Rapper Brother Ali on Privilege, Hope, and Other People’s Stories
Brother Ali is a politically outspoken hip-hop artist from Minnesota whose latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, rocks between despair and acceptance, anger and hope. His clear lyrics often beat a slow, sauntering rhythm, and his sharp critiques of American society are warmed by strains of soul, funk, and sampled historical recordings.
Legally blind and shuffled from city to city as a child, Brother Ali started rapping at age eight and used his gift to fit in and make a name for himself when he arrived at a new school. He started recording his music at 13, converted to Islam at 15, and got married at 17.
As he grew older he became increasingly political. His single “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” released in 2007 during the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, was a bitter critique of what he called a “billion-dollar-a-week kill-brown-people habit.” As the video went viral, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security froze a money transfer to his record label, and Ali says mobile network operator Verizon removed him from a scheduled tour they were sponsoring. In 2012, he was one of 37 protestors arrested while occupying a Minneapolis family’s home to fight against its foreclosure.
Now 35 and the father of two, Brother Ali uses his music and celebrity as platforms to speak frankly about class and racial privilege, and about finding the courage to confront injustice.
Fabien Tepper: You’ve said this new album is a new chapter for you. What’s new about it?
Brother Ali: First and foremost is my commitment to what I think I’m here to do. I’ve been blessed and fortunate to see life from a lot of different perspectives. The first time I was ever loved, and felt appreciated and valued and celebrated, was by black people when I was little. I’d have these great experiences in that community and then go back around my own family and experience the lovelessness for other people. I had to grow into it until I could understand it more, but that put in me a sense of love to anybody that’s oppressed based on who and what they are.
“The best definition of privilege I’ve heard is anything you don’t have to wrestle with, that you don’t have to think about.”
Now I’m at a place where most of my fans are racially privileged kids who come from middle-class environments. But they listen in a way that is really inspiring to me, and it makes me feel like I can share with them what I know society is engineered for them not to know: that not everybody experiences life like them. You know what I mean? That we are born in these privileged vessels, and we’re experiencing advantages and privileges at the expense of our humanity. So I feel like that’s my job, and I feel like within the last few years I fully woke up to that, found the courage to understand that, and stepped out like that.
Fabien: Your songs are uplifting, partly because you tell stories that validate all kinds of personal struggles that people are often ashamed of. How do you prepare yourself to tell other peoples’ stories?
Brother Ali: I try not to tell other people’s stories. I try to only tell my stories. Matter of fact, there’s some colonialism in trying to tell somebody else’s story, when I would never have to go through what they’ve been through. But I try to tell stories from the perspective of someone who loves this person—‘cause that part I know, and that’s still genuine. I don’t talk about racism from the perspective of a black person; I talk about it as somebody who loves black people. I don’t talk about gay rights from the perspective of a gay person; I talk about it as somebody who has people I love and heroes who are gay. So I talk about my love for them rather than try to tell their story.
Photo courtesy Rhymesayers Entertainment.
In one of my recent songs, “Tightrope,” I was trying to check back in with the fact that on my first album I said that terrible “F” word. Because, you know, we all wake up on our own time, and a lot of times we wake up slowly and in layers. When I was younger I had such a puny, childish understanding of what peoples’ lives are like. So I said that word, not in direct reference to gay brothers and lesbian sisters, but to say “weak.” Not realizing that there’s a dominant mainstream narrative that says when we don’t understand peoples’ romantic lives, we don’t have to respect them. When you use those words in that context, you’re collaborating with that system. You’re not killing people, but you’re adding to the narrative that gets people killed.
I wrote something for the Huffington Post about this because Tyler the Creator, a hot, popular young rapper, says that word all the time. And he always says, “I’m not talking about gay people, I’m not homophobic, I’m just saying it because it’s a powerful word.” Then he had a friend who came out, saying that he had had a relationship with a man. And this guy Tyler was first in line to be like, “I’m so proud of you!” So I wrote about how we have these huge blind spots. If you really love your friend and all these kids are listening to you say this word over and over again, even if that’s just a piece of paper on the bonfire, you’re adding to the fire.
Fabien: What kind of response to that article have you heard from the hip-hop community?
Brother Ali: Two things about that. To be honest, the whole world is moving in the right direction. There was a well-respected radio DJ in New York, named Mr. Cee, and it came out that he’d been in the closet for years. You know, when you can’t express yourself in healthy ways because of the pressure you’re under, sometimes you find other ways to do it that aren’t healthy.
Do I go back to sleep and ride this privilege on out into the sunset and get what I can? Or, do I become an aspiring ally?
So he got caught a couple times with male prostitutes in public. He got arrested and then outed by news people. So all of NY is in a thing, and 50 Cent comes out and says, “He’s a legend, what he does is his own business, and if the radio station fires him, I’ll hire him to be my DJ.” And that’s 50 Cent, of all people! The most macho thug, you know what I mean? Many street rappers have come out and said the same thing. Interestingly enough, the “conscious” rappers have been some of the most anti-gay, the most loveless, in talking about these issues.
But I also feel like we’re stuck as a society, hip-hop and otherwise. We’ve plateaued at giving lip service to gay rights. It’s what happened 50 years ago with the civil rights movement, which is why we’ve had almost no progress in racial justice since Dr. King died. And in a lot of ways we’ve gone backwards: the crack epidemic, the war on drugs. We’ve plateaued on that, because people in privileged positions like to feel like they’ve done everything they could, when in fact we don’t like to challenge our own position. We don’t like to ask, “Am I willing to take some risks, to make life fair for everybody?”
