Brother in Arms

Zoneil Maharaj
November 29, 2007

(This feature originally appeared at OH DANG!)

Brother Ali steps to the center of the stage at the Mezzanine, his pale pigment glowing under the stage lights of the large San Francisco live music venue. Behind him is the Rhythm Roots All Stars, a 10-piece band about to flip live renditions of his studio beats. The show is sold out and the crowd before him is several hundred deep, but most of the people in the room probably aren't here to see him. He's on tour with Wu-Tang's Ghostface Killah, who's at the height of his commercial success, and possibly the most quoted man in hip-hop, the legendary Rakim. But to get to them, this crowd is going to have to wait through Brother Ali's set.

Sporting a blue Adidas track suit, the bulky emcee shuts his eyelids and raps intensely with a soulful swagger: "One side of the street is Malone's Funeral Home / and the other side's a library. / Try very hard to picture this shit / walk through where I live at / where parents are embarassed to tell you they raise they kids at..."

The song, "Room With A View," is the opening track of his 2004 debut Shadows on the Sun, and acts as his introduction to this audience tonight. He calls himself the "urban Norman Rockwell," painting a desolate portrait of his Minneapolis neighborhood, filled with crackwhores and drive-bys.

"You motherfuckers made a good decision here tonight," Ali tells the crowd, then asks, "How many of ya'll been hip-hop heads for 15 years? How many of ya'll are over 30 in here?" Two-thirds of the audience's hands thrust in the air and let out a collective shout. He takes it back to 1986, in honor of Rakim, and beatboxes "I Ain't No Joke," then spits the first legendary line: "I ain't no joke, I used to let the mic smoke..."

Now kids quote Ali like he does Rakim, KRS-One and Chuck D. To younger cats, he is the new, unique voice in hip-hop, an honest voice of revolt that doesn't follow the contemporary standard of what hip-hop should be. He's known for putting himself in the open, putting the most intimate details of his personal life on record and showing an honesty that's often neglected in the hip-hop world of alter egos and fake thug personas.

There really isn't anything to ask Brother Ali in an interview that he hasn't already addressed in his music. Everything that's happened to him in the last few years, after catching indie-rap fame with Minnesota label and crew Rhymesayers, is retold on The Undisputed Truth, released earlier this year.

Wanna know about the divorce from his wife of 10 years? Check the somber, heartfelt "Walking Away." His new relationship and position in life? Try "Ear to Ear." His relationship with his son? Listen to "Faheem," named after his 7-year-old whom he's taught to read the Qur'an in Arabic.

Religion plays a big part in Ali's life, but he doesn't preach it in his songs. "I don't use my music to preach Islam or convince anyone to believe. I just talk about myself ... and it just comes up naturally in my music," he says.

Born Jason Newman, the albino outcast turned to Islam at 15. "I had serious issues with the version of Christianity I was being taught," says Ali, whose mother was a member of the United Church of Christ. He was exposed to Islamic theology through hip-hop, from artists such as Rakim, X-Clan, and, later, Wu-Tang Clan who belonged to the Five-Percent Nation , an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. "The kids now don't get that kind of wisdom like they used to. You don't hear that anymore," Ali laments. It was at that point that he began reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the Qur'an. He found that the teachings of Islam matched his personal beliefs and chose to follow the Muslim faith.

Brother Ali, like many devout Muslims, doesn't believe in Halloween. It's Oct. 31 and he's on the road, touring with Ghostface and Rakim on the Hip-Hop Live tour, getting ready to rock a show in Long Beach later that night while his son is back home in Minnesota.

"Seriously, it's a weird thing. I'm not in favor of having kids begging strangers for candy," he says over the phone. Instead, he throws a party for his son and invites his friend over so as not to single him out. But when he's on tour, he doesn't get to share these moments with his son.

