The Gospel According To Brother Ali – An Interview With The Indie Spiritualist.

October 23, 2010 by Chris Grosso

Brother Ali is an artist, a friend, a poet, a Muslim, and has no problem being the first one to crack on being albino, or overweight, or whatever the occasion calls for. Since the release of his first studio album, Shadows of the Sun in 2003, Ali has earned respect and praise throughout the independent Hip Hop community, and is considered one of the most important voices rhyming today.

The writer of this article wishes to agree. Brother Ali has soul, not just in his music, but in the way he talks passionately about his love of Hip Hop, The Nation of Islam, his good friend Micahel “Eyedea” Larsen, and the oppressed and marginalized people who are all too often forgotten about. It is my privilege to present The Indie Spiritualist interview with Brother Ali.

The Brother Ali Interview

TIS: This past summer you were on The Rock The Bells tour which featured legends Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Slick Rick, Rakim, KRS-ONE and more. How was that experience, and is it hard not to be a fan around those guys?

BA: Haha, I don’t try not to be a fan when I’m around them. Being an artist myself, I know what not to do so they don’t get irritated. Luckily, when I feel the urge to say something I know would be awkward, I can just shut up. It was so much fun though. A Tribe Called Quest was probably the best performance of the whole tour.

TIS: Yeah, they’re sick.

BA: Yeah, I would say Tribe and Snoop were my highlights. Snoop’s thing was really well put together and produced, whereas Tribe was just out there and destroying it, it wasn’t orchestrated the way Snoop’s was. Snoop’s looked like Steven Spielberg had put it together. But with A Tribe Called Quest, you’re just sitting there watching one of the greatest rap groups of all time.

TIS: Definitely agreed.

BA: Tribe has only continued to grow over the years. I think the best set of the entire Rock The Bells tour was Tribe’s in Washington, DC. They just murdered it. At one point, Q-Tip climbed out into the amphitheater, and when he came back on stage, his shorts were gone. He was just rocking so hard, and he did the last three songs in his underwear. He was just whiling out, it was really amazing. I was sitting there with my sister-in-law & brother-in-law and we’re just completely dorking out to this shit. I turned around and saw Dave from De La Soul standing behind me doing the exact same thing. He was just bugging out.

Then we were out in New York going to Governors Island, and we had to take a ferry to get out there, so we’re on our way over and see this yacht on the other side of the dock. We went over to it because the thing was gorgeous. Come to find out, it was Jay-Z’s and he was there hanging out & watching the show with Chris Rock, Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige. So we’re on the yacht and they were telling us how good the show was.

TIS: Wow, that’s crazy!

BA: Yeah, it was really a great experience.

TIS: And now you’re currently on the Pepper “Like A Surgeon” tour. What’s the good word with that so far?

BA: It’s a lot of fun. It’s a completely different audience than I’m used to. I still always get a couple of my intense supporters who show up, which is great and helps. It’s fun to perform for people who don’t know me, or have never heard of our circle of musicians. Like they don’t know Atmosphere, and most of the people I perform for, know of me because of Atmosphere. So it’s different, cause most of the people there don’t really know that there is underground, independent Hip-Hop, and it’s great that I can turn them onto that.

The guys in Pepper are just really amazing, warm, friendly, open guys. As headliners, most people are cool and nice, but with these guy’s, whatever is theirs, is yours, literally. Their bus is your bus, their backstage is your backstage, their friends are your friends, their food is your food, so it’s really a beautiful experience.

TIS: That sounds really cool. So the first Brother Ali song I ever heard was ‘Forrest Whitaker’ from the Shadows of the Sun album, and I’ve been a fan ever since. What’s the story behind it?

BA: That song was actually created as a joke. Ant and I had worked hard on that album and we kind of became best friends making it, so by the end of it, I did a couple of songs where I just wanted to make him laugh. Prince Charming on that album is one of them, and I thought it’d be really funny. I do a lot of impressions and voices, and that was one I did, which cracked him up, so I wrote the whole song like that.

With Forrest Whitaker, it was kind of an accident. Ant didn’t feel like that beat was done. He was looking for a different one for us to make a song, and accidentally put that disk in the keyboard. It came on and he said it was just some whatever shit he’d done and never finished. I told him that I really liked it and had him put it on tape for me, cause we didn’t get CD players until like 2007. So I took it to work, and worked on it during break, with the intention of creating a song that would make Ant laugh. I was on my little 15 minute morning break at American Express, where I was working at the time and wrote it real quickly. I put in the funny little chorus, and recorded it. We thought it would be good to put on the album for comic relief, but it ended up being “The Song”. None of us thought it was going to be “The Song”, but it definitely ended up being that on the album.

TIS: Too funny.  So I don’t mean to be somber but did want to ask you about the recent loss of Michael “Eyedea” Larsen. I know he wasn’t just a label mate, but also a friend of yours. How are you doing with that and do you care to share any of your favorite memories of Eyedea?

