[Interview] Brother Ali talks “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color,” homophobia and hip-hop, and visiting Mecca

Interview by: Martin Bauman

The past two years have been full of highs and lows for Rhymesayers emcee Brother Ali. The parting of ways with his longtime deejay BK-One, the difficulties linking up with his producer Ant, and the deaths of his father and his good friend Eyedea dealt Ali a particularly difficult hand. On another note, his visit to Mecca, his new album, and his subsequent tour have been high points – signs of a growth in his career and as a person. It would have been easy for Ali to make an album about his struggles this past year, but instead, he chose to craft Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, a passionate critique of modern society, encompassed with a message of hope and love. The result: his finest work to date. The Come Up Show caught up with Ali to discuss his latest album, his recent article on homophobia and hip-hop, his visit to Mecca, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: You just wrapped up a massive tour promoting your new album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, and you just got back from a couple dates in Australia. How was it?

Brother Ali: It was great, man. Australia is a cool place to perform, and it’s a very interesting place to be. Watching the people, interacting with them, and seeing what their society is like is really interesting. It’s not like any other place on Earth.

TCUS: I’m very excited to talk about your new album, but before we get into that, I want to take a look back on your life and how you’ve gotten to this point. When you were seven years old and in school, you met a woman that really shaped who you are as a person today. How did she influence you?

Brother Ali: She worked at my school, and she took it upon herself to teach me some things that would help me live life better. She taught me a lot about loving yourself, and not being defined by the way that other people see you, but [instead] learning to define yourself – and that’s something that not many people are able to do.

TCUS: How old were you by the time you started rapping?

Brother Ali: It was around the same time. I performed for the first time when I was eight, and I started writing songs maybe a year or two after that, and started recording when I was 13. It’s just what I’ve always done; I’ve never done anything else.

TCUS: You were fifteen years old when you converted to Islam and chose Ali as your name. How did Muhammad Ali play a part in that decision?

Brother Ali: There were a few names that were being suggested, and [Ali] was one of them. And I chose that name because of him – because of who he is. I think that anybody can transcend what they do, and become bigger than just their location, when they’re willing to sacrifice and really make it about something bigger than just themselves. A lot of people are great just for greatness’ sake, or just for their own self-aggrandizement, but when you can connect it and make it bigger, and make it beneficial to other people, or to a bigger idea or principle, then that’s when you become truly great – that’s when you become a hero. That’s when you make that transition from being successful to being great. And there are people that are great without being successful. They’re not necessarily the same thing.

TCUS: You met BK-One by requesting your own song on the radio. Can you tell the story?

Brother Ali: Well, I actually went to radio station. I didn’t request it; I demanded it. I heard his radio show, and [on] that particular day, it must have been a holiday weekend, [because] the other deejays were gone, so he was in the station by himself. I called him and asked him where the station was, and I got on the bus and went over there and forced him to play my music. I could sense that I was kind of intimidating him [laughs]. He played my song, and then I just never left. I showed up the next week, and the next week, and the next week, and [so on]. And then they threw a benefit show at the University of Minnesota for the homeless shelter, and the whole Rhymesayers collective headlined it, and that was the first time that I met a lot of them and saw all of them together. BK-One was one of the first people to record me; they had an early version of Pro Tools, so he recorded a lot of my demo stuff, and that was how we got together. And he was my deejay for many years, until 2010.

TCUS: You took your first trip to Mecca a while back. What was that experience like for you?

Brother Ali: It was amazing. It’s one of those things that’s difficult to describe, especially without all the background stuff, but it really is a snapshot of humanity. There’s anywhere between 3 and 5 million people there. People go to Mecca all year round, but there’s a particular season for pilgrimage. The actual pilgrimage itself is only about four days – between four and seven days – and you just see a snapshot of humanity. I think most people have the idea that Muslim and Arab are kinda synonymous, but only 20 percent of the Muslim world is Arab. When you’re there, you see a whole lot of Asian people, you see a lot of African people, you see a lot of European people, you see a lot of Arab people… you see people from all over the world.

It’s a really interesting thing. I would love for non-Muslims to be able to see it, to get an accurate picture. When we say “Muslims do this,” we’re talking about one and a half billion people, and a lot of them never come to mind. I think the average person of European descent isn’t really that aware of the fact that there are entire countries of white Europeans that are Muslim. Albania is [primarily] Muslim, Kazakhstan… that whole section of the world, there’s a lot of Muslims there, and a lot in Malaysia, and Indonesia, and all throughout Africa. There’s this idea in a lot of people’s minds that you can almost interchange Arab and Muslim – in the West, in particular – and it’s really not true. So just being in that situation was amazing, and there are a lot of spiritual things that go along with that, but it was incredible.

TCUS: You recently wrote an article titled “The Intersection of Homophobia and Hip Hop: Where Tyler Met Frank”, and I’ve seen a lot of positive feedback from it. You talk in the article about the lasting impact that hateful words can have, particularly in relation to your song “Dorian.” Can you talk about this?

