Brother Ali talks community, heart and 'All The Beauty In This Whole Life'

Brother Ali in The Current's studios
Brother Ali in The Current's studios (Nate Ryan | MPR)
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Part 1 - Brother Ali interview from Nov. 15, 2017
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In May 2017, Minneapolis-bred hip-hop artist Brother Ali released his first album in five years, All The Beauty In This Whole Life. He completes the second leg of his Own Light tour with a performance at First Avenue in Minneapolis on Thursday, Nov. 16.

He stopped by The Current to talk about his album, his relationship with the Twin Cities and the impact of music in today's society. He's a talkative fellow, which means it's a delight to have a conversation with him -- but this one got long, so we're splitting the interview into two parts. Enjoy the first below, and find part two here.

Part 1

I'm Hanna Bubser, an intern here at The Current. I am here today with beloved Twin Cities musician, Brother Ali. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Brother Ali: Thank you, I appreciate it.

So, you have fans who have been with you since the very beginning of your career. But, there may be some people that have just jumped on the Brother Ali bandwagon with the release of your newest album, All The Beauty In This Whole Life, back in May. Keeping that in mind, how do you want your music to translate to some of these new fans as well as fans that have been with you for a longer period of time?

I've come to learn that I have very little control over how the music will be received. The best use of my time and focus and energy is to just be as sincere as possible and hope that part translates. We're never going to agree on everything, especially once we start using words and once we start talking about ideas and the world of meaning. We'll understand things differently from time to time but what I think always communicates well is sincerity. I hope as much as possible that I can communicate in a way that's genuine and authentic.

My life story is really unique in the fact that I'm from the Midwest, I'm an albino, my parents are European-American white Midwesterners. I was born in Madison, and then moved around a lot as a kid and then finally settled in Minneapolis when I was 15. Fourteen turning 15. This is my home, this is the only place that I've ever been, long enough for people to know me at different phases of my life. Also, when I moved here, I become a Muslim in north Minneapolis. Now I'm an underground independent hip-hop artist. My life is really unique.

You would say: "Why would anybody be interested in that?" Because I don't share any of my details with any other human being on earth. So, what's the market for this? What I found is that human beings, regardless of the details, the hearts understand the same language. If we really focus on speaking from the heart and speaking to the heart, people actually share secrets -- the things that feel like my secrets -- once they reach another heart. The thing that recognizes them. We understand when we have the same secrets in common.

Not everybody connects with my music. It's not fast food. There was a poet one time that said: "My poetry isn't that navy blue Yankee hat. It's not for everybody. My music is not a white t-shirt. It's not for everybody. My music isn't blue jeans. It's not for everybody." But the people that do connect with it connect with it on a really profound level, and I'm very happy about that.

You mentioned, a little bit, about the "secrets" aspect of your music. Having it feel like secrets. Do you ever feel vulnerable with that kind of music being put out there?

I only think that it's valuable when it's vulnerable, for me. There are other people that are really good at making music for people to just feel like their best self. I started out with Ant from Atmosphere and with Slug from Atmosphere, and with Musab. These early Rhymesayers being the people that I learned to develop my songwriting with. There are people that lean into vulnerability, and people that lean into pain and to fear. That made us unique, in the beginning. Now that's something that the rest of the hip-hop community is really starting to embrace, which I think is a good thing.

As we've gone on in years, our music has become only more relevant because of the fact that with social media, we went basically from looking at media on TV to where all these people look perfect. All these families look perfect. Me and my friends are jacked up. We're messed up. But these people all look perfect, so what's wrong with us? Now, we have social media, where we start branding our own lives. On Instagram, we take the best picture with the best lighting, the best angle, the best day, the best outfit, the best filter. And we only show our best selves. Then we go on Facebook and we only post the most intelligent things and the most positive things. To always give this image of ourselves like I'm constantly slaying it and crushing it at every moment. That's not the truth, that's not real. That dehumanizes us.

