Brother Ali: Truth Hurts

Minneapolis-via-Madison, Wisconsin MC Brother Ali may be the longest “Overnight Sensation” in years. After releasing a self-produced demo in 2000, Ali joined up with Rhymesayers and dropped 2003’s critically-acclaimed Shadows on the Sun. Since then, a divorce, custody battles, poverty and homelessness have all dropped Ali’s way, and the rapper hasn’t been shy about dealing […]

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Wisconsin MC Brother Ali may be the longest “Overnight Sensation” in

years. After releasing a self-produced demo in 2000, Ali joined up with

Rhymesayers and dropped 2003’s critically-acclaimed Shadows on the Sun.

Since then, a divorce, custody battles, poverty and homelessness have

all dropped Ali’s way, and the rapper hasn’t been shy about dealing

with these experiences in his latest album The Undisputed Truth.

A devout Hip-Hop fan since the age of seven, (Ali wrote his first rhyme

when he was nine), the Christian-born rapper embraced Islam as a teen

(“It was everything I wanted to be,” he says), and the genre and

religion have since been driving forces in Ali’s life. On Truth,

Ali rhymes like he’s got one day left to live, fitting in everything

from personal struggles and celebrations to political observations and

harsh battle rhymes. Over skilled production work by Ant (Atmosphere), Truth

is the sound of someone putting conviction over consequence and will

probably be on a number of “Top 10” lists come December.

caught up with the rapper at the beginning of his tour to talk

politics, religion and, oh, almost forgot, Hip-Hop. Your last full-length album, Shadows on the Sun, came out four years ago. What lessons did you learn since then that you applied on The Undisputed Truth?

Brother Ali: When we made Shadows,

we were making whatever felt right to me and Ant. We didn’t even think

about fans. We were just making what we wanted to make. And then,

“Forest Whitaker” [Ali’s self-deprecating, celebratory ode to accepting

yourself] was a last-minute song I made to make Ant laugh. That’s why

it’s so short and it ended up being the song that got the highest

response. I’m like, “Man, I’m just talking about all my own personal

details.” So that really showed me that it’s not just about people

having your exact same experiences, but it’s the feeling that they get.

‘Cause everybody’s feelings are the same even though our experiences

are different. So, if you just put the way that you feel about this

s**t as thick as possible, people respond to that. Can you walk me through the process of Undisputed Truth? Did you have any plan on what you wanted with this album or was it more of a natural feel?

Brother Ali: I had a little bit of anxiety about actually starting the

record. I knew that I had to talk about all these [personal] things and

that I didn’t want to do them the obvious way. I didn’t want my divorce

song to be like, “F**k you, b***h. I hate you.” I didn’t want my song

about my son to be like, “Oh, you’re my perfect angel.” I didn’t want

to make the Will Smith song. But in my head, I was trying to concoct

these different ways to approach this stuff. And then finally Ant was

like, “It’s been too long. You’re finally off tour. You’re coming to my

house and we’re making this record.” “Whatcha Got,” the opening track, is one of the fiercest

battle songs in years. Were there specific targets in mind or was it

directed at Hip-Hop in general?

Brother Ali: That song is talking about a lack of appreciation for this

legacy that we are a part of. Emceeing is a really important,

meaningful scene in the history of music and culture. So that song is

directed at these guys who just jump up and go, “I used to play b-ball

and now I rap.” It’s bulls**t. A lot of these guys, I’m like, “This is

not your story.” I know way too many people who really live like this

that it’s like, “When I hear you, I don’t think this is really you.”

I’ve dedicated my life to [emceeing]. Literally. It’s the one thing

I’ve done since I was nine years old. It’s funny that I said [on

“Whatcha Got,”] “It’s bad enough that you muthaf*ckas are on the same shelf as ‘Rock the Bells’,”

talking about LL Cool J. I’ve seen a lot of these things like “Ali’s

dissing the Rock The Bells tour” and I’m like, “See, this is exactly

what I’m talking about.” [Laughs] If you don’t know the song “Rock the

Bells,” you don’t need to listen to me. You need to take a history

lesson first. Do you think this lack of appreciation is the biggest problem facing Hip-Hop?

Brother Ali: No, no. It’s the companies. But I’m not doing what I’m

doing because I think there’s something wrong with Hip-Hop. I think

that Hip-Hop is what it is. But we need to really look at what these

predatory companies are doing. All of these big corporations that got

involved with Hip-Hop basically use it to make money and the way that

they market it is what’s making it look the way it is. They’re taking

these kids that have no other options and they’re saying, “You’re

talented. You look good. You got personality. Yeah, we’ll sign you as a

rapper, but you have to do this and this and this. Otherwise, if we

don’t get a hit from you right away, you’re right back in the ghetto

again.” You can’t blame these kids who are like, “Tell me what I gotta

do and I’ll do it.” So I think that Hip-Hop, and specifically Black

people, are being blamed for some s**t that’s not their fault. Do you think it’s masking a bigger problem?

