July 22, 2012
Interview: Brother Ali
Brother Ali sounds tired. It’s not surprising. The Minneapolis MC is speaking to us from Bergen, Norway at the end of a European tour on which near-enough the whole crew from Rhymesayers — Ali’s label — has come down with a chest infection that spread among them like wildfire.
“I got it first,” he explains, the infection’s lasting effects still audible in his voice. “Then everybody else got it. Grieves and Budo, who are the openers on the tour, they had to go home. I’m back about 90 per cent, probably.”
Perhaps it’s the illness or the rigours of touring, but there’s a note of restlessness to the tone of a man best known for conscientious and sharply observed lyrics, and questions dealing with subjects outside those he feels necessary to discuss illicit tersely clipped responses.
Questions about touring with rap legend Rakim receive a curt, “Yeah, it was great.” And hip hop’s recorded history — a topic on which it would have seemed Ali would be willing to go back-and-forth all day — also coaxes little response.
“There’re too many to name, you know?” he says, cutting himself short after mentioning Boogie Down Productions and the back catalogue of Public Enemy.
Yet get Ali on a subject he feels to be pertinent, and he springs to life. It’s hip hop’s importance to society, not his love of it, that Ali believes to be the more discussion-worthy area.
“The voice of the people who have been kept invisible — that’s what hip hop means,” he states, matter-of-factly. “It’s the opportunity for us to hear stories and voices of people that have been socially engineered not to know. And so all [hip hop records] are important. I love all of rap, you know?”
Ali is equally vocal about the messages in his own work, and what he strives to achieve when creating it. The title of his upcoming album, Mourning In America And Dreaming In Color, refers to an infamous Reagan campaign ad known as ‘Morning In America’, and encompasses all the connotations the name suggests.
“It’s a socio-political message kind of album. I have songs on there that are my definitive statements about life in the industrialised world. The people at the top — the power elite — have sucked all the resources up to the top, and the old social structures that we’ve had have failed us. So now we’ve found a situation where we need to create new ones; create new alliances; have new ideas and new energy.”
Conspiratorial it may all sound, but Ali has been ploughing this particular lyrical furrow his whole career, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed in the corridors of power. His defiant, confrontational 2007 single, ‘Uncle Sam Goddamn’, caused a stir when its accompanying video clocked over a million views online. Ears pricked up in the US Department of Homeland Security, and Ali became marked.
“I was in Australia playing shows,” he explains. “And the promoter wired money home to Rhymesayers’ bank account. The Department of Homeland Security froze that transaction and seized the money, and I had to register with them, give them everybody’s names that perform and travel with me.”
The problems continued. A short time later, Ali was kicked off a tour with a “famous hip hop group” due to the tour’s “corporate sponsor” fearing his outspoken nature. Is he willing to name either group or sponsor?
“Nah, it doesn’t matter,” he replies, restlessly. “The group definitely doesn’t matter — it wasn’t their choice. And the sponsor doesn’t matter, because it’s not important which company we’re talking about. They all behave the same way. They see to it that music that challenges their stronghold doesn’t get played; doesn’t get heard; is ignored.”
It’s obvious the questions have riled him, and after saying his piece Ali returns to his shell. Subsequent talk about whether the provocative ‘Letter To My Countrymen’ will open the new album (it will) or the influence an extended period of homelessness had on his writing provoke little more than one-line answers or rehearsed platitudes from him.
Most questions about his personal life are fobbed off with references to various albums of his on which each particular issue is dealt with, and it becomes clear that everything this man wishes to express is done so — vigorously and in detail — through his music. He’s not snappy with us (in fact, his tone is largely calm and amicable throughout); he just feels he’s said all that needs to be said. About Mourning In America which is out in August, he says, “It’s my favourite thing I’ve ever done.” Clearly, you’ll have to wait till then to get the best of Ali.
Read this interview in context over at THE STOOL PIGEON