Since the Rhymesayers release of 2003’s Shadows on the Sun, Minnesota rapper Brother Ali has steadily gone from one of the label’s brightest hopefuls to one of underground hip hop’s foremost heavyweights. With backing from Atmosphere producer Ant, Ali took gravity-defying strides both musically and lyrically in just a few short years. On 2007’s The Undisputed Truth and 2009’s Us, a growing fanbase came to appreciate Ali’s deeply personal take on his own life and American culture, making him one of our country’s most singular spinsters of the American mirror.
After a turbulent three years of great successes and tragic losses, Brother Ali has returned to hip hop with his newest album Mourning in America and Dreaming In Color. Aided for the first time by producer Jake One, Ali has set a new benchmark for himself with what has been dubbed his most political album to date.
Before his performance at the Barrymore this Thursday (October 4), we spoke to Brother Ali about experiences both personal and political over the last three years, and how they influenced his newest album and current mindset.
True Endeavors: This summer you performed at the We Are Wisconsin recall rally here in Madison. How did you take the news of Governor Scott Walker’s reelection?
Brother Ali: Obviously it’s extremely unfortunate in terms of electoral policies. It’s worth staying informed and participating as far as getting the right representatives into important offices, but I don’t think that having the right people in the right office is going to solve all our problems. I think that activism is really where it’s at. That’s more where my head and heart is. I think Barack Obama is the best example. We were able to send the brightest leader that our country has produced in our generation to the highest position possible, and that’s not getting it done. I don’t know whether that’s his fault or whether he’s outnumbered in the system. There are all kinds of arguments you could make about why its not happening the way that we thought it would. But if that guy isn’t able to get it done, then that shows us [a politician] might not be the answer.
Critics have called your newest album Mourning in America and Dreaming In Color very political in nature. More than standing behind any specific political view, however, I think it speaks more to proposing a change from the people of this country themselves.
Right. The people have to demand more of ourselves first and foremost. The sleepwalking that we’ve been lulled into and the identity politics that we’ve been tricked into, the greed and complacency and laziness that we have personally…that’s such a huge part of what the problem is. We kind of have this unspoken agreement with our leaders that we don’t demand too much of them, and they don’t demand too much of us.
The reason why I don’t like calling [Mourning] a political album is because of what “politics” means in America now. [The album] is political in the old school, original sense of dealing with the greater good—the way life is lived and the way resources are distributed, the public priorities. What politics means now is this back and forth between the left and the right. And I’m not interested in that. That’s not what the album is about at all. It’s about bigger concepts than that.
Do you think there is an inherent “politics of the people” that a government system can’t necessarily accommodate?
I think the system could accommodate it if the people demanded it. The language and the ideas are all there in the American systems; they’ve just never been true for everybody, you know what I mean? They’ve never been completely true for people of color, they’ve never been completely true for Native Americans. They’ve never been completely true for women. I think we’re getting some leftover ideas from the old European colonialism, where they went around the world and tried to create a haven for themselves that didn’t apply to anyone else.
Could you tell me about the period of time in between the release of 2009’s Us and the creation of your newest album?
It was a really successful time, but that meant I was on the road a lot. In 2010, I was on the road for ten months out of that year. Having a family, that was really rough personally to be gone that much. I didn’t realize it was going to be ten months at the beginning of the year; people just made offers and I said yes to everything. So I was gone for most of the year, and I could really feel it in my family. During that time as well, my dad died, [Minnesota rapper] Eyedea died. So there was a lot of stuff going on all at once.
You know, I almost gave up on everything. Part of me was just like, man, all these years it took to be able to do the stuff that I’m doing, and it sucks. I felt like not doing [music] anymore and walking away from it even though it was as successful year. On top of that, I didn’t have the support system that I usually had in my work environment with touring and recording. None of them were able to work with me.
So I completed that first year by making my pilgrimage to Mecca, which is something I’ve been trying to do for a few years. My paperwork kept getting held up or denied or whatever. But I submitted it early enough this time that I was finally able to go, and that just re-centered and refocused me, and made me remember who I am and why I do what I do. I took a year off of touring just to take a break from the road, but I realized that this was a new chapter, not a time to leave. It was a time to change, grow, adapt, and create a situation where I could do new stuff creatively. So I started working with Jake One to produce the newest album. I also did a lot of activist stuff that I’ve wanted to do, a lot of community things that I just never had the time to do before. I became a lot more grounded in my spirituality and my day-to-day practice of Islam. So all of those things ended up being a really positive thing for the record. I didn’t get to achieve everything I wanted, though. Looking back on it, it would have been cool to write a book or get into better shape. But I did a lot.
What was the most profound part of traveling to Mecca?
There’s too much to really sum up quickly. You just have an experience with God and you have an experience with humanity that go together. There’s three to five million people from every country in the world all going through these rights at the same time. You see extreme poverty, you see extreme brotherhood, justice and kindness. You see love and mercy. You see a lot of things that you don’t normally see in your day-to-day life.
I was in Washington D.C. during the Obama inauguration, and I remember there being an electric feeling in the air from so many like-minded people being in the same area. Would you say it was similar to that?
Yeah. If you could imagine a similar situation like that in the desert, in the oldest symbol of monotheism in the world…And it’s people from literally every country in the world. People have walked there from Africa and Eastern Europe and Asia—literally walked from Africa, spending six months doing whatever they could to get [to Mecca]. And there are so many situations where you’re in small spaces surrounded by so many people that you almost get picked up by the crowd and feel as if you’re floating. There’s something terrifying about it, but I don’t know…It’s hard to put into words. Every person who goes through that experience is transformed.
How was it working with Jake One compared to your long-time collaboration with Ant?
Really good. I mean, Jake and Ant are very different in a lot of ways. When I work with Ant, he’s usually been very hands-on. I actually write the songs with him sitting there and have him chime in on things. Jake’s not interested in doing that. He’s not interested in what I’m saying, even. He’s more interested in how it sounds. Because he’s like, “I know you know what you want to say. I know what you want to say is important to you and there’s no changing that, so I’m not even going to talk to you about that. I just want to make sure it sounds good.” So I wrote the songs, he heard them after I recorded them, and he’d then give me some ideas.
As someone who has continuously proposed change in our culture, do you think artists have a responsibility to both ask and answer questions in their art form?
I don’t think artists have any responsibilities outside the greater responsibility of any person. If what we do hurts people, then we ought to be discouraged from doing it. If we’re not hurting anyone, then it’s up to us to do whatever is in us to do, you know what I mean? Some people are here for different reasons and all have different purposes. We all make our music for different reasons. There’s nothing wrong with music that’s just fun and entertaining; there’s nothing wrong with music that’s just pretty or that’s ugly and challenges things. So there’s no judgment in me as far as what art is supposed to prove.
—-interview by Austin Duerst
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Related Content: Countdown To Mourning In America With Brother Ali
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