Brother Ali: If you’re looking at the messages that are being promoted

in this music and saying it’s damaging to the kids, that is true. That

is completely true. But why is it like that? Why is that all the kids

are hearing? Why aren’t the kids hearing Mr. Lif too? It used to be

that if you were involved in Hip-Hop, you listened to De La Soul, Tribe

Called Quest, N.WA., Public Enemy, and Scarface. Why is it now that all

we’re hearing is gangsta rap? And it’s not even real gangsta rap. When

you listen to Ice-T, he’s giving you the real s**t of what it’s like to

be a criminal. When you listen to most of what’s on the radio, you

don’t hear the reality of it. And that’s not our f**kin fault. It’s not

Hip-Hop’s fault. It’s not like Mr. Lif doesn’t exist. It’s not like

Brother Ali doesn’t exist. Those companies are the ones that are doing

that. Talk to them about why it’s like that, not us.

My whole thing has been to continue that legacy of giving a voice to

what nobody else is saying. That story that’s been on the radio so much

and on MTV, that’s not really my story. I see it a different way. These

are the things that I go through and the things a lot of real people

are going through, like struggling with raising our kids, falling in

and out of love, wanting to be more free and live out our potential,

and struggling with what’s going on in politics. Real life stuff. Let’s talk a little about religion. Right now, there

seems to be a dividing line for some people between being Muslim and

being American. As an American who is Muslim, how do you reconcile

these two things?

Brother Ali: I think the thing about America is that we’re really

cheated out of being connected to the rest of the world. We’re taught

that we’re so great that we don’t really have to give a damn about

anybody else. We don’t learn about them. We don’t learn other

languages. We don’t really travel anywhere. We’re so disconnected as

Americans from other people and it’s f**ked up ‘cause then when

something happens, we have no clue how anybody else could ever feel any

other way than how we feel. There are certain people who are really

benefiting from Muslims being vilified and Muslims being seen as one

thing. They just take one aspect of us, which is the very militant,

angry side, and they make it seem that that’s what we all are and

that’s just not the reality of it. What would you say to someone who automatically equates “Muslim” with “Extreme fundamentalist”?

Brother Ali: It’s obvious that that’s been a trick that’s been used

over the years to be like, “These people are the enemy and we all need

to unite against them.” They need Muslims to be the enemy right now and

they’ve taken a small percentage of what we are – which does exist –

and they’ve painted us all like that’s what we all are. It’s really

unfortunate that that’s a lot of peoples’ introduction [to Muslims].

Even people learning about Islam now, they’re not learning about it

from Muslims which should be a big red flag. Why would you want to

learn about Islam from a Christian perspective? That’d be like

something wanting to learn about America from Al-Jazeera. Is it a question of interpretation of the religion?

Brother Ali: I mean, perception is reality to the perceiver. Especially

within the Arab world, there’s a lot of confusion between what is

actually Islam and what is culture and tradition. Being a person who

didn’t learn Islam from Arabs, I see a lot of things where I’m like,

that’s not what the Koran is telling us. That’s not the example of

Prophet Muhammad. This is different. This is your

feelings. But as a human being, you understand those feelings. These

are people with no resources who feel like the whole world is against

them and the whole world kind of is against them. Nobody’s really

standing up for them in any serious way. They feel desperate. On a

human level, I don’t judge them. I don’t judge necessarily a suicide

bomber on a human level. As a Muslim, though, we’re taught better than


There’s not this big Us vs. Them mentality that I think some Muslims

have and people think all of us have. That’s not something that comes

from our religion. So people reading this interview, it’s no different

from being involved in Hip-Hop for all these years. I’ve been involved

since ’84. I’ve read the books. I know what Hip-Hop is because I’ve

seen it. But you couldn’t blame somebody if they just watched TV and

listened to the radio for thinking that Hip-Hop is just this

exaggerated, sex, money and violence thing. Where do you find the line between conveying your ideas and preaching?

Brother Ali: The thing is that it’s all personal. I’m not telling you

what you should do. I’m not telling you what you should know. I’m just

telling you how I

feel about it. I’m saying that this is how it feels when these things

are in my face all the time and when I’m told all the time what a great

country America is, but I know the people who are suffering. This is

what it looks like to me and that’s it. I’m not the expert. I’m

not the leader. I’m not the great teacher. I’m just saying this is a

point of view that I think a lot of other people have that I think

needed to be expressed.

You see all these people with the patriotism stuff and you say, well,

ya know, there’s another side to this. This guy lives on that side and

is giving you a little bit of a window into what it’s like to be on the

other side. It’s hard to maybe always process when there’s nobody

speaking for you or when there’s no voices out there that are really

communicating the way you feel about stuff. So when you hear a voice

saying, “Okay, I’m frustrated about this, and I have no idea what to

do,” and to have somebody out there speaking for that, is really fresh

to me. A lot of people tell me that it makes them not feel crazy or

makes them not feel alone. I take that s**t to heart because of the

fact that I’m really being real. The things that they’re connecting

with in that music, then they’re connecting with my real soul and

heart. Numbers come and go, but I know that I made an album that is

pretty good at representing me as a man. So the people who really

connect with it, that’s the biggest achievement to me.