The 405 meets Brother Ali
Brother Ali sits with one leg crossed over the other in the dressing room of the Manchester Roundhouse. He cuts a striking figure in an electric blue Adidas jacket that compliments his trademark shock of white beard hair and long white eyelashes. Much has been made in the past of Ali's skin colour and ethnic background, needless to say that he stated "they ask me if I'm black or white, I'm neither/ race is a made up thing; I don't believe in it" on album The Undisputed Truth and is happy for the subject to remain ambiguous.
All through my interview with record label Rhymesayers stable-mate Grieves, who is supporting on these upcoming dates, he sits quietly in the corner listening in on our conversation and checking his messages on his phone without saying a word. When I ask him if he's ready he looks up at me with puffy eyes, gives the smallest of shrugs and a wry smile and says "sure." If Brother Ali was any more laid back he'd be horizontal. He's about 4 hours late to the venue after last night's show in London and he's still feeling pretty jetlagged after hurtling through a 10 minute sound check. His distinctive, husky whisper that sets his vocal delivery out from the pack is sounding slightly more hoarse than usual after the long flight and late performance.
"I think everyone's feeling close to normal now" he says softly "Tour is a weird schedule anyway coz you get done with the show at one or two in the morning, you're with your friends, you just did something fresh together so you don't want to go straight to bed, but then you gotta get up early and drive all day. On top of that being jetlagged is weird. It's cool though, we're not really working right?"
His latest album Mourning In America And Dreaming In Colour is set for an August release, despite a slew of false suggestions from the online community that the date has been changed several times, and is something of a departure from his previous releases. All of his other music has been produced by one half of hip hop group Atmosphere (Anthony Davis, better known under his working name as Ant) but for this album he broke the mould and teamed up with fellow Rhymesayers artist Jake One.
"You should have songs about the things you care the most about. At least I know I should, that's the kind of artist I am" explains Ali "Ant's music is really mood based and I normally write to compliment the moods that he creates. Jake One's stuff is more drum based, he creates a vibe or a movement that's more about the drums. It's more minimal than Ant's music but there's still a tune in there. I'd say the real stars on this album are the drums and my voice. You're not humming a Jake One beat though, you're beat boxing it."
"If I could get Ant to do the music and Jake to do the drums that would be my dream" he quips, before adding with a smile "I would never ask them to do that though."
I had planned to ask Ali about his well publicised religious roots in Islam and what kind of affect it has had on his life, but sitting next to this quiet man positively radiating calm, it feels misguided. That's not to say there's nothing that gets his fires burning. On previous records and releases Ali has gone to pains to exorcise some demons about his personal life through his music and by doing this, he says, he's slowly widening his gaze to larger issues. "I would say the themes I normally deal with are all there but they've expanded. It's a natural progression for a person to grow from being a kid figuring out who they are and how to live life, what their identity and personality is. Then you grow a little bigger and you start thinking about family. If we continue to grow we start thinking about community and society. On Shadows On The Sun I was trying to figure myself out, on The Undisputed Truth I was trying to figure my family out, on Us I was trying to figure the community out and Mourning In America is about figuring society out; so they're very appropriately named."
Aside from working on this new album Ali reveals he's recently started making a lot more music of his own that he won't be releasing but simply enjoys listening to in the privacy of his home. Is this something he's doing as a cathartic process?
"Yeah I never really did that before. I don't find it therapeutic; I just like to feel productive. Creating for the sake of it so there's something that didn't exist, and now you can listen to it. When I used to get jammed up I used to make beats but now if I can't write the song I want to write, I write the song that I can't write, so I end up with a lot more songs that way. Everybody that's creative just likes to be able to push play and listen to something that didn't exist before. I have this thing on my computer that reads to me, because my vision's bad (Ali is legally blind due to his Albinism), so sometimes I'll write a story and let my computer read it to me in that Stephen Hawking voice because I just like to listen back to things that I did."
Sitting in Brother Ali's company is a strange feeling. Sometimes there's an intensity that almost threatens to tip over into tension, but at other times the hairs on the back of my neck genuinely stand on end when I listen to him discussing music and social politics. He's a curious and interesting character. When he was younger he visited Malaysia with a scholar to study Islam and its applications in society. He's able to speak on all subjects we cover with a considered eloquence that eludes most people until they're much older, at several points putting me in my place without making me feel like a total idiot, but rather that I'd learnt something. When I bring up the subject of the cerebral nature of his and his contemporaries music, and ask whether he thinks there's a lack of music with a message in the mainstream, he seems genuinely offended and goes out of his way to explain.