BA: Man, I have a million great memories. This has just been really hard. It’s on my mind constantly. We’re coming up on a week now, and I’ve been watching the movie of our friendship on loop. I remember the first time I met him, when he was 16/17, and I was 21/22, and I keep replaying all those memories. We were both thirsty emcee’s, really hungry rappers, and we started out bonding on the art of rapping. Over the years it got less and less about music, to the point where music was the furthest thing for us to talk about. We didn’t always see eye to eye on music, but in terms of why we loved music, and what it was that attracted us to it, it was the same. So the fact that we were working together didn’t really mean much regarding our friendship for the last five or six years. It was really just about the fact the we appreciated and respected one another.

Michael “Eyedea” Larsen 11.09.81 – 10.16.10

I feel really fortunate to have known him. He won’t be the first person in the Hip Hop history book, and he won’t be the top name, but for people who really know and really study emcee-ing & freestyling, he’s seen as one of the top 5 freestylers of all time. He was already that when he was 17, a true prodigy. I respect the way he lived life, how free, daring, brave and courageous he was. How he found his voice, and not just the sound that came out of his mouth, but what he was here to do. It’s not that often you meet someone who is that free, in that way.

The last time that I saw him in person we had a show together. It was me and my DJ, BK-One, who’s since retired, and Eyedea with his DJ, Abilities. So we had a show at a college in St Paul, MN and we were backstage hanging out. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of months, and Mikey was just so funny. He was a really hilarious dude. I was telling him how I’d watch movies like The Hangover and The 40 Year Old Virgin and how he could be in that crew of people and hang with them as a comedian. He thanked me for saying that and told me he’d been working on stand-up comedy. He did a stand-up routine for me and told me how he’d been going to comedy club open mics and working on his act.

Later he went on stage, in front of a crowd of 19 year old, drunk college kids, and he was just saying the most outrageous, weird, awkward things to them which reminded me of Andy Kaufman. He was saying bizarre shit to these drunk and happy college kids, and had a great set. Then I went on and my DJ & I were really killing it and during the middle of the set, he ran out on stage and jumped on my back and was just so happy. That was the last time we had together.

And that’s just one of a million memories. We were friends for 12 years and had a working relationship for the first half, which then turned into an amazing friendship for the rest. I’m constantly going back and forth between feeling thankful to have known this person and then just being really torn the fuck up about it.

TIS: Well my sincerest condolences man. He was definitely special.

BA: Thank you, and thank you for asking about him.

TIS: Of course. He’ll be greatly missed. I wanted to talk about the influence of  Chuck D & KRS-ONE in your life. You’ve sited them as being catalysts in you initial interest of the Muslim religion. Can you elaborate on that, and talk about the role being Muslim plays in your life today?

BA: Well Hip Hop was my reference point for interacting with the world. I really felt close to the artists that I listened to. I felt like I knew them and was friends with them, and now I am with some. When I was young, I felt like these were the people who spoke to me. Chuck D. was my Malcolm X and KRS-ONE was my Huey Newton. These were my people from my generation. When I was 13, I went and saw KRS-ONE speak at Michigan State University and that was really life changing.

All of my heroes of that time spoke very highly of Malcolm X, and then there was a buzz because Spike Lee was going to make a movie about him, so people started wearing X jackets and hats. I got Malcolm’s autobiography, read it, and was in love with him at every stage of his life. He was a really bright kid whose family fell apart, and was orphaned and had the foster situation to deal with, and then became a criminal and prisoner. Then at the end of his life, he went to Mecca, and confronted his frustration and anger about the oppressed class of people and the privileged class of people. I was 13/14 reading this book and really knew it to be true. His frustration was real and justified, and when he got to the end of his life, he saw Islam for what it really was and what it meant to people who were sincere. He was convinced at a certain point in his life that white people were racially privileged, inherently messed up, greedy and malicious. In America, it’s not hard to believe that, especially during that time, but it’s still not a difficult conclusion to arrive at now.

So when he went and traveled among Muslim people, his views changed, particularly at Hajj, because at Hajj it doesn’t matter who you are, everybody is the same. Everyone is wearing two pieces of white cloth. There’s no jewelry, there’s no kings and queens, the highest dignitaries and the poorest people are all together, worshipping the same thing and he really got a different picture of humanity. Towards the end of his life, he was at Mt Ararat with a million other human beings, from all races, and all walks of life, wearing the same clothes and on the same page spiritually, and he interacted with these people.

If he was in America they would be called white, but there, they weren’t white, they were just people. They were European, but they weren’t white. They didn’t have the sense of entitlement or superiority he was accustomed to with white America. They were just true, genuine human beings and brothers together. He said that maybe if the white men in America studied Islam, it could cure them of the spiritual situation that brought about their need for white supremist thinking, and their sense of entitlement, and the need to have race based privilege.

