@16: Brother Ali talks rap roots and racial judgments
Editor’s note: This marks the sixth installment of ThreeSixty’s @16 series, where our teen writers interview Minnesota newsmakers and difference makers about life as a 16-year-old high school student.
Albino. Muslim. Rapper.
These are the characteristics that tend to define Brother Ali in interviews.
Yet as you quickly learn in an hour-long conversation with him, they are broad labels that don’t begin to describe a man who has become one of the most prominent musicians in Minnesota.
As a teenager in the ‘90s, Ali began using the political fuel of hip-hop to react to the same racial issues he faced as an outcast growing up in the Midwest. Because of his physical appearance—he’s legally blind due to albinism—Ali sought a community he could belong to. African-American peers welcomed him, and after an introduction to breakdancing, he began to rap as a teenager.
“It was, like, a chance for me to be somebody in the world. And a chance for me to take hold of the fact that everybody was looking at me, and everybody was noticing me,” he said. “I was able to use that in a way that empowered me instead of being treated a certain way.”
Taking control of his identity also extends to religion. Ali converted to Islam when he was 15, a decision influenced by hip-hop and Malcolm X, which proved to be his salvation when friends around him began making unwise choices about drugs and violence.
“I don’t know if I would have been able to stand up to the peer pressure without something like Islam,” he said.
A member of Rhymesayers Entertainment, a local hip-hop label that’s also home to Atmosphere and Evidence, Ali continues to stand up for what he believes in. His latest album, 2012’s “Mourning in America and Dreaming In Color,” addresses slavery, race, the Occupy movement, the hypocrisy of war—and perhaps most important, the daily struggle he sees around him.
As part of ThreeSixty’s Race Issue for March, reporter Aamino Hirmoge spoke with Brother Ali about his rap roots, the effect race has on music and how he’s endured a lifetime of labels—including one truly malicious childhood nickname.
What were your teenage years like?
It was crazy. I had a lot of different kinds of things going on at the same time. But I think it was seriously defined by the political and economic environment. When I was a teenager, it was the early ‘90s and the crack epidemic was really big in the Midwest. And racial tension was at a high. Things were very, very tense then … tensions were really high and it was a lot of life and death reality going on at the time because of the drug situation.
So, that’s the time when, musically, hip-hop took a turn to being really political. Even an artist like Ice Cube, who really started the whole ‘gangsta rap’ thing with N.W.A. … he became a political artist. That kind of laid the foundation for what Tupac ended up doing, which basically proved that the people that are in the street, living that street life, were already on the fringe. They are already experiencing the worst.
And during my teenage years, my high school years, that’s also when I converted to Islam. Malcolm X was really prominent during those years. Spike Lee did the (“Malcolm X” with Denzel Washington) movie in, like ‘92 or ‘93. But the lead up to that movie, it was like a three-year lead up. And Malcolm was very popular. That started because of hip-hop. Because of Public Enemy and people like KRS-One, those people mentioning him or talking about him, sampling his voice. And then everyone knew that this movie’s coming, so people were wearing shirts with “X” on them. And just, Malcolm was very, very popular.
I actually got the advice to read his autobiography from KRS-One, who was my favorite rapper at the time. I went to a lecture that he did … and that was all part of listening to this music and seeing that race tensions were really high. I was part of a few different incidents at school and stuff that almost turned into like, riots. And my friends were shooting people, and getting shot, and going to jail over drugs, and drug money, stuff like that all around me. All of those things were going on. It was a serious time.
How did music shape those years? Specifically, how did you come to discover your hip-hop identity?
Well, the most important people in my life from the time I was in second grade—I didn’t have a whole lot of friends. At all. And being albino, and looking different, and living in the Midwest, which was highly segregated and not very diverse … I moved every year.
So, I was always in these little towns throughout Michigan, which is a really conservative state. A really segregated state. A highly racially charged state. Michigan and Florida are really similar in that they have these centers—Detroit in Michigan and Miami in Florida—where there’s a high concentration of people of color, a high concentration of poverty and crime. But they also have renaissance things within them, too. Like, in Detroit, there are black intellectuals and all of these cultural movements. But then outside of there, it’s really segregated and overtly racist. I was living in towns like that.
So, oh, that’s also when AIDS … so, now I’m going back to when I was little to kind of give some context. When I was in elementary school, that’s when AIDS first started to become known. So, at one of the schools, just to give an example of what my relationship was like with other kids—that was my nickname in school. AIDS. Like, that was my name at school.
Nobody knew my name at school. AIDS was my name.
Just to be mean to you? Kids called you AIDS?
