The 2016 Presidential election may have transpired months ago, but the topic remains fresh on the minds of many. Rapper Brother Ali, one of hip-hop’s more staunch voices when it comes to sociopolitical issues, shares his disdain for Donald Trump’s politics, particularly his divisive and racially-charged rhetoric.
“We’ve got somebody in office that’s actively like a hate-cho,” Brother Ali states as he relaxes on a couch in the XXL office, before mimicking Trump’s discriminatory tirades. “‘I’d kill you if I could, I’d keep you out of this country at all costs, I’ll spend a billion dollars getting rid of you.’”
Having flown in from Minneapolis earlier that day, the Rhymesayers Entertainment artist may have appeared to be a bit fatigued, but visibly perked up when lamenting how the current climate in America shouldn’t influence people to adopt the teachings and tactics of the oppressor.
“It’s real easy in a time like this to be like, ‘Yeah, we’re fighting against them,’ and that’s real, that’s very real,” Ali explains, before adding, “but I’d say along with that, we’re not fighting them just ’cause we’re us and they’re them. We’re fighting them based on the virtue that that’s hateful and oppressive. So we have to fight that within ourselves by being loving and liberating.”
The fight that Brother Ali speaks of is a battle which he has personally endured during his five-year hiatus, a period of spiritual reflection that was devoid of any album releases from the notoriously terse lyricist.
With his last album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, having dropped in 2012, Brother Ali is looking to continue his streak of critical acclaim with his forthcoming album, All the Beauty in This Whole Life. Slated to be released on May 5, All the Beauty in This Whole Life is the culmination of a spiritual trek that has taught him that there is perfection to be found on the other side of ego and insecurity, which is one of the many lessons the indie maven is looking to share on this LP.
XXL sat down with Brother Ali to get the scoop on his hiatus, what inspired him to return back to the music scene, his new album and the impact that spirituality has on his life.
XXL: In the past, you’ve referenced a quote that says “In times of great suffering, the most important battles start from within.” Where did that quote come from or what inspired it?
Brother Ali: I actually wrote that quote. I come from a background of both community organizing and activism, and then also spirituality. And the people, both individuals and movements, that inspire me the most are ones that have a deep spiritual element to it.
It’s been five years since the release of your last album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color? What was the reason for the hiatus?
I think I went through a period where I was just tired of doing it. And not tired of the music part, but tired of the business part. And then, I’m a sensitive person; that’s how you make art, you can’t make art if you’re not sensitive. I don’t care who you are, if you’re crating art, you’re a sensitive person. So all of the weird stuff about making music and being what people consider being a entertainer, sometimes that stuff just hurts my feelings and I don’t feel like doing it.
It’s not the music, it’s not performing, it’s not the fans, but it’s all the other stuff. I’m not trying to beg anyone to care about me or think that what I’m doing is valuable, but every time I get in these situations, I always feel that. I feel like I’m supposed to be competing with creative people. If I’m not competing with people, it feels like I’m corny if I’m not. And if I’m not trying to get a leg up and always get the best looks or do it bigger and better than everyone else, then it’s almost like I’m a traitor or something like that. It’s almost like I’m betraying what this means and I see it the other way, I don’t see it like that at all and I don’t feel like doing that.
It’s a different scale, but I think it’s similar to what Dave Chappelle was experiencing, what Lauryn Hill experienced. A lot of people, we do this because we’ve inherited this ancient ability and art of telling stories and talking about meaning and connecting people in life—this is what it’s really all about. You can have a million pop songs, but if you have a song that makes people feel something, that’s when you become huge.
How are some of the ways you occupied your time during that period? Where you just sitting in the mountains or something?
Some of the time, yeah [laughs]. I still performed and toured, so a lot of those times where it would look like it’s time off, I still did 80 shows or something, you know what I mean? Immortal Technique, he hasn’t put music out in a long time either and he tours heavier than anybody and gets bigger crowds. That’s the thing, it’s such an illusion. Some of the people you would think is way more famous than Immortal Technique, they have one year where they’re doing stuff, and thy may get to stadium status, but most of ’em don’t get to stadium status who thinks they’re hot.
So I’ll be in a space and there’s people and it’s like, “Here comes this little underground guy,” but then there’s someone else and it’s like “This is what’s hot.” And they might do what they’re doing for a year or maybe even two years or something like that, but literally, if you look at someone like Immortal Technique, his tours are sold out, all across the country. You go to his shows and see what he means to people.
