Since his debut album in 2004, Shadows On The Sun, Brother Ali has represented a powerful voice in hip-hop. He’s reflective and eloquent. You can hear his heartbeat pound through his music. He’s the sort of person you’d want to ask advice of, not if you wanted to buy a new car, but if you needed guidance on how to deal with a sick family member.
In his art, Brother Ali spits fire and truth. He raps about abusive neighbors in an apartment building and about building spiritual relationships with God. It’s been written about extensively how Brother Ali was born without pigment in his skin, hair and eyes (he’s albino) and how he’s legally blind. He’s also a Muslim man, speaks softly on the telephone and expresses himself articulately. He talks often about healing, which he thinks is essential. And he laments modernity, which, for him, lacks a sense of tradition and particular human values compared to other periods in human history. Brother Ali is a guiding light and a thoughtful human.
You’re about to embark on a new tour with a new record. Are you relaxing at the moment or working hard?
We’re not relaxing. We start our national tour on Tuesday (May 2) and the album (All The Beauty In This Whole Life) comes out on Friday. When you’re independent there’s a lot of little extra things that we do, like a fan pre-sale for the album where I sign three thousand copies of the record. And we’ll put out teasers for our new video that we’re going to release on Monday, little 32.2 second clips that I edited myself. Details really matter a lot to me. It does feel like work but there’s no other way to do it. We do it ourselves and it’s got to be good, got to be right.
When I listened to your first album, Shadows On The Sun, I heard all this wisdom you’d dispense that seemed like you gleaned from wise folks on the stoop or just hanging out. Now that 13 years have passed, is the wisdom you rap about more earned, lived experience?
I’ve always been reporting. I don’t see teaching as imparting anything that comes from me. Speaking or expression always comes from stuff passed to me and I pass it on. Truth is always something that’s passed like a torch in a relay race. So in terms of the content of what I’m talking about, it’s really like that. I’m a UPS man in that sense. The UPS man doesn’t walk around like, “Look what I’m bringing you.” No, it’s “I’ve been given this to give to you.” It’s an honor and a duty of mine and I have to do it with intention and care. What I’m expressing now may be a little different because what I’m receiving at this time is different. Ultimately, it’s me reporting and sharing what’s been given to me.
You’ve said your music is a result of “pain, growth and healing.” Do you ever feel worn down?
Yeah, absolutely. I think after the last album (Mourning In America And Dreaming In Color), I felt really worn down. The last album was a political one. I was inviting people to become engaged in the world of organizing and activism. Group power to affect change in the world. I was going around the world performing all these places and all these people would come up to me and want to hear what I have to say. The songs impacted them and I definitely had a feeling of curiosity and hope about whether or not this music could be used to coral people to enacting change. One of the things I realized is that that really depends not only on working on the outside world but also working on myself and working on ourselves. It’s not one or the other. Both are constant projects.
Ego is very sneaky. Ego just grows to whatever you think you’re doing. Ego can grow in ways I wasn’t expecting. I started to feel a sense of being let down or almost becoming jaded. Really, that happens when we have expectations that we haven’t really examined. Where do those expectations come from? It’s very slippery. When I’m talking about something important, ego can come in and compromise that. Not that this truth is important, but that I’m actually important. Not that truth should be met with certain resistance but that I should be. I was becoming bitter and resentful. I could tell I was unhealthy, that something was imbalanced inside me. It led me to be more intentional about my spiritual path and being with people. I wanted to be more aware of myself and to become clearer about the ego’s role and how to discipline the ego. And how to purify the intention and renew the intention and stay focused on what the intention ought to be. That’s why I took so long between the last album and this one – really, I put out three albums in 2012 and toured for three years straight – I realized I needed some ways to check in with myself and heal myself.
You talk often about healing. Can you elaborate on what that means to you?
There are these ancient wisdom traditions that have been tested over time – they were what was there before the advent of modernity. Universally, there were certain agreed upon human virtues that were a part of spirituality and living a life of meaning. Those things have been compromised in the modern world for a lot of different reasons. We’re disconnected from nature, our hearts, instincts, families and traditions. We tend to think we’re smarter than our ancestors. These are all new phenomena in the history of the world. With that, we’ve become good at manipulating the material word – this is what modernity is about.
