Brother Ali, continued: On Islamophobia, authenticity, and local heroes

Brother Ali performs in The Current's studios
Brother Ali performs in The Current's studios (Nate Ryan | MPR)
Part 2 - 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. Here's the second; if you missed the first, head back this way.

Part 2

Hanna Bubser: So how did you choose to write about beauty and all the experiences you talk about in All the Beauty in This Whole Life? How did you pick what to write about and what to show the world in this whole album?

There's three men that really put that in me. One of them is the greatest living poet on earth at this moment: Amir Sulaiman. He's the greatest living poet. He's also a dear friend of mine. We also lived together for a period of time. And he was one of the ones that really inspired this album. His voice is on the album; he narrates the album. So you put the CD in and you hear his voice say, "I am not beautiful. I am an elegant beast." You know what I'm saying? And you hear him throughout the album. And he's really the narrator.

Another one is a teacher and a friend by the name of Usama Canon, who is my generation's greatest Muslim teacher and spiritual leader.

And then the third one is my spiritual mentor. His name is Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah. So if you watch the Own Light" video that we filmed in the Pacific Northwest, you see him in the beginning, with a beautiful turban on. And he says, "Greetings to you all in the language of love, the universal language. Use your hearts for what hearts are for. Fill them with beauty. Do not fill them with ugliness. The human heart, if given faith, could blind the world."

Those three people are the ones that encouraged me to make another album, and then they filled me with inspiration. Now I have no shortage of things to say, because of what I've seen from these three human beings. So I really owe this whole portion of my career to them. My new album.

And then of course, my wife plays a big role in all of that as well. And also Ant, the producer, plays a huge role. So you can't really be free to make music if your life's not good. And life's good when your wife's good. I have the best wife. And I'm not just saying that 'cause she's sitting here.

Also, I can't express myself if the music isn't right. Ant always shows up for me as a brother, and as a lover, and as a friend. [He] sees what my state is and then makes the music to accompany my state. So he gets a sense for where I'm at, and he makes the music for that. And then I write the songs based on the music that he makes.

So you've been on tour with this album. How has it felt touring with this music? What's been your favorite part of it?

It's the most beautiful experience in my life. I met with these people even before I released this new album. So I started this touring cycle. I'd made the new album, but nobody'd heard it yet. Atmosphere was kind enough to let me open for them on tour yet again, after 15 years. They opened the door to me again, as they do for so many people.

You know, this music's seen as cursed if we stop thanking Atmosphere, and we stop thanking Prince, and we stop thanking our great ones. It'll never go any further. You see Atmosphere come on the scene, and they immediately are thanking the Micronauts and including them, because they inspired them. They're immediately shouting out Husker Du and Dillinger Four. When Atmosphere sells out Red Rocks, for example -- one of the biggest music venues in the country and most important -- Craig Finn [of Lifter Puller and the Hold Steady] is there. He's not doing it without Craig Finn. If we missed that part, we've missed the whole thing.

They brought me on tour again, and I was perfoming my old music with a new intention. And I saw the way it affected people change. From being like, "Yeah! This is dope!" to tears. From doing my old angry music. Just because my intention changed -- just because I sat with great people. You know, you go to the chiropractor, and they realign your back. These people are the chiropractors of hearts. And just by being with them, they reach inside you without even any words, necessarily. And they just rearrange your heart. You just cry the whole time you're with them. Then you come out ready to really embrace the world with a new state.

But then, releasing the music and having people hear the music, and being able to travel with the people I want to travel with, and with the intention that I want to -- there's intention in every part of what we present. So, Last Word is my DJ. You come to my show on Thursday night at First Ave, you'll see that the music he's playing is dope hip-hop music; funk music; music from different genres. But there's nothing in that music that degrades or demoralizes anybody. You'll never hear the b-word in this music. You'll never hear the n-word in this music. You'll never hear women described as sexual objects. Even the DJing -- even if it's a dope song, if there's anything in there that's degrading anybody, Last Word will make an edit of it, so that part won't be there. The beauty will be there, but anything they're saying about anybody is just going to be taken out and replaced with something beautiful.

