*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: The other thing I wanted to ask you about is, I guess, is the topic of identity–we were discussing that with the slavery matters. The fact that you grew up albino and I remember reading to how you mentioned that even though you grew up in a white family you felt more comfortable amongst African-Americans basically, based on the fact of how they were discriminated against in a similar fashion to how you might have been discriminated against. And then on top of that you decided to convert to Islam and you're basically taking as many minority fashions as possible as you can upon yourself....
Omar: Did you find that you were painting yourself in a corner?
Brother Ali: No, no. What happened was that when I was little... When you're an albino, as a kid, it's very difficult. You might as well be a leper, you know what I mean? You're untouchable. People treat you as though you're not a person and that was the experience I had with the world until I was about 7 or 8 years old and I had certain people come and talk to me and reach out to me. Elders and kids too, African-American elders that I learned a lot of things that I needed and that I still practice to this day, to be taught that if you wait for these people to tell you that you're worth something then you're going to wait for the rest of your life and you might as well just quit now, because these people's concept of you can never define yourself.
You need to internally figure out what it means to you to be a valuable person and then you need to impress yourself. Don't worry about impressing others. Impress yourself. Don't ever show them how they're hurting you. If you need to cry, then you go to the bathroom and cry. But when you're in front of them, don't let them make you crazy, the insults and treatment they give you, keep your head up high, be proud, go into the bathroom or go home and cry. Go home and cry, don't ever lose your temper or cool, you know. All these things that made me who I am that I just couldn't get from my family because they never had to develop that. They were white Americans, part of the “privileged group”. So you know that's something that touched me. And also my friends, the children, would treat me like a person, and they would make jokes, and it wasn't to belittle me or it wasn't to be evil, they were funny. It was for the purpose of making everyone, including me, laugh. And if I could tell jokes back that were equal to those jokes or better, then I was a person. That's the group of people that made me feel like a human being. That's the first time I ever felt valued and embraced. And so from that time of 6, 7, 8 years old, I always felt that way.
So all of these beautiful experiences I'd have with African-American people, I'd go back among white people and hear the way that they mocked black folks and that they didn't respect them and didn't value them... Of course, not everybody, but if you're sensitive then you don't have to look very hard o wait very long to find examples of black folks being devalued, and this caused a lot of confusion inside of me, and anger in me, and distrust, because they wouldn't say that. I was in the midwest, I wasn't in the south, and they wouldn't say that to them, they wouldn't say that to my friends. They would say it to each and because I was there and because they were like "he's white too" they thought it was all right to say it around me, and then when I would say something about that, they would ostracize me even more and so there was a time where I had a lot of anger and a lot of confusion, and so you know, Islam, although I think a lot of people that don't understand or don't know much about it, think that it's a very separatist religion, when it's really not. It really taught me, and that's why when I got the end of Malcolm's book and he said, Islam is the only thing that can cure America of racism, white supremacy, this “evil thinking", because it's not about the people being bad, nobody's saying that the people are bad, or that to say, "you're racist", but it's a type of thinking that perpetuates the inequality and injustice and unequal access to resources and it's a very evil thinking and that thinking is the devil. That thinking is the evidence of the devil.
Omar: It's what pits people against each other.
Brother Ali: It really does. And it prohibits and restricts certain people from living out their lives as a complete human being, to this day. So when I got involved in Islam and I started to learn and Islam is not the only thing that teaches it, but it's the one that got through to me, that all human beings are created the same and the human soul is from God, and what we're born with is from God and that lives on inside of us inside that way as long as we can... You can neglect your heart or your soul to the point where your soul gives up on you and you can practice evil so much that your soul can just quit. In the Qur'an, they talk about people becoming stones, their heart has a disease and their disease increases to the point where your soul stops trying to bring you back to what's good. Islam taught me that. So that people's mind can be confused and trapped to the point where they become instruments of this evil scheme in the world, but that the soul is still from God, and so you speak past the brain and speak to the soul, and that's what I try to do with my music, at least the good parts of my music, because there are parts of my music too where I'm just an asshole…
Brother Ali: …because I have to do that in order to be honest, you know what I mean? I don't think that if I don't ever show the side of me that's a jerk then I don't think that anyone will ever believe when I'm trying to tell them all these good high things, that I ultimately believe in.
Omar: So show them both sides then, the whole picture.
Brother Ali: Show all sides, yeah. Show myself when I'm vulnerable and scared, show myself when I'm celebrating, show myself when I'm angry, show myself when I'm on an ego trip. Because I believe that most of what I am, I think, is good and so I believe that that's the only way that message will ever resonate, is if you're willing to be completely open, and I think that's the reason why 2Pac is the figure in rap that he is. It's not because of his songs, and it's not because of his... Although his songs are great, he's got some of the most amazing songs ever, but you believe him. You can't help it, it's like you got a hole in your soul.
Omar: It's like pages from his diary, almost...
Brother Ali: Yeah, and he wasn't afraid to show you when he was evil. He wasn't afraid to show you the evil side of him, and the beautiful thing is because of that, the beautiful side of him as a man is what we latch onto. But if all he ever showed you was, "look how good I am", then we might be like "whatever".
Omar: Well, it's not honest.
Brother Ali: It's not complete. It's incomplete.
Omar: Yeah. Talking about this stuff, your latest album (Us), it seems to be your most personal one, I guess.
Brother Ali: Thank you for saying that, man.
Omar: The songs are more representative of personal stories of yourself or what you're going through or of your family, or your environment, what surrounds you. You basically explain why you would go about to do that, to put yourself, the whole picture to see or to read or to hear about. Is it hard to do that? It must be difficult to put yourself out like that.
Brother Ali: Well I had to build the confidence to be able to do it, so for my first couple of projects, you hear little glimpses of me being open... Those weren't hard, but those took some courage, I guess.
Omar: I mean, I can't even tell people my birthday, [laughter] that's how closed off I am to people.
Brother Ali: It's amazing how open you can become in a room full of people. A room full of strangers.
Omar: Is that what makes it easier, the fact that they're strangers? Is it easier to open up to people w ho, whether or not they judge you or not, it has no real bearing?
Brother Ali: I don't know, I mean, I'm open to the point where I make people uncomfortable. I keep telling people I love them, and I tell people things that make them uncomfortable, and I don't mean to, it's just that I'm so comfortable with being open like that and I could tell sometimes when I get a little too comfortable with somebody. I meet rappers that I think are great, and I don't have any kind of weirdness about sexuality, or anything, so I tell them, "man, you're beautiful to me. I love you. I love everything you do, man. Your soul is just so radiant." I don't have a problem with that, that's not a funny thing for me to say, but some people don't like to be spoken too like that. [laughs]
Omar: Well you got two options when you do that: you either bring people closer or you push them away.
Brother Ali: Yeah, that's very true. And if people get pushed away like that then I can't , that's less work for me anyway. I can't follow behind somebody like that. I can't babysit like that.
Omar: Do you find people become more closer because of the fact that you're more open? It must be easier for people to relate to you, I guess, then.
Brother Ali: Yeah I think that's the thing that people like the most. They can get this sense, it's really tangible, that how much I embrace who I am and celebrate it and people look at me and say "well if this fat albino guy can be a rapper and think he's a rapper, tour the world and be like 'hey I'm a rapper' while other people are like “no, you’re not”, I think people think it makes them more comfortable in embracing who they are. I think that's the number one thing. There are people who rap better than me, there are people who can definitely sing better than me, but I think that's the thing that really makes people want to gravitate towards what I do.