Next Saturday evening, independent hip-hop artist Brother Ali will come to Wesleyan for a performance at Beckham Hall.
The show, which was organized by Amanda Contrada ’10 and sponsored by University music collective ICBM (which Contrada runs with Sam Berhardt ’10), will feature opening sets by Wesleyan bands Mad Wow Disease and Wordsmith and the Concert G. Contrada says she had a simple reason for organizing the show: “I picked him to come mostly just because I think he’s amazing.”
The Minneapolis-based rapper (who is often compared to his friend, mentor and label-mate Atmosphere) recently released an EP called “The Truth is Here,” and is currently working on full-length called “Street Preacher,” slated for release in the fall. Last night, he talked with the Argus about politics, his new album and how race is a construct (we knew he’d be perfect for Wesleyan…).
Argus: How’s the tour going?
Brother Ali: Actually, I’m not on tour right now. This is like the first time in the last five years that I haven’t been on tour.
Argus; How’s not being on tour?
BA: Tour takes a lot out of you, and you neglect yourself and you neglect your own life and things like really getting to sit down and work on music, you know, and my family, my health, and all these things I’ve been neglecting since I’ve been making music for a living. So now I’m making a new album, trying to get my son’s grades back in order, bought a house, had minor surgery, had a baby, all kinds of shit. I’m being a dude for once. (Laughs.)
Argus: So you’ve said in interviews that you draw a lot of inspiration from golden era hip-hop. Are there any up-and-coming artists that you’re really into right now?
BA: Yeah, there’s a lot of them. I think that people who are really enthusiastic and new to underground rap have this perception that this movement is in spite of and anti- and in direct opposition to the mainstream, and that’s just not true. See, we do everything—hip-hop wasn’t categorized when we were kids. We didn’t listen to what would be called gangster rap, or what Bernie Mac called “Happy Rap,” we would just listen to hip-hop as long as it was good and it was real, and we could get something out of it. And I’m still that way,
I was just listening to that new Kanye album in my car, and I listen to everything from Jay-Z and TI and Young Jeezy, all the way down to Sage Francis and everything in between. I’m really attracted to this project that has come out on RhymeSayers, and it’s really example of that. It’s this cat Three Way, who became known because he was working with Jay-Z’s crew, Rockafella…the guy’s amazing, just incredible, one of my favorites. He had a gold album on Jay Z’s label, the second one on 50-Cent’s label, but he started feeling like the music world was changing, so maybe a major label isn’t the only way to go, so he decided that he wanted to do an independent record, and his new album is coming out on RhymeSayers. I’m extremely excited about that.
Argus: You said just now something that I thought was really interesting, that you see yourself as part of a movement. As a white artist working in a primarily black genre, it’s easy for people to sort of lump you in with some other people that you mentioned, like Atmosphere, Sage Francis? Do you think this has helped you define your identity as an artist, or more kind of restrict what you can do?
BA: I don’t mean to disrespect what you said, but I really don’t even see it that way. I think that that’s just such a small view to take to art, being like “I’m a white rapper.” I mean even when I was a little kid I didn’t identify with being a white person. The idea of what white means, that just has never been something that I have been attached to in my heart, the concept of what that means. I think it’s a made-up thing. It was made up when this country was started and when slavery was needed for the people in power. I really just don’t see it that way, and I didn’t grow up seeing it that way. And that’s just something that has no kind of bearing on me, or the music or anything.
Argus: Something that you’re known for is writing political songs. Like in “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” you’re pretty condemning of the government. Do you see yourself writing these kind of political songs in the Obama era? Did the election change the way you’re going to approach politics in your work?
BA: Not at all. I never really set out to write anything political. The first album, “The Undisputed Truth,” was the first time I wrote anything political—with “Uncle Sam Goddamn”—but it was much more about feelings and moods. I was trying to describe the feeling of breaking up my family, and of being homeless and a single dad with a three-year-old. Like the feeling of succeeding in music. And “Uncle Sam Goddamn” was just another one of those songs that describe the feelings or…the reactions to the way that, especially in the Bush era, we were force-fed this really fundamentalist kind of patriotism. And what I was trying to say was yeah, the American dream exists for some people, but some people have it at the expense of other people, of other American citizens, and I think there’s a disconnect between the people that have what they need and the people who suffer to get what they need.
That song is really about the feeling that from the beginning of this country, this has always existed. You know, I got a new passport and there’s all these pictures of mountains, or trees, and yeah, America’s a really beautiful place, but we kind of forget that there was a group of people who were living on this land who had a spiritual connection to all of this stuff, and then there was a government campaign to kill them all. And yeah, we’re the richest country on earth, but only because of slavery, and even now, race isn’t as much a factor as it once was, and there’s a type of slavery for normal people who are drones, who just keep going, and that’s what this song was about.
In terms of the Obama thing, socially, it inspired me a lot, and it gave me a lot of energy because he was a person who had a real message and just kind of stuck to it, you know? It was a unifying message and a lot of people got behind it, and the fact that he’s African American, and the fact that so many people were willing to get behind him as the best leader for the country, that meant a lot to the people that I love. But I don’t see him by himself changing my life, I don’t see him by himself changing anyone’s life—it’s still on us to change our own situations, you know? No one person can change everything. Socially and symbolically, Obama is a great president when it comes to what he means for people, and one of the greatest things that has ever happened in my life. Politically, though, he’s a great Democrat, he’s not a revolutionary. He’s a really great Democrat who has great ideas, who’s really smart.
Argus: “Street Preacher” is slated to be released next fall. Can you tell us what kind of emotions or sentiments you were trying to convey on that?
BA: Yeah, what I’ve always done in the past has been really autobiographical, and I was really strict about being autobiographical—I’ve never told anybody else’s story, never really told anybody else’s business, I’ve only really told my own thoughts and feelings. And touring and talking to people who listen to music has taught me a lot about humanity, and about how we’re all the same underneath. Society puts us in different situations, and sometimes it’s hard to understand where we’re coming from because our situations are so different. When I grew up, I had many different childhoods because I moved almost every year, half my life in the suburbs, half my life in the inner city. I’ve seen both lives, and I’ve seen the similarities in them. In one environment, they think they’re so different from any other place. In the suburbs, they just cannot understand where the people in the inner city are coming from, and vice-versa. So I’ve been telling all these stories about me and my life, and I’m a single parent, and talking about my identity struggles and stuff—and you know, that’s not other people’s stories, but they respond to the feeling because, you know, all human beings respond to this feeling… And there are people around me in my close circle of friends and family have amazing stories too. And so what I’m trying to do on this album, I’m hoping to start opening up and showing some of those stories. And so what’s the message of “Street Preacher”? The message is that we’re all the same, and by understanding each other better, we can understand ourselves better. So hopefully I can make a record that sounds good, and works.
Argus: Now for the fun question. What’s your favorite food in Minneappolis?
My favorite food is a place called the Fish House, and it’s in North Minneapolis, on Broadway. They sell fried catfish, fried fish, chicken wings and peach cobbler, you know. That’s my favorite.