by Harrison Samphir
“You’re now rocking with the champion”
Hip hop is a fascinating medium, not only because it lends a voice to the voiceless, but because it exhumes a political consciousness from below; from the hearts and minds of its listeners who are motivated and enlivened by the music’s revolutionary potential.
For Minneapolis-based Brother Ali–a decorated emcee signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment–fifteen years in the rap game has equipped the artist with revolutionary tools of his own, providing pointed social commentary through hip hop that continually maintains an independent ethic and sound without losing sight of the fans that make it possible.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Ali spent his early childhood and formative years in the American midwest, finally settling in Minneapolis, Minnesota to begin a career in music that has since spawned five LPs, three extended plays, and an assembly of features and singles with other artists.
After recently completing an exhausting 40-city tour across North America, the veteran emcee spoke with Stylus and discussed his latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, and how his career and music have evolved from an autobiographical to societal focus.
“Compared to other albums, this one is about society and its current state,” said Ali of his latest disc, released on September 18, 2012 to critical acclaim.
“In terms of the project and the music, I’m really happy with it. I feel as though I was able to put in words what I wanted to, and that makes me feel good.”
Long since Ali’s seminal 2003 release Shadows on the Sun, which was characterized by raucous lyrical intensity and audacious bravado, Mourning in America is a more reflective and sincere effort that blends political commentary with themes of change, family and love.
If ever there was one, the album’s first track, entitled “Letter to My Countrymen,” is a stirring proclamation and call to arms that features Princeton University professor Dr. Cornel West–and it sets the stage for the following thirteen tracks.
Over a smoothed-out, xylophone-punctuated beat, Ali lays down a turn of phrase that seems to crystallize his mission and purpose: “They tell me I’m a dreamer, they ridicule/They feel defeated, old, bitter and cynical/Excuse me but I see it from a different view/I still believe in what a driven few could really do.”
Indeed, Ali’s introduction is laced with symbolic references to twenty-first century American life, but it also beckons the listener’s active involvement in his music.
“I wanted to make an album that forced the listener to make a true and honest assessment of our society and who we are,” said Ali. “There are buddings of a very strong social movement (in the United States), and we need to hold onto that.”
Amidst turbulent economic and social conditions presently coagulating in the US, Mourning in America is far from a eulogy; it is a wake-up call to fans and heads alike that the same alternative voice they seek in their music must be desired in their politics.
“There’s a lot of activism right now,” reminds Ali. “People are doing really cool things… but I’m not as excited about the presidential stuff. When Obama does something ‘good,’ it seems weak and anemic. It doesn’t appear he’s trying to fight for virtue.
“It goes along with other trends in our society,” he continues. “I have already been tracked by Homeland Security. The Patriot Act gives the government the power to target me because of my music, and that’s a serious problem.”
Despite this theme of overarching uncertainty and disillusionment, Mourning in America is not just concerned with ideas about society and political participation. It’s also filled with magnificent break beats courtesy of Seattle producer Jake One and some anthemic jams like “Need a Knot,” featuring Bun B of UGK fame.
Ali even extends the narrative of a 2007 track titled “Faheem” (the name of his son) on “All You Need,” where his reflections on fatherhood sound more nuanced and ruminative than they have in the past.
For the independent hip hop industry, Mourning in America is emblematic of an ambitious midwest scene that continues to grow while fostering new artists. Rhymesayers Entertainment, the label that has supported Ali throughout his career, is a constant inspiration to the 35 year old.
“Rhymesayers and Atmosphere are the leaders for underground hip hop in general,” remarked Ali. “I follow what they do… seeing them continue to grow gives me a lot of hope that I won’t need to think about quitting any time soon.”
A prominent symbol of this growth is Soundset, a Rhymesayers-hosted one-day festival held each May since 2008 in Minneapolis.
In Ali’s words, “Soundset shows the power of the underground movement. It’s a testament to the work Rhymesayers puts in. We feature a wide variety of artists; young brand new, and guys we look up to and respect.”
The festival is slated for Sunday May 26, 2013, and Brother Ali will certainly constitute a major part of the experience, both musically and for the fans. To this emcee, the continued success of hip hop music rests in the hands (and ears) of listeners who fuel success with energy and support.
“It’s important for fans to be the ambassadors of the culture and for the movement of hip hop,” concluded a soft-spoken Ali. “People need to maintain it and stay in the driver’s seat.”