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by David Johnson-Igra on Oct 01, 2009
The first thing people notice about Brother Ali is that heís a white albino rapper. To ask him about this fact completely ignores his life, his struggles, and the experiences heís witnessed. With his last album The Undisputed Truth, Ali delved into experiences like his failing marriage and being homeless, providing one of the rawest personal narratives in recent hip hop albums. With his new album Us, Ali now looks outside himself, trying to understand American society discussing slavery, rape, and race. His messages are not preachy but insightful, encouraging and entirely what hip hop needs. SF Station took a moment to speak with Ali, about his story and ours.
SF Station (SFS): Youíve put a lot of emotions and truth in each of your tracks. Do you ever worry youíre being too honest?
Brother Ali (BA): No. As soon as Ant and I started working together, I adapted the approach to be as open and honest as possible.
SFS: Do you ever hold anything back?
BA: Yes, I hold back things that I think may hurt the people close to me. I have a code where I donít put other peoplesí business in songs that I think can hurt them. I put all my business in my songs. Iíll tell you about my marriage that broke up, but Iíll never tell you about all the crazy stuff my ex-wife did or continues to do. No matter how I feel about her, thatís not right for me to voice for that reason.
SFS: Compared to your earlier work, this new album, along with ďUncle Sam Goddamn", has a lot more political conscious messages. What changed? Was there a particular event or person that motivated you to go in this direction?
BA: Anytime you start talking about people and the way the world affects people it can be considered political or conscious. All my music is personal, itís not political. It feels political, because there is some politics in it, there is a bunch of people. We talk about something personal that rings true in a bigger group, that stuff feels political, but none of them were intended to be that.
To me political [sounds like] Iím telling you what needs to be changed in the world, or Iím telling what law needs to be passed, or Iím telling you what you need to be doing different, and thatís not it at all, this is just how I see things.
SFS: With artists like you and Eminem proving that anyone can be an amazing emcee, do you think race is still a factor in being accepted as a true emcee?
BA: Nope, I donít think it ever was. I have no patience for white people whining about not being accepted in hip hop.
SFS: Iím not just talking about Caucasian. Iím thinking about Latin, or Asian. Iím talking Big Pun, Fat Joe, and Jin.
BA: Iíve never seen that as being real. In terms of having trouble being accepted for your ethnicity in hip hop. If youíre dope, people are going to embrace and accept you. Itís always been like that. The second Pun came along he was accepted, and Joe was already accepted and there were other Latin dudes way before that.
SFS: On ďBreaking Dawn", there is a point where you say, ďThem folks having singing like this for years,Ē what is the importance to you that people understand this music legacy?
BA: Iím not trying to gain an audience with anything I do. I donít do anything to appeal to these people, or any particular demographic. I mention it on ďDaylight", on Undisputed Truth; there are a lot of people that never listen to rap until they feel they can identify. Thatís fine. On a certain level I understand that.
But if youíre brand new to hip hop, donít start judging it. Donít tell me Iím the greatest emcee of all time, donít tell me I saved hip hop, because thatís not what itís about. When people embrace us -- people like me, Aesop, and Slug -- as a way of saying, ďI hate rap, but I like you,Ē well thatís crazy -- because I love rap.
SFS: What Iím trying to ask about with ďBreaking DawnĒ is that the track suggests that this is a historically black musical culture, and it seems that youíre paying odeÖ
BA: Iím sorry to cut you off, but that song is basically my story. I used singing, and class and the race divide as a way of telling that story, and those are elements. I learned hip hop within the hip hop world. Hip hop has gotten to that point where people listen to hip hop and appreciate it that are not from the hip hop world, traditionally.
That song is about more than that -- itís also about feeling rejected and wanting to be accepted. Once you get up close to that group, you realize theyíre not doing any better than you are. Itís about inclusion and exclusion, and wanting to be accepted. You realize this isnít any better than what I had before thatís really what I experienced with the race thing. People think that itís so different, that the experience is so different, they trade benefits for losses, and everything comes at a cost.
SFS: Will hip hop ever have a female or gay Rakim?
BA: Well, definitely the female is an issue. You were talking about ethnicity in rap, and in my mind that has never been an issue. In my mind what really is a problem -- we have such a deficit of strong female voices. To me, that is something we need to focus on. I got someone to sign to Rhymesayers. I took Pslam-1 on tour with me. I tried to do my part where I can. I feel like the space is open, someone could really come along and be that person.
Brother Ali plays at Slimís on Oct. 17th with Evidence, Toki Wright and BK-One. Doors open at 8pm, the show starts at 9pm. Tickets are $15.
by David Johnson-Igra on Oct 01, 2009