Brother Ali: Our culture is based on the idea that privileged people are complete human beings, and those that aren’t part of the dominant mainstream culture or class are not fully human, and so we’re divided in that way of oppressed and oppressor in every aspect of our lives – whether it’s racial, or economic, or social, and sexuality is one of those things. I’ve been raised with a heightened sensitivity to class stuff and race stuff, but I was very behind, and I was going along with the dominant mainstream view, [when it came to sexuality]. And that’s kind of the case.

If you’re in a privileged position, unless you actively seek out connection with people who are not a part of your dominant mainstream group, and you just kind of quietly go along with things, then you really are participating in [their] oppression – especially in a society like ours, that’s hyper-competitive. We’re all fighting; we’re all competing; we’re all racing for resources, opportunities, goods, [and] things like that. In that competition, if you’re not held back by the things that ensnare people who aren’t white, people who aren’t Christian, people who aren’t straight, people who aren’t middle class or better, [or] people who aren’t fully able-bodied, and if you don’t push back against those things, then you’re participating in them. So that was the situation for me with sexuality for a long time.

On my first album, I used the f-word that kinda ties all that up. I wasn’t using it directly talking about gay people, but using in that word in a derogatory sense kinda co-signs that narrative that gay brothers and lesbian sisters are not fully human. Later, after having experiences with musicians, and artists, and authors, and friends, I went back and made a song in 2009 [called “Tight Rope”] – and a lot of people in hip-hop did that. I did that, Murs did that… Murs actually made a song about a gay couple that was young and secret. In the song, one of them wants to come out and live their life together, and the other one rejects him. [Now], a lot of people have stepped up and made songs that address that.

That article that I wrote was a lot less about homophobia in hip-hop, and a lot more about the general culture dealing with complexity – you know, dealing with the complexity of people surrounding these issues. Guys like me and guys like Tyler [the Creator] who use these words, not realizing how much they hurt people, we’ve gotta step it up. But then also, we can’t always necessarily demonize people for falling into the dominant mainstream code. We have to be patient with people. We’ve got to invite people; we’ve got to be embracing of people, even when they’re in the wrong; we’ve got to criticize them lovingly, and not just write them off. You’ve got a guy like Tyler that said that word something like 300 times on his album, but then when Frank Ocean wrote his letter about his nuanced sexuality, [Tyler] was the first one to say that not only did he know about it, but he felt proud of him. I think it’s important that we all engage each other a little bit more, on a deeper level, and understand each other’s complexities and nuances.

TCUS: Let’s talk about your album, which released back in September. What does the title, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, mean to you?

Brother Ali: It means that we’re in a really terrible time of decay and decline, but that new problems also create new opportunities. We have to be honest about who we are [and] what we’ve become – in a way, what we’ve always been. I’m speaking about America, because that’s where I live, but I’m really talking about the entire Western world – the places where Europeans went and committed genocide, and colonized, and then set up our own societies where we’re in charge of other people’s land – and what that’s done to us and to the world. I’m not just talking about America, I’m also talking about South Africa, Canada, Australia, Europe, all of these places. We’ve created a lot of turmoil; we’ve allowed a lot of turmoil to exist.

So the message of the album is to be more honest about who we are. We talk about justice issues, the people in the dominant mainstream group keep injustice in place, because we have an untrue assessment of who we are. We think that we’re superhuman; we think that we’re not human; we think that we’re above being human, and so as evidence of that, we need to have people that we can look down on. So we keep people subordinated – based on their race, their religion, all of these things. Primarily race, though. There was a move made by Europeans, instead of solely fighting each other, to unite under the heading of ‘white’, and we created a religious lie about God and Jesus, and then used that to conquer the world, basically, and create this situation that [we’re in] right now. The idea is to be more honest with ourselves, and accept these new opportunities.

TCUS: Your album is entirely produced by Jake One, which is a different partnership for you than in the past. How did working with Jake One differ from working with Ant?

Brother Ali: Ant makes the music part first and then he adds the drums, so he’s using the music to create what he wants to put out. Jake does it the other way; Jake does the drums first. With Ant, there’s a lot more mood and feeling in the actual music, whereas with Jake, it’s more of a rhythmic thing – which are both good. Working with Jake made me rap differently. Also, Ant is a lot more involved in the songwriting process than Jake is, so it just made me work in different ways, and helped me grow.

TCUS: You have Dr. Cornel West featured on your song “Letter To My Countrymen”. When you went to record with him, you spent an entire day talking to him. What did you take away from your conversation with him?

Brother Ali: A lot of things. The main thing is that it really gave me a lot of confidence in myself. He wasn’t very familiar with me before that – I think he knew of one of my songs – but after spending that day, I felt like he really was able to read me [very] quickly, which is why he told me I could come for an hour, and he ended up cancelling almost everything that he was doing that day. To see this person that I look up to so much, the way he responded to me, and the way we connected, and the observations he had of me right away gave me a lot of confidence in what I do – and that was a really powerful thing.