But I spent a lot of my time really trying to take this spiritual path seriously so being with teachers and being with the people of the spiritual path that are taking it seriously. So when you talk about sitting in the mountains, honestly, if you open up the artwork for this album, there’s pictures of me sitting on a mountain, and that’s part of it. And some of these songs I wrote in straight up silence. The people of spirituality will tell you you have to dedicate some time to being alone and being silent. So the first single, “Own Light,” I actually wrote that in complete silence. In that time “you’re not supposed to read or listen to anything or writ, so I wrote that whole song inside my hart and then when I came back, I was like “OK, I have it.” I had the music already, but I knew the song would eventually come. I wasn’t listening to the track when I wrote it, didn’t have a pen and paper, literally, that song just came into my heart. and I was in the mountains at that time too.
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At what point did you decide to begin working on this album and was there a moment of thought that made you be like, OK, it’s time?
A few of my spiritual guides told me that. They told me it was time to make music, and I didn’t feel like doing it. I did it because these people of spirituality, it’s not different than having a master in martial arts. Like, you go to the master and Mr. Miyagi or someone like that will have you just painting the fence and washing cars and all this stuff. So I went to them and I was at the point where I’d do anything that they told me to do.
So if they told me to start a garden or if they told me to clean toilets, I went into making music the exact same way. Whatever they told me to do, I would do it and I would try my best whether I wanted to do it or not. So I didn’t necessarily feel like doing that, but when I started, I realized why they told me to do that. It was ready for me, I was ready and it became an exercise of spirituality. How to talk when you’re just listening. Like, how to spit into a microphone, but it’s really listening. You might look at me like I’m crazy, but it’s possible to be talking, but you’re actually not, you’re just a vessel for something else. Something is speaking through you.
You touch on your faith as an Islamic MC in your music and “Pen to Paper” finds you tackling that subject again. What thoughts or sentiments were you looking to convey on this song?
That’s more about intention, that’s a statement of “What does this mean?” So I’m going into this album where I’m going to write these 15 songs and put them in the world, but why? Everything is in the intention, that’s the first thing you learn in spirituality or in martial arts; and martial arts is spirituality, just like yoga is spirituality. There’s always a physical element to spirituality. You’re never a spirit without your body, it’s all whole in one.
But everything begins with the intention, the why, the meaning, the motivation. Like, what’s animating this, what’s the force behind it, ’cause that’s what really matters. A piano player can sit down at the piano and play the same exact notes as someone is, but that other person has a different intention, you know what I mean? That’s ’cause of the intention.
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“Pray for Me” is about your experiences as an albino. What spurred you to touch on this topic on this particular album?
It’s kind of one of the defining things in my life. When I’m in the world, you have the real you and you have the way the world sees you and that does inform who you are because that’s your experience, and I’m in the world as an albino; it has shaped me a lot. That particular story is really about the fact that my mom, who is this pretty white lady, so she doesn’t know what it means to walk in a room and your physical appearance makes you a target or makes you like you don’t belong just because of how you look.
She’s never experienced that, so she’s like, “Oh, let’s dye your hair,” and it’s a whole fiasco and that actually was way more depressing because what that was saying to me is that this is a secret that you need to hide so you can be acceptable to these people. So really, underneath, it was you’re bad, they’re right, you’re bad, whereas, I had an elder Black lady in my life that basically taught me the concept of Black is beautiful, as a way of [saying] you have to know who you are, you have to be beautiful to yourself. Once you have that, you’re not looking to these people to validate you. Some of them will, some of them will think you’re fly or whatever, others won’t, but you need to know who you are. So that song is about that story, but that’s a major key to why I am the way I am. That happened when I was seven or eight years old and that’s shaped the whole person that I am in so many ways.
“Out of Here” was inspired by the suicide of your father and grandfather. How have those tragedies altered your artistry and your outlook on life?
I think it was just the experience of that and those are things that never leave you, like you are that person, when something like that happens, it becomes a part of you. You’ll never be the same after that so I have to make a song about everything that’s made me, because that’s what we’re doing. To me, that’s the purpose of this. But if I could make songs that go in the club, I would do it.
Like, I don’t think that music is wack, it doesn’t really do it for me, even though some of it does. I don’t relate to that experience of being the man in the club, but I have a lot other experiences that are major in my life. So anything that’s that big, there’s gonna be a song about it at some point. My grandfather [committed suicide in] 2002, which is about 15 years now, and my father [committed suicide in] 2010, maybe, so it’s not like it just happened, but sometimes it takes a while. And what’s powerful in the music is that I have something happen and then I’m hurt and I’m broken, then I heal, so making a song both about the healing and the hurting when I can write the song, I’m like, Oh, I healed. That’s what it is, I’m healing. Now I know all the things I felt, denying it and then being angry at the person and then blaming myself, and then pretending not to care, all that stuff.