What makes us human is our ability to share weakness and our ability to share pain. We can all have our great ideas. Muhammed Ali said: "You can train as much as you want, but the second you get punched in the face, that's when it becomes real. The same is true in life. We can have all the sciences and all the philosophy in the world, but as soon as you start to feel some pain, then you're dealing with the world of meaning. Regardless of how you describe it, that pain is going to force us to try and find the meaning. To either escape or look for meaning.

If you look at art and culture, there's escape culture and there's meaning culture. I'm on the meaning side of things. I'm not on the escape side of things. For the people that want to escape, I really understand that. My music isn't going to speak to them because it's not about escaping. It's about looking for the meaning in it. I'm really grateful to be able to be vulnerable because the value is in the vulnerability. Like I said, my music isn't for everybody, but the people that do connect with it connect with it very powerfully, and it's a conversation and we really nourish each other.

Keeping that meaning in mind there with your newest album, All The Beauty In This Whole Life, as I was listening to it, I feel like I got a lot of that it's coming from the heart, there's some positivity in there. There's also some real heavy topics that you discuss as well. With that meaning, with that mix in there, what are you hoping that people take away from that album?

I hope to create a space for there to be an environment in that music. A space where people can be genuine and authentic. If I come and be my most genuine self, or as much as I can muster at that time, it allows people to relate to it and to have permission to be vulnerable and permission to be genuine and to be authentic. It's not that my music is all sad. There's a lot of celebrating.

You listen to this album, you hear songs about suicide and the experience that we have when we lose somebody to suicide. To just stop pretending. Why would we have only music where I got a feeling tonight's gonna be a great, great night? Yeah, that happens sometimes, but what happens the next morning? What happens when I'm not drunk in the club? What happens when I'm not driving around in this nice car? Or, what if I never get to have that experience? Why are we all pretending that we haven't all lost somebody to suicide? Why are we all pretending that we're not all struggling with porn addiction on some level? Whether it's us, or somebody around us? Why are we all pretending like we're in a society where social media is not robbing us of our ability to sit together? We're going to lean in to these things.

But then in the moments where we're celebrating because we've gone through this pain together, in the happy celebratory moments of the music, it's real. It's real and it's not manufactured. In terms of what people take away, I think if anybody that listens to my music has permission to be real for a moment, even for a split second, then it'll all be worth all the years that I put into making it.

And that was your first release in about five years, correct?

Yeah. Part of what's beautiful about being an underground independent artist is that I don't have to be on a production schedule that the music industry demands. Basically, all of these pre-modern human realities that we have, whether it's health and wellness, whether it's motherhood, whether it's storytelling, whether it's culture...all these things have been turned into industries. Now we're expected to operate at the speed and the pace with the priorities of a buyable, sellable commodity. I'm not interested in that. To me, I'm not Kanye West famous, I'm not Prince famous, nor do I have their wealth in terms of money. But, what I do have, is the ability to set my own agenda based on what my heart wants to do.

I was at a point in my life where I did a lot of community activism and organizing and I released a lot of political music, and I started to realize that I'm not as sincere as I want to be. I'm learning a lot about how to voice my opinions and sound smart and feel right, but that's not helping my heart. I said: "I want to be around people that are masters of the heart." As a Muslim, I go to the Sufis. I go to the Sufi masters, and I discovered that there are living Sufi masters in this time. People that are the inheritors of Rumi. People that are the inheritors of the great Sufi masters. Ultimately, they are the inheritors of the Prophet Muhammad and of the prophets and the Sages. These people exist.

We say no one is perfect in these modern times but I don't believe it. I know human beings that are perfected human beings. The ability to sit with them and have them give me as much as I can receive about the technology of how to get the ugly stuff out of the heart. How to discipline the ego so it stays out of the way. These are not things I've mastered at all, but being around masters makes me know it's possible. It's possible to discipline the ego. It's possible for it to be easy to love, easy to forgive, easy to forgive myself, easy to forgive other people. It's possible to tune the heart like an instrument and to get it for it to be healthy again, so it's breathing again. So when I have pain I can have it and then breathe it out. The same with joy, I can experience joy and then breathe it out. For the heart to be able to breathe and to expand and contract.