"This will always be the two things pulling against each other. I love my family and I love my music a lot," he says. "Whenever I'm focusing on one of them, I'm neglecting the other one. When I'm with the family, I'm thinking, 'Damn, I should be working on music.' Whenever I'm doing music, I'm thinking, 'Damn, I should be cooking dinner or at the school talking to my kid's teacher.'"

Brother Ali's rap career took off after linking with Minneapolis-based indie-rap powerhouse Rhymesayers Entertainment. He started opening for hip-hop heartthrob Slug of Atmosphere while selling his self-produced cassette-only release, Rites of Passage, on the road. Producer Ant (of Atmosphere) would exclusively produce Ali's following albums with his funky, bluesy beats complimenting Ali's agile flow and sonorous speech.

But those who prefer their hip-hop to act as a vehicle for escapism might not be appreciative of the type of honest expression Ali displays.

Biggie and Pac, arguably the greatest rappers of all time, were larger-than-life personalities, almost like comic book heroes/villains, exalted for their tales of murder, drugs and women. Kids wanted to be them, get money like them, drives the cars they drove and bang models like they did. Even one of today's top rap personalities, the former middle-class college dropout Kanye West, is an extravagant egomaniac whose iced-out Jesus piece is worth more than your entire life savings. A legally blind emcee who doesn't own flashy jewelry or even drive a car and raps about getting jumped as a teen, being an outcast and divorce, isn't exactly in the most enviable position in life.

But to Brother Ali, hip-hop is hip-hop and he doesn't separate himself from the rest of his compatriots. Though he's often placed in the "underground" hip-hop category, he hates the different labels people put on the dynamic genre. "It used to be you didn't just listen to one section like what now would be 'conscious rap' or 'gangsta rap.' You listened to Public Enemy, NWA and Chubb Rock. Those artists used to tour together all the time...and it was all hip-hop," Brother Ali says. "Somewhere along the line we let people split us apart in to these groupings."

To some, his touring with Ghostface Killah might seem like a slightly odd pairing considering their starkly contrasted styles but it makes perfect sense to Ali. "We all have the same understanding and ethics. We're from the original hip-hop. We're chronicling who we are, our thoughts and how we do it. We're just different people and it comes out in different ways," Ali says.

Though he has yet to reach the mainstream masses, he's gained enough success in the independent scene that he's been able to earn a comfortable living without compromising his creativity.

"I'm really comfortable and good doing things the way I believe they should be done. I have my own standards and ways of doing things. I don't need people to tell me what's right for me," he says. "We took the independent route. The things the music industry judges aren't really what we're doing. I know where I'm at and I'm happy with what I'm doing and I learned that from being what I am."

Being an albino shaped his unique perspective, but was also a gift and curse. "When I was younger I definitely wished I didn't have to deal with this extra shit of being different. The older I got though, I appreciated it more and more," he says. "I wouldn't be the artist I am or the person I am if it wasn't for that."

The media often hunt for gimmicks. In almost every article about Brother Ali, the words "white," "albino" and "Muslim" are in the first paragraph and often appear in consecutive order. "If that's initially what makes people interested in me, there's nothing I can do about that. That's not what my music is about," Ali says. "All those things get mentioned because that's what's part of my life. But a gimmick is when that's all that you've got."

After journalists made his race a focal point, he stopped answering the question of his race. Many ignorantly assumed he was black. On "Daylight," from his latest album, he lays all questions to rest: "So they ask me if I'm black or white, I'm neither / Race is a made up thing I don't believe in it / ... I was taught life and manhood by black men / So I'm a product of that understanding / And a small part of me feels like I am them / Does that make me a liar? Maybe / But I don't want the white folks that praise me to think they can claim me."

While race and identity are recurring topics in his music, there's more to Brother Ali than his physical appearance. "I'm just making music and doing what I'm doing," Ali says. "Even if people are initially curious about those other things ... they end up getting a lot more than that."

Zoneil Maharaj is the editor-in-chief of Oh Dang!. He is a high school writing coach through the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism's Prime Movers program, as well as a regular contributor to Performer Magazine and Pop and Politics.