After a recent performance in Philly, Brother Ali’s voice is hoarse. He greets fans after the show just off stage and wanders around meeting more. We head backstage to sit down and talk, but then an employee shows up to remind him there’s some people out front.
Ali’s teenage son, Faheem, whose life story has played out in his father’s music, walks around with a camera, directing it at the crowd as much as his dad earlier in the night. By the time we sit down to speak the venue is mostly empty, the crew and artists responsible for the tour gathered around in the lobby. The Philadelphia show is stop 24 on a 47-date tour that spans just over two months. It’s a relentless schedule and glimpse into how Ali has spent a good portion of his life over the last decade. It’s now been two years since his last album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, and half as long since the release of a short EP last year.
Early in his career Ali seemed to be coming to terms with himself, his self-deprecating pride endearing him to listeners. All along his music has been cathartic and longtime fans can glean intimate details about his life: a broken marriage, the difficulty in walking away, rebuilding a family with his son. As a legitimate activist outside of music as much as in it, there’s a more general and pressing social commentary in Brother Ali’s lyrics as well, a systematic attack on White supremacy and class injustices. The politics have left Ali in the margins of industry buzziness, but he’s an indie stalwart and his album sales have remained steady in an industry that hasn’t.
In May, Ali raised eyebrows with a freestyle on Sway In The Morning that seemed to quietly pick away at Macklemore’s rise to fame being attributable to some new-found independent grind. The point? The Seattle rapper’s indie success didn’t materialize in a vacuum even though the public narrative relies on the feigned innovation. “You stood watching unknown cats explore / This indie rap before / They turned the cameras on / Then branded your flag and branded it yours / As if as though there wasn’t a map before,” he spits without ever saying the rapper’s name, slyly building a rhyme scheme out of it nonetheless. Without being asked directly he expands on the topic in our conversation, connecting the Rhymesayer dots that paved the road. But as if catching himself, Ali also talks about leaving his bitterness behind and dwells on a lifelong, religious-inspired task of remaining grateful.
Speaking with HipHopDX, Ali also plots out his next steps after the tour, hopefully linking up with longtime collaborator Ant for his next album and playing with the possibility of releasing an EP’s worth of material he produced himself. He touches on the gap in album releases that he says has been spent “travelling through the world studying [his] religion.” Islam is what frames his gratitude, and that’s where the music seems to start.
Brother Ali Reveals Details About His Son & Teaching Independent Emcee’s
HipHopDX: I saw your son walking around the audience during the show. What is it like having him on tour? A lot of of your music speaks directly to or about him.
Brother Ali: Well, him and me have been together since he was born. His moms never really had been a major part of his life. Right now, we haven’t seen her in years. He’s always been—like literally, there are times that I even had him in situations that weren’t 100% safe, me pursuing my career. I remember back in the day, we used to play at this thing that was a restaurant upstairs and then downstairs was a bar. So I would go in there. You could go in and do like 15-minute sets. It was almost like stand-up comedy. So you’d go in there and do like little short sets. When he was a baby I brought him there and I would sit in the restaurant part. There was a waitress that I knew and I was like, “When it’s time for my thing could you take a 15-minute break and just hold him?” I would literally give him, as a baby, to this lady that I didn’t know very well to watch. And I would go downstairs to do my set and come up.
He’s gone through everything with me: highs, lows, joys, woes. He’s suffered a lot from me doing what I do, he’s benefited a lot from me doing what I do. He’s creative too so he’s in a performance arts school. He makes beats but he’s a stage actor. That’s what he’s great at. He starred as Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He was the lion in The Wiz. Stuff like that. We’ve rebuilt our family. So I got married, it’s been 10 years now remarried after his mom. We have a daughter, which is his little sister. Him and me started this family. So every tour he takes off like a week, not for the whole tour. I like him to be able to just come and see.
Touring is a small business. I own a small business called Brother Ali Touring. Literally. So, I want for him to be able to see that. I’m putting together a seminar that I can do to teach independent artists how to create a business out of their touring. Atmosphere and Murs taught it to me. My first tour ever was Atmosphere and Murs.
DX: Do you think there’s a gap in artists teaching artists in that way right now?
Brother Ali: Yes. Yes. There’s a bunch of lying about it where they show you the one night that they stay at The W. They show you that on the blog. They show you with expensive things and all that stuff. Man, in small business terms, you’ve got enormous overhead. That’s what you’re showing everybody, the day where your overhead is ridiculous. No other business would do that. No other business would be like, “Look at this bookstore! We’re in here popping bottles.” This is a business. If you run it like a business—also, one of my mentors is Chuck D. They run Public Enemy, not only is it a business, it’s socialist to a degree. It’s a democracy. They vote on what they do and what they don’t do. The security guard has equal vote to Chuck D. Professor Griff has an equal vote to Chuck and Flav. They vote on what they do and what they don’t do. I mean, they’ve been on a hundred tours, almost. I think it’s like their 97th tour.