I didn't want to put out music for a period of time. I didn't feel like I wanted to say something to the world. I felt like I had a lot to learn and I still do. But by being around those people, they just inspired me with so much beauty. That's what I experienced with them was, "All the beauty in this whole life, is reflecting your light." To start seeing beauty in these great people made it so that I could see beauty in myself and I could see beauty in people. Even as flawed as I am, I can still see beauty.

Even as flawed as the people around us are, we can get to a point where all we see is their beauty. If we see other than that, it almost would embarrass us. It almost would be like accidentally seeing your best friend naked or something like that: "Oh, I didn't mean to see that! I meant to give you your privacy." Rather than being entertained and energized by other people's faults, it would be like: "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to walk in on you in the shower." It would feel the way you feel when you accidentally walk in the bathroom and somebody's in there doing something private. It's like: "Oh my god I'm so sorry." How do I shift from when I see somebody's flaws being like: "Look at them." And it gives me energy. How do I change the heart so that when I see that, I feel like I walked in on them in the bathroom and I'm actually embarrassed for myself? Being with those great people can do that.

That's why I took so long in between projects. Because it took that long to feel like I had something to say. Why should I be forced to speak if I don't have something that I really want to share? That's the beauty and the benefit of being independent. The audience in Minneapolis does a lot to support us. To allow us that freedom and that independence. Whereas Slug and Atmosphere, they don't have that luxury. Because we're all living off them. This whole music industry is living off Slug and Atmosphere. It doesn't matter what genre of music you're in, all of us are living off them whether we realize it or not. Especially anybody that's in the hip-hop space. We're all living off them. Whether we are able to understand that and express the gratitude for that or not. There was a period where we were all living off Prince, and to a degree we still are. But right now, we are all living off what Atmosphere does. So Atmosphere has to produce and they have to be productive because they're keeping all of us alive. For me, I'm not in that situation so to take that time is just one of the luxuries that I have.

You mentioned the Minneapolis community for you as a musician. I know in the past you've talked about it being a very tight and supportive community for you.

There's also a lot of politics. One of the things I've discovered by being a Minnesotan -- I've been a Minnesotan for 25 years now. So I hope that qualifies me to speak as a Minnesotan, and I represent us wherever I go around the world. Not only in indie rap circles, but I'm a person that's shown love and respect in traditional hip-hop circles. So I hope that I have some right to talk about us. One of the things that we do is that we're too shy, it's impolite to talk about ourselves individually. But one of the things that we do instead of that, or as a weird bypass, is we over-worship our community. We act like everything that we do is the greatest thing that ever happened. A lot of the time, that stops us from really talking about [the fact] that there are a lot of really wack, petty politics in this community too. A lot of times we celebrate people and it's not the person we're celebrating, we're celebrating ourselves. We're celebrating our own celebration of them. That's something that, the more I travel, the more I notice about us.

I really genuinely love this community and I would love to also see us be more honest about ourselves. One of the things is that we love underdogs and when people do great things for us, we criticize them. We start to ignore them, we shift our pain and we start taking these little passive-aggressive shots at them. I didn't start Rhymesayers. I was a young kid. These guys are only six or seven years older than me, but when I'm 20 and they're 27 that feels like a whole generation. I still see these guys as my mentors and my big brothers. Siddiq, the president of Rhymesayers, is like a dad to me. He's like a father to me even though he's only seven years older than me. Now that I'm 40, it's not the same, but I still look at these people in a certain way.

