Fire balls explode in the air. A mini chorus line of women in niqabs burst into choreographed, robotic dance. A beaming pregnant woman rubs her belly, slowly lifting her shirt to reveal she isn't carrying a baby, but instead a midsection full of strapped-on explosives. An ominous chorus wails in a loop as snares rattle like bullets. And all of that comes in just a minute, the jarring first seconds, of the video for "Mourning in America," the latest single from Minneapolis-based rapper Brother Ali.
Representing a label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, that's always been made up of brainy, relative weirdos for the rap industry, Brother Ali stands out from even the rest of his extended musical family. Over the past decade-plus of his career, he's opted for gut punches over backpack nerdiness, with a delivery that rarely wavers in its drama and power, no matter the subject of his songs.
What might surprise some longtime fans, though, is the scope of the subjects on Ali's new album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, released this past Tuesday. The first ten years of his albums were defined by personal struggles, either his own, at the very beginning, or those of his friends and family, more recently. Some of his best work was the most emotional and naked, breaking down issues on the micro level.
This new record, though, goes macro, grappling with global unrest and cutting away at ideologies with sharpened blades of verses. It also marks a sonic change for Brother Ali, with production this time around handled by Seattle-based Jake One rather than longtime collaborator Ant.
As such, Ali sees it as a new phase in his career, one that he's fine with fans taking or leaving. Luckily, for him, they're mostly all taking it. We caught up with him by phone before his show this Sunday at Culture Room to discuss his musical evolution, his faith, and, unsurprisingly, the way both relate to a news cycle of increasing violence and fear. Here's what he had to say.
Brother Ali. With Blank Tape Beloved, Homeboy Sandman, and DJ Sosa. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, September 23 at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $15; all ages. Click here.
County Grind: How have the first few shows on this tour been?
Brother Ali: The tour's off to an amazing start, with sold-out shows and happy, excited fans. I haven't had a Brother Ali show in a couple of years. I've performed at festivals and colleges and stuff, but in terms of a proper Brother Ali show, it's been a while since I've experienced it. I love it.
What most surprised you about the first couple shows?
I feel in a lot of ways like I'm starting over, because this is a new incarnation of me. I'm working with a new producer, Jake One, who works with Jay-Z and Rick Ross and Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg and TI and 50 Cent. So it's a different kind of world for me to be existing in.
With my live show, I have a band, and I've never had that before; I've always had a DJ. Also, the messaging on my album is a little more pointedly political than it was before. So there's a lot of newness involved. When I perform my shows, it's about half and half new material and old material. I perform stuff off all the albums, but I wasn't sure if the old fans were really going to come out, and they really are.
What's been the biggest challenge about working with that live band, and adapting the old material to that setup?
Well I mean, they're songs that people love -- and I love them too -- that we're used to hearing a specific way on the record. So, just trying to interpret those things and play them in a way that still honors the original song but also gives it new life. It just takes a lot of work. It's fun work, but it's tedious. It's hard, but it's fun. It's a labor of love.
In a lot of the advance press about the new album, people constantly refer to you as an "intellectual." Do you think that kind of discounts the intellectual faculties of many of your peers in hip-hop?
I have so much to keep track of myself that I can't think about that. I think all art has some sort of insight to offer, or good art does. There are people that talk about a wide variety of subjects, and there's always something to offer. I have a unique perspective on a lot of things, and that's what I bring to the table.
Do you feel that sets you up with a lot of pressure to be some kind of sage, or always give weighty sound bites?
I've always just been genuine and sincere, and tried to express things as clearly and honestly as I can. That's what got me where I am, and that's what I continue to do. I don't feel pressure; I don't know what other people's expectations of me are. I try to really hone in on what I know to be true, and just find the best way to express it.
How are you finding your old fans to react to the more pointedly political content of the new album, as you described it, as opposed to the personal material on your last record?
So far it's been good, especially on tour, because I'm able to come out and explain. I think when you see me performing it all together it makes more sense. There's always been this kind of search for love in my music, and a search for value and dignity and all that stuff.
