Brother Ali's 2012 full-length Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color doubles as a spirited call-to-arms, and at various points on the recording the Minneapolis-based MC casts himself as David preparing to do battle with Goliath and "the little fire flickering within the riot."
Brother Ali’s 2012 full-length Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color doubles as a spirited call-to-arms, and at various points on the recording the Minneapolis-based MC casts himself as David preparing to do battle with Goliath and “the little fire flickering within the riot.”
“I know the masses want to sleep/ And they would just rather hear me rapping to the beat,” he rhymes on the album-opening “Letter to My Countrymen.” “But I want to pass this planet to my son/ A little better than it was when they handed it to me.”
“One of the key aspects of privilege is you can just tune out whatever you don’t want to hear, and I felt like [my audience] was doing that with a lot of what I was saying [on earlier albums],” said Ali, born Jason Newman 37 years ago, in a late October phone interview. “They would just go to the hopeful, happy, feel-good parts of the music. I wanted to make an album where you could not escape the inherent message.”
Throughout, the rapper takes direct aim at the countless ills he sees plaguing society, lashing out at the government’s misguided funding priorities (“Who decided you don’t got enough to teach children/ State spending billions on stadiums and prisons”), the increased influence of big business on the political process (“Make you think you’re taking back your nation/ Then they turn it over to a major corporation”) and financial institutions all-too-willing to displace the citizenry in order to grow the bottom line (“Houses are seized and they tossed in the street/ The orphans of greed in the culture of deceit”).
Yet even standing amid the ashes of an America he sees as in flames, there’s never a sense Ali is ready to call in the time of death — a point he lays out most clearly on “Gather Round,” where he dismisses his past apathy and trumpets the power of a unified, motivated populace to bring about sweeping change.
“Numbers are the only thing the people gain strength in,” he rhymes. “If we’re going to change we got to step up our relations.”
This more optimistic school of thought is the byproduct of a tectonic personal shift the rapper attributes in part to the maturation process — “In our 20s we’re trying to figure out who we are … [and once we reach our 30s] it’s natural we start thinking about other people,” he said in 2012 — and in part to a life-altering 2010 pilgrimage to Mecca, a Muslim holy city and the capital of the Makkah Province in Saudi Arabia.
“I had gotten away from my religious and spiritual life, and from really being involved in my community,” he said. “I realized I was off-balance, and I needed to become a whole, full person again. Being with that many people and feeling that kind of brotherhood gives you a different view of humanity.”
Returning stateside, he reengaged with a number of community organizations, volunteering with Occupy Homes Minneapolis — an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement geared toward curbing home evictions — and trumpeting the work of Voices for Racial Justice, a grassroots group embroiled in an ongoing campaign to overturn restrictive voter identification laws.
“I believe the real power is in the people, and in communities organizing to achieve their goals,” Ali said. “I have zero hope in the system, but I have full hope in the people.”
Even as the rapper has adopted a more global perspective, his music has maintained its personal touch. On Mourning nothing appears to be off-limits, and verses hit on everything from Ali’s own struggles with depression to his father’s suicide. Considering the private nature of these admissions, it was a bit surprising when the MC noted his most recent recordings are so unguarded he doubts they’ll ever see the light of day.
“I made some songs I produced myself, and they’re very, very, very personal,” said the rapper, who was born in Madison, Wisconsin to a mother who taught special needs children and a fundraiser father, both of whom wrestled with numerous personal demons (Ali made a tentative peace with his father, but remained estranged from his mother, who died when he was in his early 20s). “They’re almost dangerously, brutally honest … and I don’t know if I’ll ever release them.”
Rather, Ali said, he expects any new material to continue to meld autobiographical elements, storytelling, and political and social commentary — all while advancing his already considerable skillset.
“I think there’s a lot of value to practicing cultural expressions and art forms and having excellence in them,” said the rapper, who intends to hunker down and begin work on a new album following the completion of this current tour. “When people of color and poor people say, ‘My art is important,’ it’s saying, ‘I’m important. My life is important. And what I have to say matters.’”
Photo courtesy of Brother Ali