One of the things that I'm seeing now that I travel a lot, is the music community really worshipping underdogs, which is fine and championing underdogs. But it's to the degree that we're starting to see Rhymesayers and Atmosphere as the machine, as this thing that we take for granted. As though they're not underdogs in the world, fighting for all of us. That's something that really bothers me. I think that one of the things that we need to cultivate is that when people from our community that start as underdogs become successful and then show up and serve us constantly, the way that these people put on Soundset and have an entire stage dedicated to local music. No other festival in the world does that. They don't do that in LA, they don't do that in New York, they don't do that in the South. They don't do that anywhere else. The fact that there's a record store that has open mics and seminars and opportunities to learn and grow and engage. The fact that there is a Rhymesayers class at IPR. The fact that there is a Rhymesayers scholarship and the fact that the work that Rhymesayers does, the radio show here...for years there was a radio show at KFAI.

Rhymesayers is an attempt by people who have figured out how to be successful to give back. I see myself as a beneficiary of that. I didn't create that part, that one already existed and I came around as an MC trying to figure out how to do this thing. I would offer as a gentle reminder to our community that, by championing underdogs, you don't start mitigating the gratitude that we owe to the champions. To the people who really champion us and who give us our lifeblood.

There was a lot of funny talk around Prince before he died. I started hearing all these great stories about Prince after he died, Allah have mercy on him. I think he might've been some sort of saint. A lot of people had funny things to say until he died, and now everybody's got these great stories.

The only reason I say that is because every time I come in here, we talk about how beautiful this scene is. And it is very beautiful, and there's a lot to celebrate. But I would be offering less than my most authentic self if I didn't say that when I travel and I come back, one of the things that I notice is that every time Atmosphere is written about...we were in Australia selling out shows when they announced Soundset. There was a story, it wasn't The Current, but there was a story written about us that said: "Even local people are on Soundset too, like Atmosphere and Brother Ali." While we're reading this, they're talking about these big international acts that are celebrated in the mainstream. "Even local favorites like Brother Ali and Atmosphere are performing as well." I'm reading this groggy on the airplane from our seventh sold-out show in a row in Australia. It's cool to take little shots at the champion. I'll say that it doesn't matter. It's not affecting Rhymesayers; it's not affecting Atmosphere. Nobody's losing any sleep over that. But I'm saying that in our local community, the up-and-coming people, I would just caution myself and others not to fall into that. Because it's robbing us of our ability to inherit from the great people around us.

You are involved in community organizing, and you went in quite a bit about the Twin Cities community, but in general I'm interested in: for you, what are the qualities of a really productive and good community?

That's an amazing question. That's the best question I've been asked in a long time. People ask me the same questions the same questions over and over. The question is better than the answer, first of all.

First of all, there's virtue. There's a difference between virtues and ideals. Virtues are timeless universals. Ideals change with whatever our whims are. Whatever our whims are, determine our ideals. If we think about, what's the ideal now? That's different from what people thought the ideals were 20 years ago. The virtues never change. The virtues exist across time and across geography. Except for modern people. Modern people have fallen for the idea of ideals and have given up virtues. We're the first people in the history of the world that think we're better than our parents. We think we're smarter than our ancestors because we know how to use the iPhone and they don't. We think that we're making progress. Even this idea of "progressive." Obviously, in terms of politics, which side of the coin speaks to me most directly is probably the left. But that doesn't mean that I will buy on wholesale. The idea of saying we're progressive, we might be making progress from 30 years ago, but are making progress from the First Nations people from 1,000 years ago? Who knew how to live in this land and honor it sustainably? I don't think we've made progress from them. I think that they were light-years ahead of us and knew more about how to build a community and family than we do.

So, I would say virtues, timeless universal virtues, are the key to that. I think the things that will allow us to get to that is that I think it's really important to have a connection to pre-modern wisdom traditions. Whether we see that as a religious tradition or a spiritual tradition or a cultural tradition or a healing tradition, something that's pre-modern. Because, in human history these last 100 years, we're the weirdos. The whole pre-modern tradition is pretty much in unison. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about Ojibwe or Lakota ancestors or Turkish, Ottoman, Persian ancestors. Or you're talking about West African ancestors or you're talking about South East Asian ancestors. All those ancestors, they had it all in common. We're the weirdos that think we're better than everybody else. Something pre-modern to inform us. Doesn't mean we had to take on everything that they did, but something to check our modern ideas up against and our modern ways of doing things. If we think that we're the best people that have ever come along, then we're completely lost.