I think on my first album I was really put in a bad situation and was struggling to insist that the world respect me, and that I deserved to have a decent life. Then music fans supported me so well I was able to get to a different place in life. Then I was looking to be more fulfilled as a person rather than just survive.
Once that became true, the work didn't stop just because I got satisfied or because my life got better. Now the work is to make that a possibility for everybody. I think that's still rooted in the same quest for love and respect, but it's not just about only love and respect for myself, it's about actually caring for human beings.
Where does that sense of deep personal responsibility come from?
I've always been an underdog, and I've always cared about underdogs, because I'll always know what that is. I think anybody who's been in that situation, you either have to go for self and not give a damn about anybody else, or you are going to have to constantly be in this work.
Your new video for "Mourning in America" is pretty striking, visually, and pretty much intentionally provocative. Given the tenor of world events over the past week or so, are you concerned with how it will now be received?
No. I can't be concerned with that. I'm talking about my society. I'm an American Muslim, a Muslim American, and I'm a human being. That song is more than just about foreign policy. That's about us and our society's obsession with murder and death. I think we're sleepwalking about that.
I think we think it's normal, the amount of murder and death that both happens in our society and that we perpetrate around the world. We have war zones in our cities, where people kill each other at war zone rates, like in Chicago and other places. We still put people to death when we determine they're at a certain level as a criminal -- Troy Davis is a great example of that. The police are slaughtering men and women in the streets at enormous rates. At a society, I don't think we acknowledge that or wrestle with it in the right way.
We're the most powerful empire on earth, and we send remote control planes to go blow up homes in nations that we're not at war with, like Pakistan. We need to be more honest about that and stop thinking that American lives are the only lives that matter. A life is a life. There's that line between terrorism and righteous soldiering, and it gets very, very thin. That's where I'm coming from with the song, and I don't think there should be anything controversial about that.
Do you think your peers are maybe being too complacent about not addressing these issues in your music?
No. I don't criticize them. There are a lot of people who talk about these issues, and a lot of people who don't, whose struggle is more personal. We all struggle in the way that makes the most sense to us.
You converted to Islam almost two decades ago, and you've always been outspoken about your faith. When these larger world events come up that involve extremists, and you have all this press to do, do you get exhausted thinking about defending your faith as a whole, all the time?
That's a good question. I think people in the misunderstood, targeted group that people are suspicious of, absolutely have more a burden. We don't know anything about Islam in our society, and most of what we know is incorrect. That's on purpose. There's no way that's not intentional.
For years I followed the biggest leader of the largest group of Muslim-Americans, W. Deen Mohammed, who was extremely patriotic as an American, was a believer in American ideals, was a believer in inter-faith dialogue, and did a lot of work with Christian and Jewish groups and nonbelievers to foster understanding and partnerships. He was very outspoken against terrorism and taught us a lot about what our responsibilities are as American citizens. In the 30 years of work he did, I can count on one hand the number of times he was mentioned in mainstream media.
He brought the Nation of Islam into orthodox, mainstream Islam, but he had a very individual way of thinking, because he learned Islam directly from the Koran, and nobody ever taught him. He learned Arabic at a young age and studied the classics on his own. And he was largely ignored.
There are a lot of mainstream imams who lead Muslim conferences and conventions, and I never see those people in the media, ever. The people that I see, we [the American Muslim community] don't recognize them. We have no idea who these people are. I'd never heard of Anwar Al-Awlaki when the U.S. killed him and started talking about him as a terrorist. But these huge conventions that take place in America, the leaders of those things are never on TV.
So when the police murder yet another unarmed African-American kid, all police aren't questioned about that, know what I mean? When U.S. soldiers pose with dead bodies or torture and dehumanize their prisoners, you're not asking Colin Powell about that, "Do you denounce that?" Obviously, he denounces it. You don't ask a police chief in another city, "Do you denounce the way they killed Amadou Diallo?"
What I do is I speak my truth, and then people can apply that to current events however they need to. I will say this -- people are insulting us just because they have the power to do it. People are intentionally hurting us and insulting what's sacred to us for no other reason than just to do it. That's terrible. You don't do that to people, especially when you have power over them, when your military and economic system has power over them.
