Q&A: Brother Ali’s bold and brave conscious path

A singular artivist, Brother Ali has a unconventional approach to his new album.

In the world of conscious rap, you can’t ignore Brother Ali. After speaking with the rapper/MC about his Tuesday, Feb. 18 show at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe, I was inspired to describe the artivist (someone who promotes social consciousness through art) in rhyme:

A man who’s not afraid to speak his mind  
Rhymes so tight the light can’t help but shine bright
Through his words the flow forms
Messages of love transposed from the righteous souls
With aspirations to live through the heart
This art that he shares inspires us to start
Realizing and revelizing in the truth that
We are here to be love to each other.

Safe to say I need some practice, but even if we aren’t as fluent in the rap game as Brother Ali, it’s still a fun form of expression!

Brother Ali has been sharing his experiences with the world in the hip-hop collective, Rhymesayers Entertainment through a number of albums, EPs, singles and collaborations.

His current tour is promoting the new album, “Secrets & Escapes,” surprise released to fans with no promotion or build-up. Ali describes this un-conventional way of releasing music and even less conventional way that he and Evidence created the album in an almost improv-style.

In our conversation, Brother Ali talked about the production of his new album, what fans can expect coming to see him live, some of the deeper thoughts/meanings behind certain lyrics, and the state of rap in media and in other parts of the world.

Your lyrics are very poetic – did you ever do spoken-word poetry?

I never did spoken-word poetry. I’m actually dyslexic. There’s a poet I work with a lot named Amir Sulaiman. He’s featured on my new album in a song called “Red.” What he does with words, I don’t think anybody has matched. There definitely is a relationship between spoken-word and MC but I never did it. I learned from the masters who I looked up to when I was young. When I started going on tour, most of them embraced me and became my mentors, like Chuck D. from Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, etc.

You’re touring now, after releasing “Secrets & Escapes.” Tell me about this new album and how it differs from your other stuff.

Normally, I sit down for a long time with lyrics and I pour over them again and again. It’ll take me days to write a song. I’ll rewrite, rearrange, try different verses on different beats and things like that. This one was all in the moment. Evidence from Dilated Peoples made the beats and we produced the album in his garage-studio in Venice, California. We sat in his house while he made the music on these old hardware samplers from the ‘90s. We made the songs right on the spot. Rather than write them, I was sitting there as he made the beat thinking about, “How does this make me feel?” Then I would think of four bars of lyrics and record them, think of four more and record that, until he’d say, “OK, you’re done.” Sometimes, by the end of the song I forgot how I started. It was whatever came out of me without structure. Also, I wasn’t doing a vocal performance, which I started to do on some of my later albums. I’d memorize the song and then have a studio session where I perform it for the recording. With this album, the second I think the words, I get them on the tape, no matter how they come out. It’s really a different vibe.

We also released it in a different way. Normally, Rhymesayers (Atmosphere’s label that Brother Ali releases music under) puts a lot into packaging. We do these big pre-sales to lead up to the release, “Brother Ali has this new album coming out in two months. You can preorder it now.” Then we promote snippets and teasers. With this record we didn’t do any of that. There have been no videos or promotion. This is a project to see what happens when you don’t do anything other than art. Will my listeners like that?

Those big promotions also help the tour. People didn’t even know we were making the album. The day we got it done, we sent it to Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, all of those platforms. Once we announced it, people could hear the whole album right then and decide, “Do I want to buy this?” That’s something other people in the music industry have done, but most of the time it’s people like Beyoncé that do that. Enormous artists that everybody knows. For a small independent underground artist to do that is kind of new and counter-intuitive. We don’t have any help engaging our fan base. The question becomes, are we going to do everything we can to promote this, hype it up, and get people ready for it? This time we didn’t use music industry tools. We didn’t even use our own tools. It’s as close as we could get to pure expression. Don’t talk about the tour, go on tour. Don’t talk about the album, just release the music and let the people decide.

On the point of bringing an independent label off the ground in such a cut-throat industry, what advice would you have for other artists trying to make it in the music industry?

What we did years ago is what everyone does now. You make your music, release it to the world, and let people share it. Carve out your own fan base/audience and serve them directly. That’s what most people do now. Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and others that are now big in hip-hop started by making and releasing their own music. You have to do something interesting enough to build a fan base. If you get good enough at servicing and engaging with them, you can survive off of your art. If you have (some say) a thousand fans that will spend $100 a year on what you do, that’s not going to be all profit, but you’ll be able to support yourself. That’s kind of the tipping point for not having to have a job. But doing all that by yourself is really time-consuming and you have to be on top of it.

In Father Figures you say:
“Atheists describe the god that they don’t believe in.
See we ain’t even at odds ‘cause I don’t feel that neither.
I know we come from a source that’s much realer.
A cause that all the sleepers keep concealing.”
I love that. I’m sure people take it in different ways. Do you get judgment or backlash for the lyrics in some of your songs?