Chuck was the one that actually encouraged me to do it. He started a company that helps Old School artists get back on the road and revive their careers. So he’s like, “Man, we gotta teach these guys how to make a small business out of this.” Slug and Murs taught me how to do this. A guy that works at Rhymesayers named Jaybird, he’s the one that created our touring schedule.
A lot of these structures are being used—directly from us—by Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa, Macklemore. They’re using our pattern. My booking agent for my old career, while I was building my career for ten years, was this man named Zach Quillen who worked at The Agency Group. He is the first one to really call it, that independent touring based artists were the future of Hip Hop. So he helped Yelawolf build his career like that. He helped Mac Miller build his career like that. Wiz Khalifa. But he’s Macklemore’s manager. And he was basically part of Rhymesayers for ten years. They don’t like to talk about this. They basically operate as if Atmosphere and me don’t exist. And it’s because they know—and I’ve told them this, and they know this—that if they were really to let the world know that they didn’t invent everything they’re doing. There’s a circle of artists and it’s not just any one specific person. But I mean Living Legends is part of that, musically and business wise. Musically it’s a lot of Atmosphere and me in there. Business wise, this is the format that’s being used now.
So it is being taught to certain people but I wanna make sure that people have access to it. When you’re taught, when somebody takes the time to teach you it obligates you to teach other people.
DX: So do you want an official platform to teach artists? Obviously you’re doing that maybe informally with Bambu and Mally on this current tour and other artists you’ve brought on tour before.
Brother Ali: Yeah, that’s part of it. You take ‘em on tour and you teach them how to do it. I think Evidence; he came on tour with Atmosphere and me for a few years. He was on a major label and he had to rebuild his career as an indie artist. He was humble enough and just enough in love with the art and the culture to do that. But him coming on tour with Atmosphere, and me he definitely learned a lot. And I’ve seen him teach people. I brought Fashawn on tour. Abstract Rude was already doing something similar but I brought him on tour. Psalm One. Toki Wright.
Brother Ali Asserts His Close Ties To The Philadelphia Community
DX: This particular tour is called “Home Away From Home” and seems to highlight all these places you’ve become close to through the years while travelling. You recently spoke about your relationship with Philly and why this is a special place to you. Could you talk about that briefly?
Brother Ali: I have many ties to Philly. Obviously the Muslims, that’s a very dear tie. Obviously the music community, that’s a dear tie. But then, I met my wife in New York opening for Atmosphere. She was an Atmosphere fan from the Bronx and she didn’t know Atmosphere had other fans ‘cause none of her friends knew anything about Atmosphere. So she thought she was gonna come to a show with a hundred people and it ended up being a sold out SOB’s [show], two nights in a row. She came the first night. I had just gotten out of my marriage; she had gotten out of a relationship. So we met, there were two shows in a row, we met the first night. I really was attracted to her but when I’m really attracted to somebody I run away from them ‘cause I don’t always trust myself. I saw her the second night.
So we hung out in New York like at a diner all night. I had to leave to come to Philly. And she came with me and we spent several days. Weren’t on the physical thing yet, it literally was like a turning of hearts. Our hearts inclined towards each other immediately like recognized each other. So we ended up in Philly at Jim’s. We’re talking, hanging out, blah blah blah. This is like 24 hours, maybe 48 hours into it. And we just turned to each other and we’re like, “Okay, so obviously we’re gonna have a life together.” And we started talking about all the things. “I can’t move here, I have a son.” We basically fell in love and proposed after a day in Philly. That’s coming up on 11 years ago.
Brother Ali Tells Of His “Hurt” Voice & K Dot’s Struggles With His Own
DX: Tonight, after the show, I heard you talking a little about your voice going for a moment on stage, I don’t think I or many people noticed it. With such a crazy tour schedule, is that something you’re often worrying about?
Brother Ali: [And], that’s the thing people don’t notice it. But I know the difference. I’ve trained my voice over the years. My voice is like the Muhammad Ali of voices. But also, in all those years, I’ve permanently damaged my voice. It’s interesting, I was taught, Stokey Williams from the band Mint Condition taught me about my voice. I know that Kendrick has that problem. I’ve talked to Kendrick about it. Macklemore went to my doctor. Grieves went to my doctor. Now I don’t exist. [Laughs]
DX: So you’re handing out doctor references too then?