We act as though all other things are equal, but they're not. It's not like talking about the Catholic Church. There's power with the Catholic Church that people respect, even though they're going through a PR crisis.
On the other side, the prophet Mohammed, while he was alive, received all the same criticisms that people are using now. He met those criticisms with love and understanding. He didn't go to war because people criticized him. He went to war when people were attacking him and his community's way of life. He never went to war when he was insulted, even when people grabbed and choked him on the street. He's from the same line of prophets as Jesus, Moses, and Abraham.
So the violent responses are not in the tradition of our prophet. They disrespect our prophet and the legacy he left us. But when you have one group of people in power who have money and influence and can kill you, and they're attacking someone else who's only resource is violence, that group is going to decide that that's the only thing that will get them respect. "You throw a Molotov cocktail, then they respect you -- they don't respect you based on human dignity."
These people killed a diplomat and that's terrible. But how many children have we killed over there? How many of their leaders have we assassinated quietly and secretly? We send remote control planes over there to blow their homes up. It's hard to tell a person in that situation they shouldn't be violent, when that's the only thing that gets them respect. The best tool they have to avoid violence is faith, but now you've disrespected their faith, so what are they left with?
It really has nothing to do with the fact that they're Muslim. If they were truly rooted in Islam, they'd go on about living according to their truth and not resorting to violence for the sake of violence. That's what Islam says. But human nature is a different thing.
On a related note, whenever people write about you, they attach all these qualifiers. You're a "Muslim rapper," or a "Minnesota rapper," or in one recent review, a "white Minnesotan Muslim rapper." Do you wish people would take your music just at face value, or are all those different identities integral to understanding your music?
They all say something about my perspective. I think everybody who writes about me thinks they're the first person to tell those stories. I get it, because my face and my voice don't always match, because people who look like me often don't say the things I say in our society, because they haven't had the same experiences. That's part of what I'm here to do. I'm here to love life and love the people I care about, and I'm here to make music and live my life. But, if I have any public time, even with my small fan base, I have to say the things I know to be true.
As far as the Minneapolis connection, people always want to discuss you in the context of your city and of the whole hip-hop scene there. Is that why you went to Seattle to work on this new album, or did you go there specifically for Jake One?
It was just because Jake was there and I needed to get away and really focus. So much of that year off I had was really focused on my family and community and stuff. I have a lot of demands there [in Minneapolis], so people only leave me alone when I'm out of town. For me to focus on the album and make it what I wanted to be, I had to get out of town.
Considering all the big people Jake One has worked with lately, was that partially behind your decision to work with him? Are you hoping for increased commercial success with this album?
We always put all our life and heart into our music and hope people will hear it. But I chose to work with him because he genuinely wanted to work with me. He's been trying to work with me since I met him in 2000 or 2001. I don't like to chase people, and I only want to work with people who are really, really into working with me.
I could have probably worked with bigger names than him, because if you have the money, they don't turn people down. But I chose him because he always called me every few months over the 10 years we've known each other, asking when we would make an album together. So it made the most sense when Ant couldn't do it. I would have still continued working with Ant if he was able, but he wasn't, so it was a blessing in disguise.
What exactly happened with Ant?
Well Atmosphere changed their tour schedule, and Ant started touring with them this year. We used to do our touring all within like, one year, so we'd tour almost a whole year and not be home at all. Then Slug from Atmosphere had a son and got married, so he wasn't able to do that any more. So they spread their touring out over a few years, and I just knew that Ant wasn't going to be available for a few more years. They tour three weeks, then come home for a month, and so on, and it takes a really long time to get through your tour cycle like that.
So I had to find somebody else, and Jake was so persistent. And I like his music. It was different enough from Ant's music that I knew it would take me to some new situations.
You're talking about this as your relaunch and a new phase in your career. What's your plan after this tour?
It's hard to say. I'd imagine I'll keep working with Jake. Ant and I made a song the other day, actually, before I left. But I just don't know -- they still have a lot of Atmosphere work to do. It's hard to know. I'm not going to stop working with either one of these guys. There are other producers, too, I've had relationships with.
I'll be touring this album for a year minimum, and maybe two. So who knows when I'll get back to work.