across in your attack on the US Government with Uncle Sam Goddamn
BA: That video was one of the first independent music videos to hit over a million views [it’s reached 2.5 million now]. The time it hit a million we were in Australia and the department of National Security froze our money. I had to get on the phone and give them verbal confirmation that I knew they were going to be tracking me and I had to give them the tools to do it as well – address, phone, social security numbers, people that travelled with me – ever since then travel has been really difficult for me.
That song started off my relationship with power – that was interesting as that was sort of my breakout moment [appearing on Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien]. I was getting a lot more notoriety and the other hand corporations and government were working together to stop me from saying the things I was saying. I used to have this theory with sampling and activism, I could sample music, I didn’t have any money – so I felt like I could sample music and the only way that I could get caught was if I made it big and then it will be worth it...
DS: Because then you could afford it?
BA: Well yeah, but money has never been my focus, to a fault – money is just not motivation for what I do. I didn’t clear my samples and got sued. I had the same approach about activism, about being outspoken – the only way the government would mess with me if I did something really dangerous then it would be worth it – you know what I mean. If I got sued for my money then I was never in it for the money, I just wanted to be heard and do something that people love; if I go to jail for the rest of my life but I got to do something that made an impact on peoples’ lives and alleviated some suffering, you know it would be worth it.
DS: As you said KRS-One brought you on stage when you were 13 -- so was it hiphop before Islam?
Matter of fact, when I was at that show, he talked a lot about Malcolm X; Public Enemy were talking a lot about Malcolm X; you hear Rakim saying Alhamdulillah; you’re hearing rappers talk about the Qu’ran – and, in my mind, these are the smartest people in rap; some of the most profound and prolific MCs when I was growing up. So that kind of rhetoric was already alive to me.
But when KRS-One told me to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X...I read it (and it was the first book I had ever read) and in my mind I was Muslim the second I finished. The next thing my mother called the mosque in my community and I’ve been a Muslim for over 20 years.
How was your mother when you told her you were converting?
Before that I got into a lot of trouble; the crack epidemic was really big in the late 80s in the States and my friends were caught up in it and I got caught up in it to. I was at places where there would be a shoot out -- so they were very worried about me, you know, I was getting arrested. So when I told them I was going to be a Muslim they thought it was a fad I was going through but were happy about the reforms I went through.
But at that time, in the street culture, Islam was highly respected – if you were really living it, people had a lot of respect. And that’s why they call me Brother Ali. People would be playing dice or smoking weed and I would come around and they would hide it and say “don’t smoke that around Brother Ali” and “Peace Brother Ali” – it was a term of respect like that.
DS: So, back to music what do you think of hip hop and music at the moment?
BA: I think it’s great – I think the record industry falling apart was good. I wish all industries would fall apart like that – the banking industry; the oil industry! I’m trying to have something do with that.
Basically its possible now for everyone to come up independently – even the biggest names: Drake; Kendrick Lamar; Macklemore – everyone that’s Number 1! And while they were coming up they didn’t have a millionaire signing a cheque, so you know that opens up a lot now.
What’s cool is that before this was the popular way to do it, me and my friends were forced to do this way – and so we created a lot of the blueprint and foundation for the way that hiphop is done now. It’s cool to see it even though we didn’t get to the Number 1 spot – that’s the way it works. Everybody comes to a house we’re all participating in building, so that the people that came before us had it harder than us and then we came along and we put some bricks in the house, and then other people come along to live in that house – that’s part of what you do it for.
DS: So who’s the next target for Brother Ali?
BA: I don’t know. Activism. It’s been interesting. It’s been an interesting journey. I prefer to work with poor people, or people of colour – with marginalised people. I really truly believe that the people who have caught the most hell are best equipped to lead us all out of hell – I believe they have to be the leaders of the movement. And with our relative positions of privilege within that put us in supporting roles. I would like to see myself as that. I’m privileged in every way, or of the major ways -- in terms of the world views. Being a straight white male in a first world empire, me being a Muslim doesn’t change that – I still get all the benefits. All of those things benefit me, so my approach is to the work in an educational role, to all those people of similar privileges to me, it’s to be an educator, and to try to encourage and challenge.