People in power are masters of propaganda and controlling what we take in. There are still people that are connected to wisdom and spiritual traditions that are carriers and bearers and protectors and maintainers of those actual systems that existed before modernity. But you have to really look to find those people. They’re not pastors at a Mega Church, they’re not on the news. These are people in the community that you have to really look for. Within the Muslim world, I’ve connected with people of spirituality – particular people who culturally understand where I’m coming from. They’re peers and elders – people who are further along in their path. They’ve been where you are, they know the ways you’re getting in your own way and know the ways you can soar. They genuinely want to help and guide you and help you heal. To help you travel on the path inward back to the original self.
So it’s not like a Center you go to. Not like a building or college you can go in – though sometimes there’s these people in those places. But a lot of the time, it requires a certain being who is receptive and perceptive. Those things really are a gift. I didn’t even know to ask for this or who to ask or what to seek.
And this is very significant to you.
Absolutely. That’s the only thing I care about. People at Rhymesayers (Ali’s record label), will say I do my best. If there’s something I can do to help myself business-wise, I try to do it. The accountants there will tell you I’m not really focused on myself, though. Truth and healing, that’s really what motivates me.
It’s a combination. First, it’s of my composition. People are born with certain individuality, a set of who this person is. That’s a big part of it. Also me being born in a very unique physical presentation and having all of the legal blindness that goes along with it and social stuff of having this very, like, physical being that’s noticed right way. I always have to navigate that. I can never just walk in a room as an invisible person. Those two things together. I’ve been given a great gift in terms of that combination. Difficulty and also having a living heart. A lot of people have difficulty and their heart dies. That’s really dangerous. And a lot of people have beautiful hearts but they haven’t been through much. Those people aren’t able to help anyone. If you haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through it’s very difficult for me to be able to trust you and receive from you. I feel really fortunate to be in a place where I have been through certain types of pain and healed and been given the platform to communicate. I hurt, I heal and I’m also in a community of people in terms of my listeners – the real core listeners. Those people help me as much as I help them, if not more. Those people give me the platform to explore these things and express them. We reflect together.
You worked with the Rhymesayers producer, Ant, on this new record. You two have collaborated a lot over your career. How was it getting back together in the booth?
The poet Rumi, who’s one of the great masters of the Islamic spirit, his poetry came because he’d achieve these ecstatic states. He was witnessing the divine in every part of being and he’d start to versify. And he had someone there to write it down, to record it. From the bottom of his heart and the top of his head. People realized Rumi couldn’t achieve that without this person there recording it.
I realized with Ant, there’s certain things I can’t do without him. Something about his being and friendship and sensitivity and sensibilities really allows me the space to explore my heart and my experiences and thoughts. We really process together, that’s what our music is. But before this album, we’d fallen out of sync. I had made some music with Jake One and me and Ant kind of fell out of sync. It was really troubling me, bothering me. We weren’t as close as we once were. We both ended up in the Bay Area, searching for healing. He was there getting physically healthy and we ended up there at the same time. Both hoping to improve on our lives. So we reconnected. The music we made was based on the vibe we have together. A melding of hearts. Ant and I connect on a heart level. We don’t have all the same opinions – for a long time Ant’s lifestyle was outwardly different than mine. But we have a connection on a heart level. That’s what allows us to make the music that we do together.
On the new record you offer a line saying your “heart was broken into.” And a featured artist on the album, Sa-Roc, says we have to allow our love to lead us. Do you think there’s any grey area there when we allow our love to lead but maybe our heart is misguided?
When we say the heart, we mean the core of the person, the core of who we are. But the heart is influenced by things. It’s influenced by the intellect, for one. This is a revolutionary thought, that the heart is the center of the person. Modernity says the head is the center of the person. But the emphasis on heart is a unique idea in the modern world. The heart is influenced by ego, intellect and also influenced by good and evil. So being aware of the heart, the heart’s natural state, is to be empty of things like greed and jealousy and hatred. But holding untrue concepts and ideas, those are the diseases of the heart. Being with those people of spirituality who have healthy, vibrant hearts and who know hearts and can read hearts is amazing.
A lot of times things people dislike about religion are the rules. At Rhymesayers, we have an accountant who says you need to not spend this much, you need to make this much. That’s all true and relevant. But that’s not what’s motivating the creativity of the music. The same is true in religion. There’s certain things you have to do. Like a garden. If you don’t protect it, it’ll be destroyed. You have these rules to build a fence around the garden of a heart. But all these rules never get to the why. When do I start experiencing what I’m on this earth to do? Love and heal and connect. When do we get to the transformation point? A lot of people have different ideas of getting there. That’s what people of spirituality do and are masters of. They exist in every tradition. If you can find them, access them, build a relationship. It’s the most valuable stuff in the world – but it’s hard to do.