The stage set is this beautiful Arabic graffiti. These beautiful Islamic, geometric designs. Like, these Moroccan wood panels that we had built, by hand, by somebody in the Twin Cities.

Everybody that steps on stage will be coming from a position of beauty. Especially Sa-Roc, who's the newest member of Rhymesayers' family: incredibly powerful, incredibly strong. And genius. To see a black woman be a strong and beautiful genius is really important, and it's really healing for me. And it's really healing for women, and it's really healing for black people. And it's really healing for people who have been called white for 400 years and don't know how to see themselves as anything other than that to see a strong, powerful, beautiful black woman be a genius in front of them. Very, very healing. Whether people know how to describe it or not, I watch the response that they have.

The people that are coming to hip-hop, they're coming there because they know: in the transition into being called white, I've lost a lot of my humanity. And I can't get it back from just sitting with other white people. That's why we've rushed to black culture the way we do. It's like, I'm not going to regain what I lost by people who have also lost it. The African diaspora has to be the source for the missing humanity. And in order to do that, they have to be venerated, and they have to be respected. They have to be the leaders. They're the leaders of the healing. If it's anything other than that, then we're completely lost.

There's now this new obsession: white people obsessing over whiteness in the name of dismantling whiteness. This man came to the great Sufi master, and he says, "Why can't I get it right?" And he said, "Well, because in trying to imitate the Prophet Muhammad outwardly, you grew a big beard. And you're obsessed with your beard. You're obsessed with the outer thing." So the man goes and he misses the next class, 'cause he's tearing his beard out with his hands. His friends say, "Why isn't he still getting it?" Because he's still obsessed over his beard. So in dismantling whiteness, we still are centering whiteness, and we're still obsessed with whiteness.

The way out is to listen to the people we thought we were actually doing this to. The people that we thought we were actually robbing of their humanity have become more human. And they're the original human beings. Africans are the original human beings. So really, in all this talk of modern progressiveness, really, what we're saying is, "We're so much better than the Africans. We've evolved so much from Africa. Now we're enlightened." But the reason that we go to their culture so much is because we know that we're never going to get it right on our own. They're the healers.

So seeing Sa-Roc onstage is really healing for a lot of people. It's important for my daughter to see that. But it's also important for me to see.

Immortal Technique will be there. He hasn't been on the whole tour, but he was at my first sold-out First Ave show, the first time I ever headlined there. So because I haven't done it in so long, I invited him to come back. Immortal Technique expresses it in a hyper-masculine, alpha-male way of expressing it, but it's still grounded and rooted in love. So having all those expressions is really important to me. And then we'll come on and try to provide whatever we can, as well.

So you talked about how your show is at First Avenue [on] Thursday the 16th. How does it feel coming back to Minneapolis to perform? Does it feel like a coming home?

It's hard to say, because I don't know what the actual experience will be like. I've learned that trying to imagine an experience -- to premeditate an experience -- you can never go right with that. Either you imagine it being this amazing thing and it's not that, or you're nervous about it, and then it turns out to be just fine. I've never premeditated an experience and been right. So I try to avoid that.

So I don't know what it's going to be like. I know I'm going with the greatest of intentions, and also, I believe in intention and will together. That intention alone is not enough -- you've got to put some work into it. But work without good intention is also a problem, too, so for me, it's like: I've put the work in. I've been touring for the last year. I made the best album that I could. I've done everything I can in my power to get this thing right. I feel [as] prepared as I possibly can be, and people are buying the tickets. The VIP meet-and-greet sold out. We had to increase the numbers twice, and it still sold out. To the point where if we increase the numbers anymore, I won't have one-on-one time with people. So we had to limit it, but. That shows me that there are people here who actually want to have a face-to-face conversation about this music, which I think is a really good sign.

I'm sorry -- I talk so, so long about everything that you ask me about. Please forgive me for that.