Once I can write it, I can kind of understand what I lived through and people really respond to that, the people that listen. You can be a guide for people that are in it now. All you need for someone to guide you is someone that’s a couple steps ahead on the path. You don’t have to be at the end of the finish line. So the fact that I am healing or have healed from losing people to suicide. So someone that’s in it right now so it gives them a pathway gives them permission or a road map or a compass. And that’s really beautiful, honestly, that’s another reason why I keep coming back, ’cause that stuff really matters to me.
Ant of Atmosphere produced the entirety of this album. Was that a conscious decision beforehand or did that happen organically?
Yeah, that definitely was a conscious choice. I made all of my music with him, except for three projects I did with Jake One, but everything has been with Ant. The music that we make, it’s our friendship, but just in music form. Your closest companions are the people you process life with, and that’s my dude, so that’s how we are. So he’s processing life and that’s in the beats that he’s making, so if you hear, we both had a big turn in our life that led us to make this album. So I wanted to make an album about beauty, but he also had to make beautiful beats too. We both, at the same time, but separately, made this towards healing and beauty.
What are some of the collaborations on this album that fans can look forward to?
I reached out to people that I feel are doing what I’m doing and we’re already in the same kind of vibe, I didn’t choose it ’cause I thought it would be a hot good look or help me sell records or anything like that. So Amir Sulaiman is the main one, who’s a poet—my favorite poet in the world. He’s on “Pen to Paper,” but his voice is throughout the album too. He’s kind of like the narrator. He’s one of my dearest friends in the world. He actually hit me up to interview me way back in the day. He was writing for some magazine or something; we finished the interview in a half hour and talked for hours, I remember it was dark outside. And he’s one of those people that I don’t even have to tell him how I’m feeling about something, he already knows how I’m gonna react, what I think and with him, same thing. And I lived in Oakland for a while and we actually lived together. But also, in a certain segment of the Muslim community, he’s Jay Z and ‘Pac and Biggie rolled in one. It’s a real specific segment of the Muslim community. To us, that would be like having Rakim on the album or someone like that.
DeM atlaS, he’s a young guy on Rhymesayers and he’s kind of like a little brother to me, so we did a joint together. He sings the chorus for “Special Effects.” And then Sa-Roc, she’s on the Rhymesayers label too and she’s someone that I really love so she did a joint. And she actually gonna be on my tour, The Own Light Tour, which is a celebration for the album and she’ll be on that whole tour. There’s a guy named Idris Phillips, who does one of the choruses.
When is the tour going down?
May 3. So the album and the tour are a coinciding thing.
You’re signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment, which is one of the more respected brands in indie hip-hop. What do you feel makes the label such an institution in hip-hop?
Because it’s based on people, first and foremost. The core of it is not based on anything other than the caliber of the people that we work with, and that’s for artists and also people in the office. It’s really about the principals that drive it. First of all, it’s just genuine love for the culture of hip-hop, so all of the people who started that label, they were all B-Boys at some point and they’re all people that just really know and love the culture.
So you can have a conversation with Atmosphere about who the hot graffiti writers in France are right now versus who they were in the ’80s and they’re gonna be able to do that. And then after that, it’s also about being honest and being genuine with each other. It’s also about having a real connection with each other and having a real connection with the fans. You can’t really be a diva on Rhymesayers and it’s not only because it’s underground. There’s a lot of underground divas that don’t talk to their fans, they’re not available, they’re not accessible, they’re not vulnerable. It really is about a position of serving the audience, we’re serving them. So all of our ticket prices are low, a lot of people buy our albums directly from us, our merchandise prices are low. There’s other ways to do it, there’s just different approaches to all this stuff, but one of the things that we do is things are priced to where they’re available to everybody, so I’d say those are the main things.
You’re often noted as one of the more insightful and philosophical artists in rap. When do you feel your quest to seek enlightenment began?
From the very beginning. Like to me, hip-hop, I never saw it as being different than that, it’s all spiritual, it’s all political. There’s even something revolutionary about people having fun and enjoy themselves. So I’ve always seen it all as being connected.
What are some of the books or teachings that initially caught your attention?