"No, no. Not at all. I don't agree that our music is any smarter than anybody else's music. To be very honest I feel like that's an opinion that a lot of people have. It's very popular and it's a privileged opinion that doesn't take into account why hip hop existed in the first place. It was created to be a voice for voiceless people. Voiceless people created it. If there weren't voiceless, oppressed, marginalised, invisible people suffering to make life possible for the rest of us they wouldn't have created hip hop, so they created it for the purpose of teaching us what we don't know about ourselves. The fact that people who don't come from that situation are allowed to participate as listeners and as artists is a beautiful thing, it's a testament to the loving nature of oppressed people.
"They're forced to keep track of love in a more profound way than privileged people are. Privileged people can't keep track of love, it's self destructive for a privileged person to keep track of love – you start to go crazy. If you love in a real serious way your own privilege and your position in the world becomes your enemy. I hope that lands somewhere with people. So for us to be allowed to participate, it's an opportunity to learn something about other people and ourselves if we really want to listen with open ears and hearts and minds. The fact that somebody is talking about things that we can relate more easily to, and that we feel like that's smarter, that's really us missing everything that there is to learn from people that don't share our backgrounds.
"I think 50 Cent, Little Wayne and Wacka Flocka can teach us a whole lot. The question is; are we really hearing what's there, or are we choosing to hear what we want to hear? I think too many times it's the latter. There's a lot there that's not said with the words. European's are people that come from a written society and so we value the words on a page, hip hop comes from an oral tradition so the way something is said is almost more important than what's being said."
To illustrate his point, Ali released a free EP The Bite Marked Heart via his website in February, and he sees free downloads as something which have levelled the playing field for all artists and given power back to those who didn't have access to the industry.
"When we started, the industry wasn't available to us but the internet was, so the internet was our industry. Now that's the case for 99% of people" he considers "So everybody is doing music the way we did it by necessity and that's another thing that shows – people thought we were more scrupulous artists with more integrity because we made our music independently, but now everybody is independent. That argument's out the window too, the reality is we're all just people trying to make art. I always say people make art for two reasons; the first one if to say look what I can do, and the second is for people to say good job. We're all doing what we feel proud of doing."
Ali definitely comes across as a hip hop purist – not to say that he's snobbish in any way, but he's fiercely protective of the genre and his fellow artists in a way that happens in few other musical communities. When we talk about what's on his stereo right now he's visibly enthused to be talking about the music he loves. "Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper in 20 years" he states boldly, before adding "Man, my friends are still doped up. My friends are the shit. Atmosphere is still the shit. I listen to all my friends."
Straight off the back of his handful of UK dates Ali heads out to Europe on a whistle-stop tour before heading back to the US for a summer of festivals. He's obviously looking forward to the rest of the journey and is a man who relishes travelling to other countries as part of making his living.
"I know the English and French aren't friends with each other so I'm sorry" he laughs, holding up his hands in apology "but there's something about Paris that I love man. It's a very stylish place and they're very cool. Cool people have never liked me. Real people love me, but cool people never really fucked with me, so when I'm there and I'm like 'you guys are cooler than me and you love me!' that makes me feel cool."
Later that evening, as I watch a sold out crowd hang on every word that comes out of Brother Ali's mouth, I take a look around the room at his fan base. There's a healthy mix of ethnicities and people from all backgrounds, casual listeners and die-hard fans. There are people singing back every word and then there are people just enjoying the positivity in the music. It's undeniable that there's a humility and honesty to his music that makes him appeal to a huge spectrum of people capable of identifying with him on issues ranging from self perception to family, politics and poverty. Sitting on the train home we pass row after row of terraced houses, and looking out of the window we scoot past a run-down caravan park at the side of the train tracks that backs onto a gravel car park. A small overweight boy is standing with bare feet in a puddle pulling a dirty white t-shirt over his head. To quote Brother Ali "The Truth Is Here," in everyday people's lives, and his ability to recognise this and re-tell their stories are what makes his music so remarkable.
Purchase and listen
Take a bus ride with Brother Ali while streaming his latest record in full. [read more]