No! That's totally fine. I am curious, though: when you're back in the Cities, are there any places that you go? Any food places or places you like to check out while you're here?

Of course. The most important thing is my home. I like to check that place out. You know what I'm saying? [laughs] I don't get to be there very much. I haven't been home for more than four days at a time in two years. So unfortunately, I'm a visitor at my house. My family makes a lot of huge sacrifices for me to do what I'm doing.

But I love World Street Kitchen, and of course, the ice cream shop [next door]. Milkjam. I really love Glam Doll Donuts. I really love Victor's; Brasa Rotisserie, especially the one in St. Paul.

You know, I spend more time away from the Twin Cities than I spend in the Twin Cities. I would be embarrassed, but the truth is just the truth; I know Oakland and Chicago better than I know the Twin Cities at this point. So one of the things that I'm looking forward is: I'm going to take a break from the road for a while. I look forward to really just being in the Twin Cities again. I've been outside it for so long that it feels like an old friend that I haven't checked in with for a long time.

Also, of course, the Rhymesayers office and Fifth Element is a really important place to be.

One of the things that I've really noticed a need for -- that I'll be talking about more in the future -- is curating space and creating and cultivating intentional spaces for spiritual seeking and healing. I get a lot of tweets and messages that say -- you know, every day we do 30-50 VIP meet-and-greets. And almost every person says -- maybe they're Muslim or Christian, or maybe they'll say, "I'm an atheist, but the way you talk about spirituality -- if you had a church, or if you had a place to come talk about spiritual connectedness, I would go to it." That's been said to me by so many listeners and friends, and my teachers, that that's obviously the next phase of my work. Being in the Twin Cities, that's something I'm really looking to be intentional about.

So, last question here: I have a quote that you actually said that I want to get a little feedback from you on. You said of All the Beauty in This Whole Life that, "Every word and note is intended to either reflect beauty or expose the ugliness that blocks us from living lives of meaning." So what I want to know is: What does a "life of meaning" entail to you? How do you define a life of meaning?

First of all, you have to believe in the world of meaning. So much of what the modern world is trying to convince us is that nothing means anything. Some of my best friends are atheists, [and] what I find is that the ideas they reject about the Creator and about religion -- I reject those ideas, too. Those aren't authentic spirituality to me.

A lot of what the modern world says to us is that we're an accident. That there's nothing and no one for us to be grateful toward. So they're robbing us of gratitude. When in reality, it's like, "Am I a grateful person?" If so, gratitude is nothing if there's not an object of gratitude. Is there someone or something that I feel indebted to? Is there something or someone that I cry over, like, "Why was I given the gift to exist?" What'd I do to deserve existence? Nothing. Something greater than me brought me into existence.

So, first, it's important to just acknowledge that there is meaning. That I'm not just a collection of cells that came together by chance. I reject that, completely. And it doesn't mean that I reject science. This idea that there's only religion that rejects science and science that rejects religion -- I'm sorry, that's a dichotomy that was created in the last couple hundred years. And I reject it!

I come from the Islamic tradition that gave the world the algorithm. That gave the world the number zero. That gave the world mathematics. That gave the world many of the physical sciences. So miss me with this idea that if I believe in the spiritual world, that I have to reject one in favor of the other. No, I'm sorry. You can have that if you want. I'll pass on that dichotomy.

The physical world is here because of the world of meaning: the unseen meaning. That doesn't require a person to believe in anybody's conception of God or religion. I do believe that there is, because I've had an experience that made me see that there is truth in these wisdom traditions. I personally believe not [in] wholesale, generic, mainstream Islam. I look at mainstream Islam the same way I look at mainstream hip-hop. Or mainstream punk. Or mainstream food. This is a cheap imitation of the real thing. And if you've never experienced the real thing, then I understand why you're not into it. If I've only had Taco Bell, then I don't get to have an opinion about Mexican food. I don't blame a person who's only had Pita Pit [and says], "Yeah, I don't really like Lebanese food that much." I'm sorry, but I've eaten in aunties' houses in Lebanon.

