“While there is a lower class,” Indiana union leader Eugene V. Debs said in 1918, “I am in it.”
Maybe it’s something in Midwestern water, but the region seems to churn out artists, writers and thinkers who empathize with the marginalized.
These days, nobody carries that banner higher or more fiercely than Minneapolis rapper Brother Ali.
“My head and heart are always with the oppressed people, in every situation,” Ali told Boulder Weekly backstage at Denver’s Ogden Theater Jan. 26. The intense Ali — whose deadpan scowl might be the scariest in rap — has spent his nine-year career crafting fiery rhymes that bounce between self-reflective and powerfully critical of society.
Now — as he prepares to release his third major album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color — Ali says he’s looking for ways to change society, too. He says regular people’s stories, which have been his focus since the 2009 album Us, have the power to change the way people think.
“The number one thing [to change people’s minds] is for average everyday people to raise their voices. To be encouraged to raise their voices,” he says.
The power of stories is a central element in Ali’s art.
“Me telling my stories turned into me telling other people’s stories [then] into this kind of social thing, like telling the collective story,” Ali says.
And he’s never been above confronting his own flaws in the
stories he tells. One of the tracks on 2009’s Us, “Tight Rope,” presents three characters struggling through
their lives despite conflict and disappointment, walking the thin line between
continuing to try and giving up completely. The third verse in particular puts Ali
himself on a tight rope as well — it’s about a closeted gay teen facing his unaccepting
parents. Ali says DJ/Producer Ant of
Atmosphere challenged him to write about a closeted gay teen, a topic unheard of in hip hop.
“The first reaction in my head was, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ That was just my knee-jerk, not-think-about-it reaction,” Ali says. “And so as soon as I had that reaction, then I knew I had to do that.”
Ali says the verse points to one of the aspects of his life he’s less than proud of — and one he’s dedicated to changing.
“I feel like I was done wrong in the sense that I was programmed to hate gay people,” he says. “By the time I was 25, and it came to my attention that I wasn’t completely viewing the world as a human being, it was like, fuck.”
Ali says that “programming” — ideas society imprints in us without us knowing it — is happening to his religion as well. A convert to Islam, Ali says he’s frustrated that Americans are so often programmed to fear Muslims.
“The understanding of Islam in our society is so low,” he says. “People know very little and the little bit they do know is reactionary, it’s fearful.”
He says the moderate Muslims do what they can, but they aren’t heard very often.
“People always say, ‘Hey, we keep on hearing that Islam is moderate, but where are all these people? How come nobody’s criticizing?’ And there’s critique all over,” Ali says. He notes that moderate Muslims are the victims of oppressive governments across the Middle East: “We know Saddam was bad to his people, but who are the people he was bad to?”
Unfortunately, he says, the literalist, fundamentalist, and oppressive members of the faith seem to be the ones in power across the Muslim world. Friends recently encouraged Ali to move with his wife and kids to Saudi Arabia, but he immediately ruled out the country that famously bars women from driving.
“I can’t drive because I’m legally blind. So I’m like, ‘If I come over here, how am I gonna get around?’” he asks.
And, he wonders, how is he going to pray?
“I’d rather have my kids not go to a mosque than go to a mosque where my son and my daughter can’t sit together, where my wife and my daughter gotta sit in a different room … and they’re treated like something’s wrong with them,” Ali continues. “I’d rather not go to a mosque than go to something like that. We’re praying. Fuck all that.”
Another arena for Ali to battle the literalists is the Arabic term jihad.
“I’m a Muslim. I believe in jihad,” he says. “The real jihad, what’s called jihad al-ackbar, the great jihad, is to fight that programming within me.”
Which — and the fundamentalist Muslims would just love this — brings Ali right back to his attitudes toward homosexuality.
“It’s a jihad in myself to love my gay brothers and lesbian sisters unconditionally,” he says.
Adjusting his attitude about homosexuality is important not just on its own but because without it, he can’t work for justice for anyone, Ali says.
“Fighting for justice means it has to be for everybody,” he says. “All fights for justice, whether it’s racial justice or economic justice or sexual justice or sexual orientation justice — all of it — they’re all connected.
“If a human being deserves to be treated with dignity, then that has to apply to everybody. If that’s the premise that we’re fighting for,” Ali says. “And that is it.”
In his battle to embrace the gay community, Ali sees the battle of humanity at large.
“Everybody’s humanity is at stake,” he says. “Humanity and injustice don’t go together. Any time there’s injustice, there’s somebody denying somebody else their humanity. But they’re also in turn denying their own.”
While reversing that “programming” about homosexuality is his current battle, Ali’s spent a much longer time combating racism. He notes that his own personal racial situation is as unique as they come: Born of white parents, the albino rapper first felt at home in the African-American community. For years, as his popularity grew, fans and music critics asked whether — and often assumed that — Ali was black, and Ali says he generally feels closer to black people than white people.
But he’s had to “embrace his whiteness” and the privilege that comes with it, even if he never wanted it, he says. That’s an important step to solving the issue: White people need to set aside concerns about whether they personally are “guilty” of anything.
“It’s not about who’s implicated, it’s not about who’s guilty, it’s not about whodunit,” Ali says. “It’s not Law & Order. We’re not trying to find out, ‘Who do we put in jail?’ We’re trying to figure out who is in a situation to really do something about these realities. … White supremacy is never gonna change until white people address it.”
And he doesn’t mean just a little tweak here and there.
“We see this progress, slow progress. … But we don’t need progress in a system of injustice. We need a radical revolutionary change,” he says. “And that radical revolutionary change has to be in the way everybody in the scenario views themselves.”
That’s where Ali’s upcoming album comes in. Mourning in America is more direct than Ali’s previous work in setting this problem at listeners’ feet.
“It absolutely addresses these issues of poverty and injustice and directly asks myself and the listener to get involved,” he says. “[It’s] a commentary and a call for regular people that aren’t experts to get involved.”
Ultimately, that’s what is keeping Brother Ali going: the urge to get people involved. It’s the reason he thinks the world could still save itself, and he’s hopeful, but not optimistic.
“I’m a hopeful person, but the difference is that an optimist thinks that if you leave it alone and just be optimistic it’ll be OK. And I’ve seen too much evidence to the contrary. If you leave it alone, it will not be OK. It will absolutely not be OK.”
And it’s not too late, Ali says, if society starts paying attention to the marginalized.
“I think there are too many voices that haven’t been heard yet,” he says. “I’ve met too many believers who aren’t in the game yet.”
Ali cites that election-night feeling of waiting for votes to filter in from every district before deciding the winner — or, in this scenario, deciding if the world can be saved.
“You know when they’re trying to figure out who’s going to win an election and they say, ‘There’s a few counties that haven’t reported yet, it’s too early to call it’? I think it’s too early to call it,” he says. “And I think that our people, their votes haven’t been counted yet. Not all the counties are in. So that’s what still gives me hope.
“That’s what I believe in,” Ali says. “I believe in faith and hope.”
Boulder Weekly's Elizabeth Miller was at the Brother Ali show at the Ogden Theatre Thursday night, where Atmosphere made a surprise appearance as the opener. Colorado hip-hop duo, The ReMINDers, also opened. Check out the photos below.