“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
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
“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,
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
“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,
“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
“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
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.
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
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.