TCUS: One song that I immediately latched onto was “Stop The Press.” In that song, you have a line that goes “In a life of pain and sadness/ never would have guess that a taste of success/ would’ve been the first time I ever got depressed.” Can you elaborate here?

Brother Ali: Yeah, I think that there’s a theme of people that grow up struggling with day-to-day reality, and day-to-day survival, that when you get in a situation where you’re not struggling just to survive every day, it’s kind of strange. It’s a new challenge to try to figure out how to manage that, because that struggling doesn’t really leave you. I think that’s what we see with a lot of people when they become successful after coming from tough circumstances. You see a lot of people go to excesses, or extremes, because it’s such a big shift to not have to worry about the same kinds of challenges.

TCUS: In your breakdown of the song, you mention that it barely took you an hour to write the song from beginning to end. Why do you think the words came so easily?

Brother Ali: I wrote that type of song for my first three albums – especially the first two – and the EPs that went with them. Shadows on the Sun, the Champion EP, Undisputed Truth, and The Truth Is Here EP are four projects of writing autobiographical, personal stuff. And that’s kind of why on the Us album, I started to move [towards] telling other people’s stories, and on this one, talking more about society. Because [writing about myself] is too easy at this point. It’s way too easy to sit down and write a song about all the details of something traumatic in my life.

All the stuff in “Stop The Press,” I could have written a song about each one of those things that happened to me in that year. It probably would have been a hell of a song about the whole thing with BK-One – [him] being my musical partner for all those years, and then his wife almost [dying] in this big tragedy that we had, and then she lived, and she looked like she was going to be paralyzed, [but then] made a complete recovery on some amazing, miraculous recovery story, and then they decided to have kids, so he stayed home from the road, and I was trying to figure out where my life was going without my partner. I could have made a song about that.

And then my father died unexpectedly; I could have made a song about that. Eyedea died unexpectedly; I could have made a song about that. Trouble with my marriage, I could have made a song about that. Touring too much… All of that stuff, I could have made that album, and it would have been the easy thing to do. And people would have loved it. Maybe they would have loved it more than what I made with Mourning in America; I don’t know. But I couldn’t do that.

I felt like if I did that again, then it would be a statement that “this is all I’m ever going to do: just talk about my life, and the traumatic moments in my life.” To switch it up and make a political album, even after having that year that was just asking for more emo-rap, I think I made the statement to myself, more than anybody else, that I’m evolving, and that I’m an artist, and that I’m trying to do different things.

TCUS: One thing we haven’t talked a lot about is the flip side of your album, Dreaming in Color. Despite all of the troubling issues that are addressed in the album, it’s still very much a message of hope and love. Can you talk about this?

Brother Ali: It is a message of hope and love, but I think that people – particularly privileged people – feel like hope and love is a way out for them. We talk about these troubling things, and we say that at the end, we end up with hope and love. We think that these are just feelings that we have inside, [and] in a privileged person’s mind, [it] just reassures them that it’s okay, and as long as they aren’t doing anything overtly mean, then they’re doing their part – and that’s not true.

I’m not talking about optimism – there’s a difference. Optimism is the idea that things will get better on their own if you’re nice and don’t rock the boat, and don’t actively participate in the wrong things. Optimism is actually a damaging idea, because [it] allows the people with the most potential to make change to [instead] be dormant, and silent, and passive. Hope is different from optimism: hope says that if I’m willing to sacrifice my comfort, my career, my reputation, everything up to and including my life, then things can get better. Whoever’s in charge of the universe won’t let that suffer and sacrifice go unrewarded. So [hope] is a much more dangerous, and revolutionary, and risky, and terrifying proposition.

And we talk about love, we’re not just talking about feeling good, but actually loving people that we don’t know in the same way that we would [love] our family members. So we see realities like young black men getting locked up and sent to prison, and they get the prison stigma, and they’re legally discriminated against, and they don’t have the same life potential, at 16 times the rate that white men. If really loving somebody means that we would do everything in our power, [then we] wouldn’t rest until that’s not a reality anymore. Say we treat that the same way as if it was our child. Or say what would we do if somebody that we loved was living in these circumstances, and that would make us active in a way that’s uncomfortable. So yeah, [it does] end with hope and love, but it’s not optimism and politeness. We’re talking about dangerous hope and revolutionary love.

TCUS: I really enjoyed your song “My Beloved,” and one line that stayed with me was “the art of truly living is learning how to die.” Can you elaborate on this?

Brother Ali: It’s multilayered. That’s kind of an ode to Eyedea, who had a song that said “we’ll rediscover the long lost art of dying.” I would say, with death being the absolute reality, the idea is to live with that understanding and not deny death, but also we die to be reborn. We kill our old self to evolve and come into a new self. And that’s really what art is: to be an iconoclast; to break the old ideas and make better ones, and newer ones; to break the old vision of ourself to create a new one; to break the things that we’re comfortable with [in order] to come into something newer.

TCUS: That’s all from me, thank you very much for your time today, I really appreciate it. All the best to you in the future!

Brother Ali: Alright, man. Have a good one.

For more on Brother Ali, check out our video interview with him.