As one of the most unique artists in Hip-Hop today, Brother Ali commands attention and respect. The 35-year-old American rapper has fought off discrimination from an early age, born an albino of white race who felt most at home amongst African Americans. And for around 20 years now, Ali has been a Muslim, something not so common in Hip-Hop culture. However, Brother Ali’s most distinctive qualities are his charisma and optimism, rather than his albinism and religion. All this is clearly evident in his music, at his live shows and in person. I was lucky enough to meet him after he played Thekla, Bristol and despite losing his voice, he spared more than a few moments to answer questions.
Throughout his career the focal point of his albums has expanded. He deals with personal issues (Shadows on the Sun), family and community (see his critically acclaimed last album, Us) and now, on his latest offering Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, social and political issues.
“In 2010-11 my dad and my dear friend Eyedea died unexpectedly. I toured ten months that year and had to fly home for their funerals and head straight back out to the road where I had to get on stage and keep the party going. Also in that period our society fell deeper into poverty…. I decided to make an album called ‘Mourning in America’, connecting my personal despair with that of our society.”
However, an assortment of positive experiences in Ali’s life also occurred around this time, and these, naturally, seeped into his music.
“I started meeting with incredible young people in the community. I made my pilgrimage to Mecca. I got some electronic ways to help me read (I’m legally blind and it’s almost impossible to read a normal book). It became a time of great hope for me. I decided to make an album called ‘Dreaming in Color’. After working on both of these albums I realised that the concepts are connected. We mourn but we do it with hope. Our mourning connects us to the suffering of others and inspires us to become agents of change. So I combined the albums to make one statement: ‘Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color’.”
Perhaps the highlight of Ali’s year, though, was meeting up with one of his idols, the renowned American philosopher and civil rights activist, Dr Cornel West.
“We talked in his office, listened to my new album, recorded his thoughts for the opening song [Letter to my Countrymen, would later become a collaboration]. I followed him to a public dialogue with another towering thinker/author, Dr. James Cone, and then we had dinner with a table full of authors, professors, activists and little old me. I’ll never forget that.”
His work with Jake-One on the new record – rather than Ant (of Atmosphere), who usually deals with production – has also had a lasting impact on Ali’s music.
“Collaborating with people is as much about the process as it is the material. Ant is very hands on. Jake made beats specifically for me and he also let me pick whatever he had that wasn’t already being used by someone famous. He wanted me to focus more on the flow and cadence of the songs. He’d keep track of the flows I was using or times when I had a few too many words. He’d give me specific bars to look at and improve. He was really particular about the texture of the music. What it felt like. The actual sonic quality of the mixes. He wanted this to sound like a thick, warm, heavy rap record.”
So how do the recent changes in his life and music fit in with everything he’s done before?
“It’s a definite progression. Can I leave the world just a little bit better than I found it? How does that happen? What am I saying to the world?”
The fact he even verbalizes these questions suggests that he is going some way to making a change to the people who listen to his music. But there are many artists who achieve more than this through a wider audience. Hopefully this will also become a reality for Brother Ali so he can emulate other socially and politically influential musicians.
Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color is released 21 August through Rhymesayers Entertainment. Visit their website to pre-order the album.