The next book I read after that was the Qur’an. Elijah Muhammad was given the movement of The Nation of Islam and turned it into what it is, but he didn’t invent it. It was actually an Indian man from what is known as West Pakistan now, who created the doctrine of The Nation of Islam and gave it to Elijah Muhammad, and it wasn’t Orthodox Islam. Elijah Muhammad had a third grade education and didn’t know the difference, but still built it into a movement. Elijah Muhammad’s son was taught Arabic and The Qur’an, and he was taught to study the original sources of Islam. When Malcolm left The Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad’s son was the one who told him he should go to Mecca and start studying Orthodox Islam and believed it would help Malcolm go to his next stage. When Elijah Muhammad died, his son became the leader of The Nation of Islam and he ended up dismantling it and leading the people to Orthodox Islam. Farrakhan later went back and rebuilt the old Nation of Islam, but Elijah Muhammad’s son was my teacher. He just passed away in 2008, but he was my orientation into Islam.

There’s a strain going on in the Muslim world which I relate to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In a way, you’re frozen in that moment until you get the therapy that you need to help you move on and heal. Like if you witness a murder when you’re 15, until you work through that, a part of you is always going to be 15. You just get frozen in that time period. In the Muslim world, when imperialism and colonialism happened, they kind of froze in time and became cold and took on a lot of things that aren’t native to the original religion of Islam. They took on some things that became oppressive and colonized, defensive and combative, and there’s a section of the Muslim population that is stuck in that moment. Then there’s also a lot of us who just aren’t, either because we have the privilege of that not effecting us the same way, or we’ve had that healing and counseling.

But there’s still a group of the movement who believes doing things the old way is the only way, and the best we can do is imitate the great Muslims of the past. Then there’s a group of people who are less organized but are really increasing, who believe that Islam is here to inspire, inform and evolve us into the best version of who we are, not turn us into somebody else, but to make us the best version of who we really are, that’s the movement I belong to.

So in my music, I believe I’m supposed to make the best art that I can make and that means making the most honest art I can. My job isn’t to teach or convert, it’s to be the best me that I can be and really allow these great principles of Islam to bring that out, as well as help me manage the worst in me. And I’m going to Hajj in a week by the way.  

TIS:  Very cool. How long will you be there for?

BA: Three weeks.        

TIS: So we’ve covered a lot of ground here, and I wanted to wrap this up by asking you what exaclty Hip Hop is and why is it important?

BA: Hip Hop first and foremost in my mind, is the expression of oppressed people. Being oppressed and marginalized is what led to the creativity and energy that created Hip Hop, from people who had nothing, by the design of our society. It’s not an accident that these people ended up with nothing. Our society is set up in such a way that someone always has to have the worst jobs, and the worst education, who live in the worst part of town. They fuel the drug and prostitution economy, which is our version of the Red Light District. Poor people, people of color, impoverished people and the marginalized. Our society created a space for them and forced them to be in that space. The people took that however and turned it into, in my mind, the most expressive, and creative, art form in American history.

I believe Hip Hop is right there with Jazz. There is a case to be made that Jazz is the greatest American music ever made, and I wouldn’t argue that, but I do think Hip Hop is right there with it. I know I’m a little biased because I grew up loving and practicing Hip Hop. With Jazz though, you have an instrument, whereas with Hip Hop, it’s literally just you. It could be you with your parent’s records, or just you with your words, though actually now, it can be you with your cello or piano, trumpet or guitar, or even you and your can of spray paint.

In my mind, it’s really important we never lose site of the fact that Hip Hop is music that is created by a poor and oppressed people, people of color. I don’t think you can really appreciate Hip Hop without loving the oppressed people, and that’s extremely important to me. Not everyone sees it that way, but to me, it’s plain as day.

TIS: Right on man. Thanks so much for your time and sharing so candidly about all of this.

BA: Thank you man. It was very cool to talk to you. I appreciate you spreading the word. We can use all the help we can get and I got a really good feeling about talking to you.

TIS: Nice. Thanks so much.   

Visit Brother Ali Online Here!

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Chris Grosso is a public speaker, writer, recovering addict, spiritual director, and author of Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality (Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster) and Everything Mind: What I've Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening and the Mind-Blowing Truth of it All (Sounds True). He writes for ORIGIN Magazine, Huffington Post, and Mantra Yoga + Health Magazine, and has spoken and performed at Wanderlust Festival, Yoga Journal Conference, Sedona World Wisdom Days, Kripalu, Celebrate Your Life and more. Chris is passionate about his work with people who are in the process of healing or struggling with addictions of all kinds. He speaks and leads groups in detoxes, yoga studios, rehabs, youth centers, 12-step meetings, hospitals, conferences, and festivals worldwide. He is a member of the advisory board for Drugs over Dinner.
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