Yeah, yeah. Because they’re just like, “Yeah, he has AIDS.” Nobody knew what it was, you know what I mean? There was a mystery around it. So I had to experience that. Those were the situations I dealt with at that time in the Midwest. Now, in Minneapolis and St. Paul, there’s a Hmong community. There’s a Somali community. People from entire areas. But at that time in those little cities, it wasn’t like that. It was, maybe 90 percent white and 10 percent black, then maybe like, an Asian family or a family from India. Those places just weren’t diverse.
And so, all of the important people in my life … the only time that I ever had friends at all was when I started to form a connection with the black community. And so, that was my whole existence in life. And it was that way from the time I was seven years old until I started doing underground rap. My friends, when I was a kid, were “b-boys.” They were break dancers. They were into rap.
And so I got into the music through dancing … in the ‘80s. But that time I talked about, when the lyrics got really important, rap lyrics were changing people at that point. If you look at Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—Public Enemy and Ice Cube and Rakim, those people were our Malcolm X’s. People that listen to that music felt like they were part of a movement, and a lot of us were … feeling this impact.
That’s when I was like, “OK, dancing is fun and all that … but rapping needs to become my culture, my expression.” When I turned 13, 14, that’s when I knew I was going to actually rap.
What was the response?
The response was always really good. Partially because I’ve always been good at it, and I’ve always spent a lot of time working on it. I always literally memorized everything that I could get my hands on. So I memorized every rap lyric that I could own for a 10 or 15-year period. And I still know them all. Every word that existed in all the important rap music from, like ‘85 to ‘95, that ten-year period.
Also, it meant a lot more to me because when I would go to new schools, or I’d be in new environments, I obviously looked really different. So everybody notices that right away. But then, the ability to rap? I could shift the attention I was getting into something that I could be celebrated for rather than, you know, being made fun of.
Were you ever discriminated against or bullied because of your choice in music?
When I think about bullying, I think of something physical. And I was always able to shut that down. So I wouldn’t say bullied. But I was ridiculed, mostly from white people.
There were two different categories. The white people that wanted nothing to with black culture or black expressions. They just thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever. They had no understanding for me, no time for me. And I had no time for them. So I just didn’t exist to them.
Then there were the white kids, that without having a great connection to black people, wanted to adopt certain elements of blackness, as like, a costume, instead of developing themselves as individuals. They kind of took on this persona that had nothing to do with their own experiences. And those white people actually hated me.
And so, those were all of the worst challenges and the worst enemies I had. The whole idea of “talking black?” That’s how they wanted to express themselves, tried to carry themselves. It’s mockery. It’s mimicry. They had the mimicry thing going on. And I think they were really jealous of me because I was actually living the life that they were trying to emulate. But the difference is that they were trying to put it on from the outside, whereas mine came from the inside out.
There was a time where I felt like I needed to somehow differentiate myself from those people, but after awhile, I realized that the best thing to do is just let time be the teller. That in time, things would happen where genuine people would prove themselves genuine. I did go through a period where I was trying to prove—“I’m not like those guys.” And after awhile, I realized that I was honoring them too much by doing that. That they weren’t important enough for me to prove that I’m not them. They did not matter.
Do you think judgment about white rappers is decreasing because there are more in the mainstream—Eminem, Mac Miller, Macklemore, Atmosphere, you—than when you were younger?
It depends on who is doing the judging. Because for the hip-hop community, which has always been primarily black and brown, I don’t feel like they’ve ever been prejudiced. Like, no good white rapper has not had a chance to make it because they’re white in hip-hop. Ever. There’s never been a dope ass white rapper that hasn’t been embraced. Even with Vanilla Ice at first. I mean, then it came out that, ‘Oh, this is a lie,’ so it’s like, ‘Oh, I should have known.’ But 3rd Bass came out, and Beastie Boys—they’re probably the best example. They were embraced from the beginning. And they were very culturally white. Always been embraced.
With no other group of people would you expect to be able to go into their cultural space and be like, “the man,” there. Nobody would expect to go to the Somali mall and open the biggest business there and be all, “these people are discriminating against me!” Nobody would do that. But there’s still this idea that white people are entitled to everything. Everything black in America is still considered to be owned by white people, and it needs to be validated, and all this other stuff … That’s what’s so shocking to people. That white people can participate in something, and collaborate on something, without dominating the entire space.
There’s always been this phenomenon, culturally in America, where white people that are good at things that white people aren’t usually good at—that are usually black art forms—white people love to see themselves do things that they’re not supposed to be able to do. They love to see themselves be good at black things. You know, (basketball player) Larry Bird, to them is the greatest thing.