My fans have learned that I’m going to talk about the things that I believe, but I’m going to do it in a way where I’m not preaching or judging anybody. The majority of my fan base are not Muslims. The majority don’t come from the background I come from. Politically, we are going to see things differently and express them differently, but they know that I’m not judging them. If they’re able to listen to me like, “Hey this is a guy speaking from his heart about his experience and genuinely trying to share with us.” then there’s no expectation or judgment. I’m not telling anybody that they’re wrong for the way that they are or what they believe. What I’m saying is, there are experiences I’ve had in life that have lead me to see things this way. The people that listen to me know that.

In those lines you quoted, I’m saying we’ve been cut off from traditional, authentic spirituality. Most of the religious expressions we get are truncated. They’re kind of anemic imitations of the real thing. So, when Atheists say, “I don’t believe in God.” I say, “Well describe the God that you don’t believe in.” The things they describe, “I don’t believe in a God that’s like this or that.” It’s like, “Well I don’t believe in that version of God either.” But if we agree that the material world isn’t all there is, that’s really what we’re talking about. Take the word “God” out of it; take the conceptions of God out of it; is there something unseen that is a cause for the material world? If there’s not, then it’s like yeah, just win in the material world. But if the unseen is real and not just somebody’s fairytale… that changes everything. Is beauty a real thing, or did we just make it up? Is justice a real thing? Is truth a real thing? All these unseen virtues. Is love real? Or is it just an illusion that we experience? Some people say it’s an illusion and just chemicals in your brain. Ok that’s fine- that’s a materialist worldview. If somebody says that then yeah, maybe you’re really an atheist. But if the unseen world of meaning is real, and everyone who believes in it didn’t make it up – if justice is real, if hurt is real, then what we are talking about is the origin of that as a reality. What I would say is that Allah is the source of all of those things, of guidance, justice, mercy, beauty and love.

I would rather make music that I care about and believe in where I don’t feel constrained or confined. I would rather do that and just barely make a living, which is what I’ve done for 20 years. It’s worth it because I’m free. I’m free to express myself. I’m playing the same venues I did 15 years ago. For somebody else that might look like failure. From Year 1 to Year 20, I had no career growth. They wouldn’t be wrong in a strictly material sense. But to me, I’ve lived four lifetimes since I started touring. I’ve had so many epiphanies and I’ve been able to live from my heart. A year lived through the heart for me is better than years amassing wealth.

That’s what I mean when I’m talking about a spiritual life. What’s music? Is music just math? It is math in a way. There are four beats per bar and 86 beats per minute. You can say it’s math but is it just math? Or is it, “Wow, the heart that produced this is immense and vast and beautiful.” Anybody can play. It’s the same 88 keys. But what one person does with those keys is very different than another, and it’s based on something that’s not math.

So, when I say that line in Father Figures, that’s really what I’m saying. I think that’s why the people who really listen know they don’t have to see things the same way as me or describe them the same way, but there’s something going on in our hearts that we recognize.

You mentioned that you may play some of the same venues but you yourself have developed over the years. If a fan comes to see you on this tour, what will they experience? If someone has never seen you and has only heard your tracks on recordings, what’s the difference in that impact of seeing you live?

Everything is in the intention, and the intention is to celebrate and serve. I’m celebrating the people who have allowed me to live this life. It’s my joy and pleasure to serve them and give them an experience. I try to give them a snapshot of what they’ve allowed me to do. I just spent the better part of January in Africa with my spiritual teachers. I can’t make people experience that, but they allowed me to do it. They allowed me to homeschool my kids and travel and make my own schedule. They allowed that freedom for me.

I get them for an hour to an hour and a half. I want to give them a glimpse into what it’s like to really live from the heart. In that time I do songs off of all the albums. We do songs that are really energetic and celebratory, some that are sad, some that are really introspective, some that are depressing or painful, some really serious, but some that are joyful, hopeful and uplifting as well. The message always is love, all the way through. The whole thing is connection and love. The idea is to connect through meaning. If we connect through material things that’s a really shallow connection. Meaning is what connects us. For example, I have song about when I got divorced from my first wife and had to tell my son that his family isn’t a family anymore. A lot of people have had that experience but even the ones that haven’t have had that feeling or can relate to that feeling. We connect in the world of meaning and all the different types of meaning: pain, joy, fear, suffering, celebrating, etc.

It’s a ride we take people on. We tell a story with the songs going to different places but the story ends in a feeling of celebration, connection and love. Hip-hop music is really participatory with a lot of call and response. I’m constantly coming back to love. A room full of people saying the word “love” and evoking the reality of love. That’s what it’s like.

In your song “Sensitive” you talk directly to your audience about your nightmares and your place inside as an artist. In the song you discuss doing press like you are now. What do you mean when you say “How come you don’t place us in the hip hop conversation?

I was talking specifically about the big hip-hop press. The big magazines and websites for hip-hop. Every now and then they’ll write about me or Atmosphere or others in our space but they write about us very rarely. When they talk about political hip-hop, they talk about something Kendrick or J. Cole said. What about Immortal Technique? Why are you acting like Immortal Technique doesn’t exist? Especially if you’re talking about what he specializes in. If they talk about spirituality in hip-hop, they might talk about Chance the Rapper, and that’s good but you know… I’m here.