Well, the first book I ever got was by KRS-One and Nelson George, and they had a book [on the] Stop the Violence movement [called Stop the Violence: Overcoming Self-Destruction] that they did and that was the first book that I ever read. And then I went to the lecture tour when I was 13, when KRS-One was speaking and there was a question and answer period at the end, it was at a university, and I went to the mic and I was like “Hey, I bought this book. I read it, it’s the first book I ever read. I memorized every word you ever recorded and released. I know you’re busy right now, but when this is over, would you mind signing this for me?” And he was like, “Nah, come up on the stage right now.”
So when I was 13, he brought me on stage, asked me questions, and he’s the one that told me about The Autobiography of Malcolm X and when the movie came out a little later, that changed everything. Other things that I really love, I’m really glad someone made a biography about James Baldwin this year, because he’s one of the greatest of all time. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, even if you’re not really a reader, read two chapters and see if you don’t finish it in a week, tops. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin those are two good ones to start with.
A few rappers, like Kanye West and Waka Flocka, have mentioned a desire to run for president. Do you feel there will ever be a time when hip-hop artists or figures begin running for office, whether locally or nationally?
Yeah, I mean Rhymefest ran for [Chicago] Alderman. That’s my man. We went and helped campaign for him and he almost won. And there have been other people that have run for staff. And one of the representatives from New York just stood up in Congress and spit Biggie rhymes, so I think it’s here. There’s nobody that hasn’t been inspired by hip-hop in some kind of way.
So do you ever see somebody from the hip-hop community actually winning?
It really seems like people from popular culture. That’s the future of politics.
What lessons or perspectives do you hope listeners take away from this album, All The Beauty In This Whole Life?
I mean, there’s no way to tell other people how to receive it; you have no control over that. But the driving force that I put into that stuff is that beauty and truth and mercy and love and justice, those are real things, those are real forces and beauty is the outward manifestation of those things. So you can say more and communicate a lot with beauty. And beauty has a way of pulling our soul towards the truth, in a way that’s subtle.
So if I had a hope for how other people would take it, it would probably be like that but I honestly really made it ’cause I needed to and I was honestly saying what I needed to say. And then also, if I’m gonna stand on stage in front of people for an hour and they’re gonna look up at me and listen to me and move their body and learn the words and everything, I have to think about what I’m saying to people. Like, if I have an hour of someone’s time and if I’m gonna make a song that they’re gonna listen to and that they’re gonna memorize and it’s gonna be in their heart, like, what am I gonna give them, you know?
What’s next for Brother Ali after the release of this album?
Professionally and music, it’s the tour, you know, we’re putting the album out and go on tour the same day. More of the same, I would say. More traveling. In traditional cultures and societies, like, everyone knew who the saint was or everybody knew who the mystic was, or like, who the high priestess is. Like, everybody knew who that person is, and maybe they’re outside the city or something like that, but you know who they are and you know how to visit them and you know what that looks like.
Whereas in this culture, it’s really difficult to know, those people are completely hidden secrets. So for me, once I found people like that, I never wanna leave their side, I just wanna be with them all the time. Because you witness someone that really is a perfected jewel and that they really are overcome by love and truth and beauty. They’re not battling their inner demons anymore. Like, there are people that win. Most of us battle our inner demons for our whole life, but there are people that freaking win. Like, they win.
There’s people that get to that other side, mentally and spiritually how they feel as a being.
And there’s nothing ugly left about them. There’s no ego left and they would call that a saint. In this culture, we don’t believe that that exists anymore, just like how we don’t believe in miracles. We’ll be like, “Well, no one is perfect.” Nah, that’s a creation of the modern world that say nobody’s perfect. There are people who are perfected and they’re not battling their demons anymore, they have won.
They wouldn’t say that they won ’cause they don’t see themselves that way, but anyone that witnesses them with a pure heart is like, “No, there’s zero ulterior motive in this person, they never would hurt anybody.” It’s not like they’re thinking to themselves… it’s not like they have some crazy thoughts that they have to suppress. Like, I’m thinking like, Oh, he thinks he’s better than me, that’s what I’m saying. Like, that’s why I don’t like a lot of industry stuff. Like, this is cool because we can just sit and talk, you know what I mean, but if I go to SXSW or something, my heart is saying all type of stupid stuff.
Because you’re worrying about other people’s intentions and this and that and you just wanna be with genuine people, and you gotta filter out certain stuff and energies around.
So sometimes those guides will be like, “No, you need to go do that” and I know now that that’s part of why they told me to do this. You have to face it. You have to face the things about life that you don’t like. But also, they’re gonna give you the tools to do it. You gotta go back in.
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