The liberal class has stopped engaging racial justice in a meaningful way, and part of why that is happening is because it’s so easy for white liberals to talk about gay rights. Because there’s nothing at stake for them. They feel like: If I say this, then I’m not complicit. I’m a good guy. And that’s all they really want.
In Minnesota, where I’m from, the Democrats put 85 percent of their stuff into the marriage amendment this election, and only 15 percent into voter ID laws, which are a lot more race-based and a big indicator of where we’re at as a society. Because as white people, when we start talking about race, we know that we collaborate, even if we don’t want to, because all of our institutions are so unjust. When we walk out the house, walk by a cop, drive down the street, buy a house, walk into a venue. Everything we do, we benefit from this racial privilege. And that’s uncomfortable.
Fabien: What can white people do to stop collaborating in racial injustice?
Brother Ali: That’s a great question. We have plenty of examples. A white woman was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the civil rights time, because she was going on freedom rides for black suffrage in the south. And Tim Wise is an incredible speaker—he’s probably the foremost white anti-racist educator and activist.
I think it first starts with a grown-up, mature assessment of the reality of life. And that requires an element of self-love that we don’t have as a group. Obviously there are individuals who do, and anybody who’s in touch with injustice in a meaningful way is more inclined to understand what it’s like to be criminalized just for being you. But for the average white person who’s white, middle-class, straight, Christian, that’s a difficult concept to understand. ‘Cause everybody you know, everything you see on TV, your entire reality just says: The world’s a beautiful place, and if you don’t make it, it’s ’cause you’re not trying hard enough.
You devalue the stock on humanity, in your own heart and mind, to raise the stock on Christianity, or whiteness, or straightness.
We have to be mature enough and self-loving enough to look at reality no matter where that leaves us, ’cause it’s gonna leave us in the hot seat. And that hot seat should motivate us to say, “I don’t want this on my conscience anymore. I don’t want to live in a place where, based on who I am, I have unfair advantages, where other people have to suffer for me to have what I have.” I think that real assessment would make us choose: Do I go back to sleep and ride this privilege on out into the sunset and get what I can? Or, do I become an aspiring ally?
The best definition of privilege I’ve heard is anything you don’t have to wrestle with, that you don’t have to think about. I’m legally blind, and a lot of people don’t have to think about how many stairs there are, you know what I mean? When I get on stage every day, my tour manager knows it’s dark at the end of the stage, and he knows to ask, “Do you need me to put tape on it?” Those are things most people don’t have to think about. So I think it starts with that, and that will move us into demanding better of ourselves.
Fabien: On your new album, you sing, “Nowadays I embrace it all/Beautiful ideals and amazing flaws.” How do you come to that place of acceptance, moving forward and believing that you can keep trying to make a difference?
Brother Ali: I think it’s based on the fact that too many people have done too much to make the world a little better during their time. If you think of how much certain people have sacrificed, how much Leonard Peltier sacrificed, how much Martin and Malcom and Betty Shabazz and Harvey Milk and all these people sacrificed, they gave up their lives, their freedom, their career, their public image, their families, just to do a little bit. They were like, I have this amount of time on Earth, and I’m gonna risk it all. And it did get a little better because of them.
It’s everybody’s job to move things a little bit in the right direction, and be willing to risk it all. Too many people have died or been willing to die. So if we just say “F–k it,” that’s too easy. That doesn’t affirm what they did. What right do we have to give up, when these people have done all this stuff?
I think that we’ve all purchased these identities instead of being human first. It’s like, you devalue the stock on humanity, in your own heart and mind, to raise the stock on Christianity, or whiteness, or straightness. But once we become more in touch with humanity, we start caring about people the same way we care about our kids. Like when somebody’s on the news being bullied to the point that they kill themself. If that was my little brother, I would be f–kin’ mad and sad and tore up for the rest of my life. You see these moms that make it their life’s work to talk about what happened to their daughter or their son. You see Medgar Evers’ wife—she’s never gonna stop talking about what happened to her husband. You see Emmett Till’s mom—she’s never gonna stop talking about what happened.
You think about James Baldwin. He helped me so much, with my f–ked-up ideas that I had about gay brothers and lesbian sisters. And I had some f–ked-up thoughts that I never confronted, ‘cause I had that privilege of not having to confront them. But James Baldwin lured me in with how loving but honest and courageous he was with racial stuff. He was openly gay and black at a time in Harlem when you weren’t supposed to do that. That was against the rules.
I read all of his other stuff, and I was avoiding the gay books. But finally I was like all right, I love this dude, I’m gonna read this. So you look at what somebody like him went through. As bright as he was, he could have written blaxploitation movies and been rich and famous. But he chose to tell the truth instead. And he suffered for it, all of his life. Other people were celebrated, and that could have been him, but he wasn’t gonna let careerism get in the way of telling the truth and bearing witness.
I think of people like that, and I think: I have the right to be mad that that people are getting hurt, but I don’t have the right for that anger to make me give up.
Fabien Tepper is a freelance animal policy journalist, translator, painter, pedicab driver, and dog walker based in Boston.