Also, a connection to elders. You have to have elders that are the living embodiments that see us in ways that we can never see ourselves. We have to honor them and venerate them. I think that those are the keys: timeless universal virtues that are really encapsulated in pre-modern traditions and embodied in elders.

You talked about the modern age that we are living in and we talked a little bit earlier about how it has been five years since you released something. How do you think this album would be different if it had been released five years ago or what do you think has changed since then in how people are receiving it?

The album I did five years ago was a really political album encouraging people to become involved on a grassroots level. It's weird because Obama was president at that time, and for the most part, the left, in particular, was pretty comfortable. I headed to the UK, so I was just talking to British interviewers all day. One of the things that I always remember when I go there is that they have a symbolic leader in their monarch and then they have their actual political leader in their prime minister. I think there's something really good about that. We demand that the one person be everything, one family be everything. The Obamas were probably the best symbolic leaders we ever had. This devil that's in there now is probably the worst we've ever had symbolically.

In terms of legislation, I don't know. When Bush was the president, he passed the Patriot Act, which means that the government is allowed to track me, and they do. I'm constantly being interfered with just for making a song called "Uncle Sam Goddamn" and making political music. I have not committed a crime ever. Except, I was arrested for protesting one time and was given a misdemeanor and did community service to pay it off. Other than that, I'm not a drug user, no crimes. I don't even have a parking ticket. I can't drive, but you know what I'm saying? I'm not a person that breaks laws.

Part of me being a Muslim is that I believe in the contract that I have with my country. I'm not allowed, it's a religious duty to not break the law. Harrassed constantly because of something George Bush put in pace. When Obama came along he put in the National Defense Authorization Act, which means that I can be imprisoned with no cause. I've thought a lot about what happens if somebody kills me for what I believe in. That means that my family has closure, I have life insurance, I can get life insurance, things like that. If I'm put in Guantanamo Bay, there's no life insurance for that. There's no closure for that. [Which] is better for me? I don't know, I can't say. Maybe that album that I put out five years ago, had I released that one last May, maybe it would have been received better.

All of this, and now I'm at the point where I've been community organizing for long enough to know that if I don't get my heart right, I'm just going to replace my oppressor. If I learn the technology of power, but I don't learn the technology of loving properly when I get power, I'm just going to be the new oppressor. I'm not going to actually replace oppression, I'm just going to be in the place of an oppressor instead. How the hell is that better for anybody? Especially me.

I'd rather be oppressed than be an oppressor. Of course, I'd rather be free than be oppressed, but I'm not free until I'm free from my own ego and my own low desires and my own obsession with my own self. I think that the fact that now everybody wants to be woke, whereas five years ago when I put this out, the people on the left that listened to me were like: "Yeah, you're tripping." Now, they're all on what I was on five years ago. Maybe after this person isn't the president anymore and maybe we get somebody better, and maybe we get to: "I like seeing a black mayor in St. Paul." I like the fact that people that are identifying at different places in society are getting elected, I like that. It feels good to me. Is that going to solve the problem? Not if our hearts aren't right.

Maybe in five years, people will start realizing: "I need some sort of nourishment from my soul. I need some way to check my ego." The modern world is not going to do that. Social media isn't going to do that. Woke-ness isn't going to check my ego. Maybe in five years, people will be ready for this album. What it shows me is that I'm on my own trajectory. I'm doing what I need to do. I'm talking about the truth that I'm experiencing at this moment. I'm really happy with that. The fact that anybody wants to hear that is a major honor and that's a major responsibility. So I hope that I'm able to handle it with some degree of honor.

Brother Ali continues his talk with The Current here.

1 Photos

  • Brother Ali First Avenue poster
    Brother Ali First Avenue poster (Courtesy First Avenue)