writing << music

[originally published in Beyond Race Magazine]

brother ali: grit, hope, and truth

Brother AliThe first paragraph of just about every piece written on Brother Ali, the lauded albino Muslim MC from Minneapolis, is sure to take note that he’s an albino, Muslim, and highly-lauded MC from Minneapolis. Google it. It can be a mixed blessing for an artist with such unusual qualities, in that the novelty of their bio can overshadow whatever they may (or may not) have to offer musically. A lot of writers who come upon an elephant in the room sometimes find it difficult to take their eyes off the housebound pachyderm long enough to notice whether the walls were adorned with masterpieces or with chicken scratch. But those who look beyond his novelty will find in Brother Ali a soulful poetry of grit that has been a favorite of a small (until fairly recently) circle of critics and bobbing hip-hop heads. “I mean, I don’t mind people writing about those things: being albino and this and that, but I don’t think that should be the story,” a what sounded like very sleep-deprived Ali told us on the phone from the road supporting his phenomenal new album on Rhymesayers, The Undisputed Truth. “I think the story should be about a traditional MC who is also trying to add a new perspective to what hip-hop has, a person who is not trying to permit themselves to be anything other than what they already are.”

Ali (born Jason Newman), first made waves nationally with his critically-acclaimed Shadows on the Sun LP in ’03. The album spawned two “singles” that made the rounds on the college radio and file-sharing circuit: “Room with a View,” a hyper-personal street-level tale of poverty and family dysfunction in the twin cities and “Forest Whitaker,” a silver-lining track about loving yourself despite failing to live up to the media’s idea of beauty. After a tour opening for the perennially-just-on-the-cusp-of-superstardom labelmates, Atmosphere, and a release of ’04’s Champion EP (an ode to his hero and self-given namesake Muhammad Ali), Ali’s rep started to spread as a favorite of fellow MCs and hip backpack folk. So, why the three-year break when things were just starting to cook? “I mean I had so many life-changing things going on in between. And so, you can’t rush something like that or force it, you gotta let it come when it comes. And I’m fortunate enough to be on an independent label run by close friends who’ve got my back and care about me, so I can really take the time.” Some of those “life-changing things” were the break-up of his unstable marriage, finding himself temporarily homeless, and being granted sole custody of his son, a situation captured in one of The Undisputed Truth’s most poignant tracks, a letter to his son, “Faheem”:

And you’re gonna have questions as you grow
But there’s certain negative things that you don’t need to know
And baby boy, that’s what this is about
We live, learn, and figure it out
I just pray that you don’t remember us sleeping on the floor
And me cleaning mouse droppings out of your toys
It took a lot of hard work for us to get where we at
And young man, we ain’t quittin’ at that

On wax, Ali’s voice is a booming baritone whose tenderness reveals it has taken its punches from the world, but is still standing strong. It’s been compared to Ice Cube, but really it’s delta bluesman walking in Midwestern cadence. Some writers have mistakenly labeled Ali as an African-American albino (both his parents were Caucasian)—perhaps thrown-off by the fact that his soulful intonation often rolls through subject matter that consists of the politics of poverty and the Muslim faith he found to guide him through it all. Music is the rhythmic outcome of pain transformed into hope, or merely reflected. And as it turns out, urban poverty can be similar (while not the same) for folks whose flesh is painted nighttime sky as for those who are a bit closer to fallen snow. “All music in America comes from the slave songs, which were talking about how ‘God’s gonna save us’ and ‘he’s gonna strike these people.’ It was an escape for a race of people seeing through the trouble and also the joy in everything. And every kind of music in America came from that and hip-hop is no different.”

The Undisputed Truth debuted as the number one selling album in all of Minnesota. Not just on the hip-hop charts, mind you, the number one album. Like over Celine Dion and such. Produced by Ant of Atmosphere, the album is a very accessible lesson in funk-soul production. Often danceable, but without a hint of krunk, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine some of the tracks, as personal, spiritual-minded, and political as they may be, finding a home on the lapdance-club P.A. alongside Mims and Lil’ John. So, really, there’s no good reason even a conscious hip-hop album like this shouldn’t be featured on MTV2 or commercial radio, right? “No. I get no love from mainstream radio. But there was this one DJ who just moved to Minnesota from Boston and he was asking people ‘why don’t you play anything on [the Minneapolis-based] Rhymesayers, these people are on the Billboard charts and they’re right in our backyard?’ So he had a competition show everyday where he puts two new tracks up against each other where it’s like the new Ne-Yo song up against a new Akon song, and listeners would call in to vote on them. So one time he played our track [“Truth Is”]. We didn’t even know he was gonna do it, and it won, and it won again the next day, and then again the next day, and then again, ya know. People wanted to hear it.” In a cooler world, where words were appreciated over wounds, Ali would already be a superstar. But he is working on it. In the next few months, he’ll be touring nationally as a headliner for the first time, hitting up some of the big festivals like SXSW and Coachella, and even being included on this summer’s traveling Rock the Bells festival alongside the likes of Sage Francis, Wu-Tang, and Public Enemy. Ali’s put the truth out there, and it looks like the world might just be ready to start listening.