This week on The Library with Tim Einenkel, Tim talks to Brother Ali. The Minneapolis MC talks about why he made each of his albums, including his newest release All The Beauty In This Whole Life. He also reveals his reasons for stepping away from music, the U.S. government spying on him, death threats he received during a trip to Iran and MCs who take their talents to a whole new different level.
On May 5th, my next guest will release his newest album All The Beauty In This Whole Life on the label Rhymesayers Entertainment. This incredible artist has been blessing us with lyrics, music, for 17 years, and I'm honored to speak with him today. Brother Ali, welcome to The Library with Tim Einenkel, rapstation.com.
Thank you, thank you.
This is not new album, but on the track Us, from Us, you said, "I started rhyming so I can be somebody. Turns out I already was." Kind of expanding on that, and this is your sixth album, has the purpose for why you started rhyming changed?
I think there has always been a balance between who I am inwardly and outwardly. Writing music and the act of creating music is really about exploring ourselves inwardly, and then the act of performing music is about expressing ourselves outwardly. When I'm at home or with Ant or with one of my really close collaborators, that's a really personal kind of thing, and then when we go out ... By writing those songs, we learn more about about ourselves, we explore ourselves. We get to know all sorts of things about ourselves through any creative process, and then when you bring it out to the world, then you start to get a sense of who we are outwardly and socially and things like that. I would say it's always been a mixture of those two.
Turning back to this album. You said in an interview, I don't know, a while ago with HipHopDX. You talked about the album, that you were in the middle of creating this album. You said it'd be a lot less overtly political this time. I was just curious when you said that, when were you writing the ... like, where were we in now our political world when you said that? Do you think, now the album's complete, that that statement still holds true for you? Why did you decide to consciously to be, I guess, less overtly political on this album?
When I made my last album, it was Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, most of the albums prior to that ... so if we look at all the things that I've released, most of them are a mixture of autobiographical stuff. Some of them are rapping for the sake of trying to be excellent with the art form. A lot of the songs have themes or they're stories, and then some of them are overtly political. Some of them are very social. They all tie together in one way or another, but on Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, I really leaned in on the political stuff a lot more. That was reflecting what was going on in my life where I started to ... I basically had this trajectory where, like I said, I started rhyming just to be somebody.
I did the first album just to show the world that I can rap and I wanted to be respected as somebody who can make music. I wanted to add my contribution into the world of hip hop, and so that album was everything that I could figure out how to do on one record. Then the next full-length album, in between those times, I got divorced and got custody of my son and we didn't have anywhere to live for a little while. While that was going on, I actually did develop a career where people come to see me and they actually care about what I'm saying. People like Chuck D are my mentor and my friend now, and Rakim brought me on tour. Brand Nubian brought me on tour. I did shows with Big Daddy Kane, and Big Daddy Kane [inaudible 00:03:30] love. The people that I came into this thing loving, respecting, admiring, my heroes, those people all showed me love in one way or another.
I had this really amazing growth period but then also it was really difficult personally, and so I made The Undisputed Truth album, which was my second one. That one is really autobiographical, and then those stories I told on that album. Then, like I said, you create an album personally, by yourself, and then you go out and perform it. You put it in the world and it starts to circulate around to the public, or to people that you don't even know. When that album came out, the response that I got from people was, "I feel like you're telling my stories." Because of the way that I told the stories of my own personal life, people connected with them. But then I also was noticing that a lot of the people that come to my shows didn't grow up in the environment that I grew up in. So I started wondering, "Can I tell stories that are never really told to the dominant culture in a way that may make them feel a sense of kinship with them too." Like okay, so if I can tell my stories, can I tell my friends' stories?
My friend [Ethan Graham 00:04:45], that was my first friend when I moved to Minneapolis, beautiful guy. Funny, smart, tap dancer, artist, worked, always had a job, but he always sold weed. He was murdered. He was shot in the head in the front of his house and the police never investigated it, and it went in the story, a paper as "this drug dealer got hit by a stray bullet." So I know that somebody will read that story and think like, "It's another black drug dealer." You know what I'm saying?
Right, right, right.
But I know the truth about that person, whereas a lot of the people that come to my shows, they might not know that. They might not know somebody like that. So I made an album called Us where I told all these other peoples' stories, but I didn't tell them from the perspective of, like a third-person narrative about somebody else. I told them in a first-person way about loving them. I didn't try to tell Ethan's story for him. I just talked about what it's like to love somebody and then they are murdered and taken away from you, and nobody cares because he's black and because part of his life was street economy, something that now is legal. Do you know what I mean?
Basically he was murdered and his case was thrown away, and so his family never got closure because of something that now is legal. It's super crazy. That Us album was me getting a chance to work through that and then offer that to people. The response for that one was great too so I started wondering, "Okay ..." And so I'd tell these stories about people, but will you actually come out and be activists to try to right some of these things? To try to right some of these wrongs?
So on the Mourning in America album, in my personal life, I was getting more into organizing and activism and things like that. We had a project called Occupy Homes where we were going to peoples' houses, basically like, Occupy Wall Street was going on and there was Occupy in every city. So you had a bunch of young people whose parents come from the dominant culture but they feel disenfranchised. It's like maybe young, white, middle-classed people, but they're realizing that the American dream isn't there for them, and they're [inaudible 00:07:03] to why it is. They know that it's not because Mexicans are stealing their jobs, and it's not because black people are on welfare, and it's not because any of this other stuff. It's because the people at the top are just taking more and more for themselves and they're not paying for what they're receiving, the service they're receiving.
These people were putting their bodies on the line, and so we had a project where we went to the Occupy space and said, "Hey, there are black people in North Minneapolis and white people, and elders, and veterans, and moms, and a lot of people, but primarily mostly black and brown people are ... The banks are taking their house from them illegally and they're stealing the wealth out of their community by doing that." Because the bank, they get a down payment, they get years of payments, and then they take the house away, and nobody really cares, and then they sell the house again. They get another down payment, they get years more payment, you know. So this is this money that's being stolen and what should be generational wealth is being stolen from these communities. "Well, you come chain yourself to a house." And this whole group of young, white, middle-class kids did it. We're like, "Hell, yeah, we'll do that." And they did it and I got to see that, and it was really [inaudible 00:08:19].
So I made an album about ... kind of like inviting and calling people to that type of work, but it's because that's what I was going through in my life. That album was a really overtly political album. And this new one, All the Beauty in This Whole Life basically ... Then I had a series of heartbreaks related to politics. I started realizing the worst of all of them was that I was feeling a sense of despair about what was going on and about the response that I was receiving versus the response that I thought I should be receiving, and I realized that ... Rumi says, the poet Rumi says, "When I was young, I was clever and I wanted to change the world. Now I've grown old and wise and I want to change myself." Not that you ever have one without the other. The two are obviously connected, but what I realized is that along with the ...
We don't only have political problems, but our political problems stem from spiritual problems on a heart level. I'm starting with myself, so I said, "If I'm in despair and I'm feeling like almost jaded because people that used to like my music, now they hate me because I'm talking about this stuff that they don't want to hear about, and now they're ..." Some of them are threatening me and the government is messing with me and all of this stuff. I started realizing that I need to work o