Now in the lie of post-racial America, white people like to be entertained by black celebrities and celebrate them. And that’s their evidence that racism isn’t a thing anymore. That’s still very much the case. Macklemore just won four Grammys against Kendrick Lamar and Drake, and all of the greatest rappers of the last 10 years. And he’s average at best. You know Adele? Adele can sing her ass off. But (my Rhymesayers friend) Ashanti’s cousin can sing better than her. If Adele was black, she’d just be another black woman that can sing. But they’re supposed to be able to sing like that.
It’s kind of like, if you see a little kid, if you see a three-year-old ride a two-wheel bike because they’re not supposed to be able to do that, it’s amazing to everybody. Whereas if a 12-year-old does it—“Look, I ride a bike!”—you’re supposed to be able to do that. There always has been an element of that, too. And that’s a huge thing.
Why do you think judgments about music are made based on race?
Well, historically, all of American music was created by black people. There’s not a form of American music that wasn’t created by black people. And all of the forms that people don’t think of as being that, they’re derivative.
We think about country as a really white art form, but country is a white version of the blues. White gospel music is a derivative of black gospel music. Rock ‘n’ roll was created by black artists—by blues artists who just played the blues faster … Somebody goes to the blues club and learns how to play that, or just listens to blues records and learns how to play it. That’s what the Rolling Stones did, The Beatles did. That’s what Elvis (Presley) did.
The difference with hip-hop was that it became known while it was still a black art form. And so that’s why it’s a little bit different for a white person coming in. The world got to know hip-hop while it was still a black art form. So, that’s why it got vilified and still is the way it is.
If you look at Macklemore winning (Grammy) awards, the basic message of his music is that hip-hop, as a culture, is this really immoral culture. “Thrift Shop” is basically saying, “You people are too materialistic. I’m not into all of that.” Nevermind the fact that he’s had everything he needed his whole life. He’s never been hungry a day in his life. Whereas somebody else that’s lived in a project and never had anything suddenly gets all this money …
And with his gay rights song (“Same Love”), the message of that song is that black people—hip-hop as a code for black people—are homophobic. And you should know better because you’re discriminated against. How dare you?
So, both of those things are a white person coming in and criticizing hip-hop culture for a white audience. And he gets the “Performance of the Year” award. The “Hip-Hop Album of the Year” award. So it’s still a real thing. It’s really interesting.
Why did Islam appeal to you? How did it help shape you?
Religiously and doctrine wise, it really spoke to me. I was always really spiritual and I wanted to believe the Christianity that I was being taught. But I just couldn’t. There were theological things and doctrine things that I just couldn’t believe. And hearing Malcolm X’s teachings just solidified it that much more to me.
But then also external things—the fact that everybody respected Islam. So, even though all of my friends were smoking, drinking, selling drugs, carrying guns, getting in fights and having sex, all that, my spirit was (saying) that wasn’t me. I don’t know if I would been able to stand up to the peer pressure without something like Islam.
Whereas if you were a Muslim, and you really were about that life, that was respect. And that’s where the name Brother Ali came from. (Friends) would be playing dice or smoking or whatever, but when I’d come around, they’d be like, “Oh, don’t do that around Brother Ali.” It was almost like a title of respect. So, there was that.
But then also on another level, it was a transformative thing. And the more that I talk about it to white people or European-Americans who are trying to make a transition out of viewing the world through the idea of whiteness … there’s got to be something to help them transition, and there’s got to be some transformational thing that happens. And there’s not a clear roadmap on how that’s done. Everyone that I’ve ever talked to—I interview people about this, I interview white people who do anti-racist work—and every single person felt like they were completely on their own making that transition. And I know a lot of people … Islam was that transition for them.
What advice do you have for teenagers who are exploring their identity for the first time?
To me, the coolest thing about being a youth is that you’re in a lot of situations that aren’t comfortable and aren’t all set up for you to be comfortable. I think that’s a huge opportunity. It used to be that you get married, you start having kids and you’re expected to work. It’s a new phenomenon to have a maturing, early adult set-like mind—a real sense of things and not have to take care of all your needs. And most people waste that time. But the people that see it for what it really is and make use of it, you could do some really amazing things.
— This is an edited transcript of ThreeSixty’s interview
THE BROTHER ALI FILE
- Profession: Hip-hop artist, signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment
- Real name: Jason Newman (Ali Newman became his legal name in the mid-‘90s)
- Age: 36
- High school: Robbinsdale Cooper in New Hope (Ali dropped out before graduating and has since become a stay-in-school advocate)
- Find ‘em: On Twitter @BrotherAli and www.brotherali.com
- Best advice for teenagers: “Keep being in new situations and keep having to question yourself and the things you think you know. Question what you think you know. All the stuff you think you know. Get in a situation where your survival, and your happiness, and all that stuff, demands you to question all the things you think you know.”