*Minneapolis MC Brother Ali paid CJLO a visit April 11, 2010 to record a session for Hooked on Sonics. I got to sit down and talk with him about a range of subjects from his conversion to Islam, religion in general, culture, identity, and how far he goes to put himself out there personally in his music.
NOTE - Audio for the interview is available below. Transcription courtesy of Brian H.
[HOOKED ON SONICS]
[INTERVIEW PART 1] [INTERVIEW PART 2] [INTERVIEW PART 3] [INTERVIEW PART 4]
Omar: We have Brother Ali in the studio here, thanks for coming by.
Brother Ali: Thank you for coming to get me from my hotel and bringing me by, my brother! [laugher]
Omar: I was telling Ali, when I was driving him over here, how we basically set this thing up over the course of a couple of hours, Friday evening and Saturday morning and it worked out perfectly.
Brother Ali: And it just goes to show that the people who help organize my stuff were working on Saturday morning and Friday night and Saturday night, I mean they work around the clock.
Omar: So one of the things I wanted to talk about is, delving more into the religion aspect, because I myself am a practicing Muslim and it was always cool for me to hear in hip-hop songs, like in Jurassic 5 or in Rakim songs, when they used to drop lines about Islam, or like Mos Def for example, he’d do that pretty often. Yourself included, and I was actually wondering, and I always would ask this to brothers and sisters who I would meet in the masjid who are converts, what drew you to the religion when you were young? Like we were talking about W.D. Mohammed in the car before.
Brother Ali: Yeah well, I mean that I think that there were people I grew up with in hip hop that I looked up to, and in an amazing way. The main three were Rakim, Chuck D, and KRS-One. And they all referenced Islam in different ways, but they all, especially Chuck and KRS, they always came back to Malcolm X - and this is before the [Spike Lee] movie, and you know, you don't hear about Malcolm X in school, but I was really curious to find out what is it about this guy that's inspiring to people, to my heroes. So, you know, I wanted to look into him a little bit more. I read his autobiography. And then as I read it, that's around the time that he started becoming popular, you know, the movie was being made, and people were wearing X hats and X jackets and all that kinda stuff.
So I read his entire autobiography, and I was extremely inspired by the whole thing, and when I got to the end I couldn't believe that he was saying that Islam was the only thing that could solve the race problem that exists in America, because that's something that's always been heavy on my mind, since I was 7 or 8 years old. And so I said, "I gotta know what this thing is about".
So then I went to go study it, Islam is expressed in a lot of different ways, as you know, but I hung around people who called themselves 5 Percenters, the Nation of Gods and Earth, I hung around brothers and sisters from the Nation of Islam for a little while, I hung around some people from the East, you know what I mean? But then it was the group of people that were associated with W.D. Mohammed, and the way that he explained the religion in a way that made it relevant to my life and made me want to read the Qur'an, and made me want to learn Arabic so I can read it for my own self, it made me really want to understand who this man Muhammad was.
Omar: He was one of the few too who broke off from the Nation, like how Malcolm did, and actually started practicing proper Sunni Islam too...
Brother Ali: That's one way to see it, I mean, I think that it was always his belief that what his father, the honourable Elijah Muhammad did, who I have a massive amount of respect for, whatever he did was necessary for the time that it existed. I mean, American slavery, the most diabolical, evil, manipulative form of slavery that's ever existed in the world, it caused people to be separated from their religion, their culture, their history, their name, their families–
Omar: –their identities...
Brother Ali: –their identities as human beings and so in order for Islam to really be something that people in that situation could even begin to approach, he needed to shake them free of the mental bondage they were in. And it actually was Elijah Muhammad's teacher, Farrad (Wallace Fard Muhammad), that created that system of thinking and Elijah Muhammad organized it, taught it, popularized it, created the actual structure that was the Nation of Islam and I think that W.D. Mohammed thought and believed that his role was a continuation of that and maybe some of those things weren't necessary anymore and that folks were in a position to actually approach and accept and communicate with the actual text of Islam now in a new way, not only in a traditional way, but in a new way because it's a new situation.
Omar: He really approached in a more modern fashion, too.
Brother Ali: Yeah, absolutely. As I was saying in the car, I absolutely loved him, and he did so very much for me, both in the things that he taught, and he sent me to Malaysia with a group of students when I was 19 to go and learn about that society, because that's an Islamic society that's not separatist, it's not as sexist as what some people would think.
Omar: Like we were talking about the Saudis early...
Brother Ali: Well, I mean, to an extent, and not to point fingers at anybody in particular but...
Omar: –that's what I do
Brother Ali: But I mean, I think that he sent us there because of the approach and application of Islam there. But he sent me there and there was just so much learning over the years. Every time that we're in a space together he made a point to come and speak to me, and I mean, right in front of me. And it just meant so very much to me, and when he passed away I wept like a baby and me and my wife and kids drove to Chicago for his funeral. So that was really my introduction and my growth in Islam.
Omar: I think that he was one of the most important people in the faith in North America and his death was a serious blow to the propagation of the faith, especially in the time now too, after September 11th and everything that was going on and the sort of xenophobia that's been going on towards Muslims south of the border. He was needed at that time and it's too bad that he passed away.
Brother Ali: Yeah, it's my feeling that the people, there's a community that's not a structured membership like it used to be with the Nation Of Islam, but there are people who, his wisdom fed us, in terms of our spiritual growth and development and also our business growth and development and the building of our families and things like that. So those people, we feel like he gave us a lot and he did what he needed to do for the time that he was here and, you know, we're going to continue the spirit that he put in us. It's in us, it's in our children. A part of him will always be in us, just like all the great Islamic teachers, but all of the greatest teachers in general. Martin Luther King still lives in us, and Gandhi still lives on and Buddha still lives in on in us and Jesus still lives on in us and as long as we are still turned on to the wisdom that he left us then he'll always be here.