The truth came to the University on Saturday night in the form of a stocky, chubby albino rapper named Ali, who thundered around the stage at Beckham Hall delivering verbal punches that would’ve made another Ali proud. In his black t-shirt, faded jeans and white sneakers, the Brother may not be the classic portrait of an MC—or of what the ladies want. Nevertheless, his unique mixture of bouncing beats and rhymes that are at once intimate, uplifting, and deeply cutting, brought the delirious crowd of about 300 to their knees. The chants of “Ali, Ali, Ali,” that reverberated around the hall were reminiscent of October 1974; this time, however, it was a pink and pale rapper who floored all of Beckham hall, not Muhammad Ali knocking George Foreman to the ground.
The show started early with an impressive set from DJ Bastille, whose eclectic mashes seemed to force the crowd to start dancing. The University’s own rap phenomenon WordSmith (Josh Smith ’11) backed by the Concert G’s followed Bastille. Always an extremely entertaining and talented group, WordSmith and the Concert G’s seemed extra motivated—the moment Smith grabbed the mic, Beckham Hall swooned, hands in the air, jumping up and down to each twang of a guitar, whine of a sax, or particularly sick rhyme. It was like a wave of electricity was emanating from the stage, as WordSmith and the Concert G’s mixed blues, funk, jazz—and a particularly memorable cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”—into a blistering set.
Thunderous applause guided WordSmith and the Concert G’s offstage, but quickly lulled as BK-One, Brother Ali’s current DJ began setting up his equipment. Sporadic chants of “Ali, Ali, Ali,” followed, and crescendoed into a roar as the legally blind Ali took the stage. Brother Ali has always made it a point to tell his own story, mixing his raw emotions into musical form; rather than pretending to have an objective view of the world, Ali focuses on telling it like he sees it. All of his raw emotion and lyrical finesse was on display Saturday night as he transitioned between songs like “Truth Is” and “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” which speak to his emotions and thoughts about politics and societal injustices and his anthemic ballad about loving oneself, “Forest Whittaker.”
Brother Ali conveyed an authentic, healthy amount of self-love on stage: he smiled, interacted with the crowd and enjoyed himself even during his harshest rhymes (his impromptu ballad about his ex-wife particularly comes to mind). Considering his rough past, this peacefulness— there’s no better way to describe his demeanor—is even more impressive. Ali spent most of his childhood in the Midwest, moving around Michigan, and eventually settled in Minneapolis, Minn. His lyrics often reflect the pain that he experienced as an outcast, both because of his albinism and his childhood without a home. Bullied and cast away from his peers throughout his early years, Ali still managed to find his voice—and it was this that catapulted him in to the Minneapolis underground rap scene.
He signed with the Indie label Rhymesayers in 1999, and began touring with Slug (of the rap duet Atmosphere) the next year; Ali’s unique perspective on life, and the insightful stories that came with it, drew Slug to him, and the two have been almost inseparable since. In large part thanks to these two rappers, whom I was lucky to see in concert together in Madison, Wis. in 2005, Rhymesayers grew exponentially, moving from a solely Midwest label to a well known national sensation.
Throughout his life, through the abuses and the successes, Brother Ali has kept his positive view on life. This outlook was apparent Saturday night, as he asked everyone in the audience who looked “different” to put their hands in the air. As hundreds of people waved their arms proudly, Brother Ali bellowed,“damn a magazine these are God’s fingerprints!” With the whole hall roaring in appreciation, it was clear that his message resonated: we are what we are, doctor, you ain’t gotta love us.