In terms of being sensitive, I go to those interviews thinking “These people aren’t going to care much.” Then I go and they all listen to our music. At least a good number of them do, and it really matters to them. I have been in those places and seen people with my lyrics tattooed on them. It’s like, “OK, but why don’t you talk about me then? How come when these conversations come up, you don’t talk about me like I’m part of hip-hop?” They don’t have an answer. I understand if somebody’s not going to play me on a mainstream radio station. I’ve been on Conan O’Brian. I’ve been on Jimmy Fallon. I don’t make hit records so I’m not going to be on those channels all the time, but when people who know hip-hop are talking about hip-hop, it doesn’t cost them anything to at least acknowledge the fact that Immortal Technique is here. When they talk about women in hip-hop, acknowledge the fact that Sa-Roc is here. Sa-Roc is killing it. What better image could you have of a black woman being amazing on the mic, extremely powerful and completely positive? They know who she is. It’s not that they don’t know her. It’d be one thing if they never heard of her but like… y’all know her! Now they have permission to talk about Rapsody because she is managed by Jay-Z’s label which is great but she has been great for eight years. I saw Tech N9ne deal with it too. What he did was he got vocal. He was just like “Y’all are going to acknowledge me.” He demanded it. That’s not my personality but he had to work hard and really fight for it.

The fact that rap is or has been banned in certain parts of the world, what does that tell you? How does that make you feel?

I understand. You’re talking about China and Iran, stuff like that? They’re talking about corporate mainstream rap music. They don’t know that there’s something other than that and it’s not their fault. Those people banned McDonald’s too. It’s not that they hate us. It’s not like if your mom made them a hamburger they’d go, “No I won’t eat this.” They don’t want McDonald’s in their country. They don’t want the global monoculture to come and reshape their way of life. They see rap as part of that. If rock was the biggest music, they’d be banning rock. It’s just a misunderstanding. I was in danger when I was in Iran because they asked me to perform a song in this private gathering and they broadcast it on TV. It’s illegal to broadcast rap there. So I was actually physically in danger and had to leave the country. But I understand – I get it.

Do you have a favorite verse in the Quran?

There are so many amazing ones but there’s one in the chapter entitled, “Women” that says “Oh mankind, reverence your Lord who created you from one soul, and from that one soul created countless men and women. Reverence your Lord from whom you demand your rights.” Because rights actually come from the Creator. A court can’t give or take away your rights. “Reverence the Lord through whom you demand your mutual rights and reverence the wombs that bore you.” I don’t have a favorite but that’s one of my favorites. It’s the idea that human beings all come from one soul. God created one soul and then all the souls that ever were came from that one. The relationship between the creator and the soul is everything. Then, reverence the wombs that bore you. We’re commanded that the womb is an incredibly sacred reality. The womb is the embodiment of the nurturing mercy of the creator. The same word for reverencing God is used for reverencing the womb. It means our mothers and all women in general but it also is symbolically talking about the wombs that created us. The community that raised me is a womb that I have to respect. I can’t just go around the world gallivanting on stage and not say anything about the people that raised me. You’re listening to me because I’m good at rapping, but I’m good at it because the black community embraced me, cared for me, taught me how to live, see myself, survive, and taught me this musical form. You’re not going to celebrate me without at least hearing something about the people that gave me this gift. You put a flower in a vase and say “Oh look how beautiful it is.” But you cut it off from its roots and are watching it die. You’re not going to put me in a vase and watch me die. I’m connected to my roots. I bring my roots with me wherever I go.

In “Father Figures” we hear the line “It’s very important to me that whatever I have to say is worth saying.” How do you know what’s worth saying?

Early in my career I had a whole bunch of songs about Truth. “The undisputed truth,” “the truth is here”, “truth is.” Whatever is most real to me, I share. I’m not saying that’s the most important, but that’s my specific contribution to what’s worth saying. I’ve been given a certain experience and certain things have occurred to me. I share what’s important to me. Where that falls in the spectrum of importance is not for me to say, but that’s what I have to contribute: what I’ve experienced and what I’ve understood about what I’ve experienced.

Brother Ali definitely has a lot of amazing things to contribute. He tells us to use our words wisely, remembering what is important to us. He teaches that you don’t have to judge others to share what you believe, because it’s likely that no two people will have the exact same views on everything. He stated that his purpose is to connect us through meaning, and reminds us that our differences make us beautiful – we are like the fingerprints of God.

We know we’ll get a meaningful experience and deep sense of connection on the roller coaster of reality that Brother Ali takes us through in his performance, so don’t miss the next show in South Lake Tahoe.

-Amanda Jacobs

Concert review: Brother Ali sends message of love to Lake Tahoe.

ABOUT Amanda Jacobs

Amanda Jacobs
Amanda Jacobs is a creator that enjoys being a microphone for artists to share the message behind their music. She currently lives in Austin, Texas, but often misses the spirit of the mountains in Lake Tahoe.

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