Brother Ali

Brother Ali (Promotional Photo / March 27, 2012)

Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival

Featuring include Brother Ali (USA), Shad (Rwanda/Canada), Los Rakas (Panama/USA), Sweatshop Union (Canada), Native Sun (Mozambique/UK), Guti-Angel of the well known group La Dupla (Portugal), Ian Kamau (Trinidad/Canada); hosted by The Narcicyst (Iraq/Canada) and Suheir Hammad (Palestine/USA) and more. Free, various times and locations, Mar. 30 and 31. Visit for details.

Heads up, future hip-hop show promoters: If you're ever somehow put in charge of orchestrating an event whose mission involves combating communal “disunity, segregation and violence” — much like the Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival that takes place this weekend — take a cue from those behind the fest's current and seventh incarnation and track down Brother Ali. No active MC represents multiculturalism more and serves as a better advocate for the cause than the man once named Jason Newman.

In order to understand Ali's rare perspective, it's necessary to revisit a few of his key characteristics. First comes the most striking and apparent detail: He suffers from albinism. Bringing up the disorder itself feels crass and cliché (this fact is splattered over Ali's press clips), but seeing as he references it within multiple songs, ignoring it would be disingenuous. “[With] being albino, you might as well be a leper,” he once told The Guardian in the UK. Despite being a denigrated minority because of his skin, Ali is also concerned with discussing the idea of white privilege because he's white after all.

Then, there's his conversion from Christianity to Sunni Islam at age 15. The man officially known as Ali Newman nowadays very seriously believes in his faith, and he creates music that synchronizes with this change in lifestyle instead of exploiting this tie for its novelty value as some other Muslim rappers have. Ali's a divorced father, too, and these familial roles show up in his work.

Musically, Ali's linked to indie hip-hop — a vaguely sociopolitical genre that's somehow more open-ended than indie rock — primarily through being on preeminent indie hip-hop label Rhymesayers. Despite this status, Ali has been vocal about eradicating any divide between “mainstream” and “underground” hip-hop. He's called the separation of these concepts “a real kind of idealistic fan thing,” has thrown out support for non-indie-hop-hop rappers like 50 Cent and Lil Wayne, and said that he just wants “more honest, real music.” With all of that, who could possibly exemplify the idea of understanding multiple, dissimilar perspectives better than Ali?

But saying all of the above about him and leaving his value at that would be a giant disservice, as his ability as a rapper is his greatest asset. Ali's voice oozes charisma and articulate charm. To an extent, he functions on record as a self-empowerment rapper — a reasonable, authoritative figure who avoids smacking people unfairly and peppers his lyrics with slang and swagger instead of overdosing on them. “Self-empowerment rap” looks incredibly hokey written down, but listening to Ali — a self-aware, beat-you-to-the-punch master of wit — legitimizes the idea.

Interviewing him is not an easy task. He listens intently — never interrupting — and gives answers in hefty chunks, often diverting from the topic at hand in some meaningful way. A songs-based question about his worldview turns into him discussing the phrase “gays in the military,” his distaste for owning a TV and how news anchors constantly smile. Engaging in a momentary debate on classism versus racism (Which is more socially important nowadays?) leads to Ali sweeping the question off the table by declaring both factors as equally important. Tools of institutionalized racism such as predatory lending, unemployment, unchecked greed and extreme forms of capitalism have contributed to social problems. “Putting those things against each other is a great tool for the people in power to divide and conquer the overall idea of human dignity,” he says. Ask him about whether he finds the group or the individual more important for social change, and he'll choose the group, tying his answer into the democratization of hip-hop and how independent artists are now rising through grassroots movement. His formidable voice and mind make you want to both back down from debating him and engage him further so he speaks more.

Two of Brother Ali's most popular songs exemplify his sense of perspective. On one hand, you have “Forest Whitiker” — a short but very sweet soulful number driven by an organ hook. Ali uses the track to address and gently mock, among other things, his albinism, his unglamorous wardrobe and his hairiness. But after presenting these potential faults, he keeps it upbeat: “You can call me ugly but can't take nothing from me/I am what I am, doctor/You ain't gotta love me.” The titular actor is only mentioned briefly, but seeing as Ali references himself as being lazy-eyed earlier in the song and Whitaker is, too, the reference reinforces the notion that you can have artistic ability and something to contribute to the world even if you don't fit conventional beauty standards. (Whitaker did, after all, end up winning an Oscar for The Last King of Scotland.)

On the flip side, the Ali of “Uncle Sam Goddamn” is a confrontational, angry watchdog out to analyze the flaws and sordid issues of America's past. (“Bloodshed, genocide, rape and fraud/Written to the pages of the law, Good Lord” sums it up well.) This song's driven by a sharp, almost sarcastic harmonica and bassline instrumental, and his cynicism here is captivating and challenging in its own way.

When Ali takes on a question about balancing the songs' contrasting tones, his response demonstrates why varying perspectives are important in the first place. “Sometimes, [songs like 'Uncle Sam Goddamn'] just need to be hard and ugly because you're talking about hard, ugly reality. You don't always have to smile, but then there also is the element of hope, and when people say I make feel-good music or happy music, my music is about real shit. My music is about pain and homelessness and drug addiction and rape and slavery and murder and being objectified and being harassed and being degraded. It's about death and pain, but I have hope, and hope is different from optimism. Optimism is this idea that just keep smiling and it'll be OK on its own. Hope is the belief that something is in control of all of this. [There's] the universal law of justice, and if I do the right thing and and continue to be the best version of myself and fight the good fight and tell the truth and keep on pushing forward, somehow, it'll get better,” he says. “A song like 'Forest Whitiker' is about self-love, but really, the reason there needs to be a 'Forest Whitiker' is from being harassed and degraded and literally spit on and ostracized for being what I am: albino. I was taught self-love really by the Black is Beautiful movement. That song is about hope, it's about self-love, but it comes from a fucked up reality, too.”

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