Anyone who’s followed Brother Ali’s career in hip-hop might be surprised to learn that he hasn’t always seen his work as political. The Minneapolis-based rapper has spent the better part of the past decade making a name for himself in the independent music scene, largely by sharing with the world his unique personal story of growing up albino, discovering Islam, and carefully maneuvering America’s racial minefield. Those topics may seem rife with social commentary, but Ali’s recent arrest at an Occupy Homes protest in North Minneapolis may be symbolic of a new tone ahead of his third studio album, "Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color", due out in August.
Ali was one of 13 people arrested outside of a foreclosed family’s home last week and charged with suspicion of trespassing. The action is one of several that the rapper has taken part in to stop banks from taking homes in North Minneapolis, a black community Ali has called home for the majority of his life and that’s been hit especially hard during the foreclosure crisis.
The rapper’s road to Occupy wasn’t easy. He, like many racial justice activists, had serious concerns about how the movement was working for everyone. Those critiques were informed by Ali’s personal growth–a divorce from his first wife, a new marriage, the birth of a new daughter, and winning custody of his young son. But they also hinged on Ali’s deepening political consciousness, which was aided in large part by a new mentor, Cornel West.
Ali talked to Colorlines.com about his personal, political and artistic growth.
How did you get involved in the fight against foreclosures in Minneapolis?
When Occupy started off, I was really excited by the idea of it. And then I went over to the one in Minneapolis, and I went to a few in other cities too. And I saw some real serious critiques that I had. I had a similar feeling that I think a lot of people had about Occupy, which was, "Okay, this is cool. You’re creating a space to talk and meet and organize and strategize. That’s…cool. But I’ll check back in when this actually turns into some kind of action."
There’s been some occupying of homes across the country, but in Minneapolis there was a particular organizer who had been working at a nonprofit for a long time helping people who were in foreclosure. I think he was the one who kinda had the idea that we were going to make this a movement here. He had somebody with the perfect story who had done everything right: An African-American woman from the north side of Minneapolis, which is my neighborhood, the community I grew up in. She was one of the first people in her family to own a home and had a job at a nonprofit. They lost their funding, and so she lost her job and missed two [mortgage] payments.
In that two months, she couldn’t get another full-time job, so she got two part-time jobs and was able and willing to resume making payments, but the bank was intent on taking her house. And so this particular guy, his name is Anthony Newby, he had the idea to have her go to Occupy Minnesota and ask them to come and occupy her house. It turned into this amazing demonstration of what that could be.
I got involved when that was going on because that one case just spoke to me so much. When I got over there I saw kids from Occupy, but also white doctors from the suburbs, middle-aged people, and also young people from the ‘hood that are active in their own way, but weren’t at Occupy when I went over there. And that was one of my big critiques of Occupy. I understood that they have been in this privilege and entitlement kind of bubble, that bubble burst on them, and so now they’re ready to fight. That’s understandable. But when I went to Occupy Minnesota early on, it was almost entirely white. An actual part of their meetings was, "Well how do we go to the ‘hood and get these people to join our movement?" And it’s like, no dummy, you’re joining the movement. The movement’s been going on since the first time that Europeans reached these shores. There’s been a movement against tyranny, oppression. You’re just now realizing that the world’s not a fair place.
You’ve talked before about how you moved around a lot as a kid and Minneapolis became home for you at 14. What does home mean to you?
It’s a place where people know the real you, and they’ve known you at different times in your life. In North Minneapolis there are people that have known me since I was 14, 15, and they’ve known me throughout my life. They knew me when I first got here and was acting stupid, they knew me when I became a Muslim, they knew me when I got married, they knew me when I got divorced, they knew me when I was, you know, "Mosque Man," when I was super Muslim. I had like a six year period when I was all about Islam. They knew me at that time, they knew me when I was struggling to do something with music. And they’ve known me through getting remarried, having some sort of success, both of my kids being born.
It’s a place when you go there you can’t front for them–whether you want to or not. You don’t want to, because it’s like these people know me and love me. And that’s something that means a lot to me.
I went to the Imam at the Mosque that I go to. He just celebrated 15 years of being the leader over there. We were sitting down the other day and I was telling him how real it was about to get with Occupy, and I even kinda checked in with him before being arrested. I just wanted to run it by him and I knew I could see it in his face if there was anything funny or wrong about what I was about to do. I knew that I’d see it, even if he didn’t say it. That’s the type of relationship that just means so much, and I feel for people that don’t have it.
You have a new album coming out in August, "Mourning in America and Daydreaming in Color." You’ve talked before about how finishing an album feels like raising a child and letting it go out into the world. For you, how does this album feel?
With this particular album, I had a lot of personal things happening that forced me to re-examine things all over again. I started reading more than ever, and I’m legally blind so it’s really hard for me to read. But devices came out, the Kindle and the iPad and audiobooks. So I started devouring books.
While I was going through other stuff, I started reading Cornel West. I always knew that I loved him, but I read his memoirs when I was on tour during a period where my dad died, Eyedea died, I was having trouble in my marriage because I was on the road too much. So much of what he talks about he links to music. It really, really spoke to me. I had a lot moments of feeling like my soul was being opened up. I got a chance to meet him and I hung out with him for a whole day and met other writers and activists that he knew, like Chris Hedges and James Cone and Carl Dix. This new world of thought was opening up to me, and it just really was inspiring and it really made me feel like I knew what the next chapter of my life was going to be about, which is actual organizing and activism.
All of my albums reflect where I’m at in life. And so "Mourning in America" is to mourn the worst time in our lifetime socially, economically, culturally. The main social justice issue that’s been close to my heart since I was a kid has been racial justice. We’re at such a strange time in race relations. Obama’s election and his effect on race relations has been really crazy. It’s created this paradox where, on the one hand, the leader of our country is black. You have no choice but to respect him, even if you don’t like him. You have to at least acknowledge that he is extraordinarily brilliant. He’s an impressive human being. But then also, the overt racism that’s been encouraged to show its face again publicly has been crazy.
I had some really traumatic experiences racially and I had a really polarizing childhood. But what I’ve seen over the past few years has been confirmation that I do need to grow up and be more loving and try to understand where people are coming from and how did they arrive at these things. Society was engineered for them to think these things. How do we ask them to be in touch with their own humanity?
That’s the "Dreaming in Color" part of this thing. People are being forced to see each other as the same. They’re all in foreclosure together, they’re all losing their jobs together, they’re all at the welfare office together. We’re all being affected in really similar ways. So there are great opportunities. The Occupy movement proves that there are a lot of people who feel like there’s gonna have to be some unity and some actual action on behalf of people. Those kinds of things are the hope that I think we have to keep track of.
This interview has been edited for clarity.