I've had experience with Islam. And even the average Muslim hasn't had that experience. I don't know why I've had it. But I'm not being my fullest, most authentic self if I don't say that there's a reason the people in power are so afraid of it. And it's not because they're afraid of physical violence, 'cause they love physical violence. The people in power -- it's their biggest industry. They love nothing more. Who's that that great white comedian that passed away a few years ago? He had the list of the seven words you can't say. George Carlin! So he talked about the owners; the 1%.

Those people don't fear Islam because of physical violence. Their entire existence is physical violence. They love violence. They're the biggest warmakers in the history of humanity; they've killed more people than the whole pre-modern world combined. They're not afraid of physical violence! They're afraid of a human being determining the meaning of life and determining what they want their priorities to be, and what they believe our purpose to be. That's not been given permission by [the 1%]. They've approved of the political left. They've approved the political right. They've approved all of these movements. The one thing that they have no control over is the spiritual realm.

They've also co-opted all of the spiritual movements. The reason why they fear Islam so much is not because of political Islam. I reject political Islam -- completely reject ISIS and Al-Shabaab and Muslim Brotherhood. Those are creations of the modern world. Those are not authentic Islamic movements. But what lies beneath -- we have to ask ourselves, "What are these people so afraid of?"

There are amazing Muslim leaders in the West. Some of them are beautiful, well-spoken, educated white people from nice white middle-class American families. People like Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah. You know, Imam Zaid Shakir just led Muhammad Ali's funeral. When we talk about Islam, how come we've never asked him a damn question ever? How come you don't know who Imam Zaid Shakir is? How is this person that's Muhammad Ali's spiritual advisor? He's a father to me. He started the first accredited Islamic university in America, called Zaytuna College. Have you ever heard of it? No. Why have you never heard of it? Anderson Cooper's not going to tell you that. As beautiful as he is. I would love to have dinner with Anderson Cooper, [but] he's never going to tell you what Islam is. Bill Maher has never met a Muslim in his life, but he has all these opinions. There's something there, and unfortunately, I'm not capable of communicating it in any other way besides beauty.

All I would say is that, if anything that I say is wack or gross or disgusting to people, that's me the person. That's me and my fat ass. Me and my wackness as an individual. Any beauty that I have comes from the Islamic tradition, and anything I'm saying in this moment that's of benefit to people, you're getting that from the Prophet Muhammad, whether you know it or not. And I'm sorry that I'm in the way of that. But at least having genuine access to that. So when I say Hamza Yusuf; Zaid Shakir; Umar Faruq Abd-Allah; Sherman Jackson; Ingrid Mattson -- you know, some of them are amazing white women.

We have a woman that lives in the Twin Cities named Tamara Gray. This is a woman who would be called white. She's a Muslim, so she's not interested in being called white, although she can talk to you about white privilege brilliantly. This is a woman from Minnesota who married a Syrian man and studied in Syria in an order that only is women teaching women. She won't teach men. Like, I beg her all the time: "Please, please, please teach me something!" [She's] like, "Nah, that's not what I'm here for. I teach women. I'll teach your daughter."

This is a treasure in our local Twin Cities community. She was taught by some of the greatest human beings on earth. And in terms of authentic Islam, this is a white Minnesota woman who lives amongst us. Why isn't she on the news every time something happens with the Muslim community? Why aren't we asking her first and foremost? Because we don't know about her. Why? Why why why? All these people in the local news: yeah, sure, you're great. They're doing what they've been trained to do, which is repeat the popular narrative. But I say that we at least deserve to know what we're sharing the world with. And when they say the great clash of civilization is the modern West versus Islam -- that has nothing to do with violence. These Muslims don't have weapons or physical power. That's not why the owners want us to be afraid of them. They want us to be afraid of them because what they have is a worldview, and I propose that when we go to yoga and some of these other things -- definitely when we go to black culture, the culture of African people, the first human beings on earth -- what we're looking for is a connection with something pre-modern. With home. Our spiritual home.

Brother Ali performs at the Mainroom tonight.

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