Brother Ali: I’m saying, I was taught this. We’re like the mailman. Somebody gives us a message and we give it to somebody else. If the UPS man acts like he’s amazing because you ordered something amazing and somebody gives it to him, puts it in his truck, and then he gives it to you, that’s what this is. I know what the show could have been if my voice had been my real voice, not the hurt voice. I guess that’s part of my real voice too. But it’s weird, on this tour my voice has been solid. Even last night, even the last week, I got really sick on this tour, I had to go in the hospital. My voice has been great this whole tour and now when I’m talking it’s fine. Something happened in the [show]. Muhammad Ali was always like, “I’m great. I’m pretty. I’m this, I’m that.” And then he got his affliction now and he really believes it’s from being arrogant. So when I get on stage and my voice isn’t working, and I know that that’s one of the things that I have pride about sometimes, that’s horrible. That’s the worst sentence other than having no gratitude at all.
To a Muslim that’s what atheism is. True atheism. There’s one atheism that says, “Everything I’ve seen seen and heard about religion, I reject it all.” That’s not true atheism to me. Until you’ve really studied religion and been around the real religious people, you don’t know if you’re an atheist or not. There’s a new wave of atheist that are very simple minded. Not that they’re not smarter than me because they are. But Christopher Hitchens. Sam Harris. Dawkins. The new atheist that are anti-religion. They think that religion is the problem with the world. Atheism is a religious position because all of us have a limit. We’re all human, we all have a limit to what we know and understand. So I am a religious person. I get to the end of that and I believe that there’s a creator who’s responsible for all this to whom we owe gratitude. An atheist gets to the end of what they can perceive and says, “There’s nothing beyond what I can perceive.” But neither one of us [actually] knows that, it’s both a faith thing. Neither of us knows. That’s a religious position. Atheism is a religious position. The new atheists are religious fundamentalist. They’re extremists in their religion. They’re willing to bomb people. You read Sam Harris and God Is Not Great, there are passages in that book that sound really similar to what ISIS is saying. They’re very simple minded… When they describe Islam, that’s not Islam. They hate a form of religion that they created. It’s not real. It’s not Islam. I’ve been Muslim 20 years. The last few years, that’s what I’ve been doing. That’s why I don’t have a new album. I’ve been travelling through the world studying my religion. What they’re talking about is not Islam.
Brother Ali Illuminates His Time In Mecca & His Crisis Of Faith
DX: You went to Mecca for the first time in 2011?
Brother Ali: 2010.
DX: What was that experience like?
Brother Ali: I actually had a crisis of faith that I didn’t even realize. Islam is in three. True spirituality is three parts in terms of religion. There’s the doctrine. The belief. We believe that that’s vertical. Going up. There’s the outward practice. In Islam the belief system is that there is a God, a creator that created us all. That all human beings come from the same family, which all the prophets come from the same family… A human being is very precious. That Muhammad was [was] the culmination of prophet hood. These are things that Muslims believe in. Then there’s the outward practice: five prayers a day, fasting and Ramadan, giving your money, going to Mecca. Then there’s inward things that’s called Sufism. The Sufis. These are things like purification of the heart, a systematic way of eradicating greed and jealousy and pride and hatred from our heart. These are the things that Cat Stevens is working on. In 2010 I would say that in terms of belief, I still believed in Islam. In terms of practice, I was not in that particular time, I wasn’t very observant. But I was still submitting outwardly. My heart got away from Islam. I’d lost track with gratitude.
I really lost track of my Muslim self. When I went on Hajj, I didn’t realize that until I got there. That reawakened this thing in me. Years of touring and years of being away from my family… I used to tour ten months a year. Eyedea died, I went home for a funeral and left the next day. My dad died. My dad actually lived here. My dad committed suicide in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
DX: And you were in Europe?
Brother Ali: I was in Europe. Came home, buried my dad, and went right back to touring like it never even happened. My wife and I almost split up that year. My kids didn’t know me that year. I had a spiritual crisis. I don’t even know if you’re genuinely a religious person unless you’ve had a crisis. So, you just know.
Brother Ali Speaks On Bitterness In Hip Hop & What Hip Hop Means To Him
DX: While you were on stage you also spoke about returning home and starting to record a new album. Does the touring put you in a place to think about that creatively?
Brother Ali: It depends on where I’m at with the gratitude thing. When you do something for a long time—that’s another thing artists don’t like talking about, getting bitter. Bitterness is like completely losing track of gratitude. There’s a lot about this job that sucks. We sacrifice a lot. Our loved ones sacrifice a lot. When we don’t feel like we’re getting what we want to get out of it it’s easy to get bitter. I’ve experienced that. I would be really lying if I said I didn’t. Especially, I think it started to turn around last year when I did the Immortal Technique tour. The years leading up to that I experienced some bitterness ‘cause I felt like I have been pouring my whole heart into this thing.
To me, Hip Hop stands in the face of White supremacy. To me Hip Hop is a destroyer and proof that the religion of White supremacy is a lie. That the doctrine of White supremacy is a lie [and] everything that White supremacy says. Hip Hop is a culmination of Jazz, Blues. Me, I’m not Black. My community is Black. The community that raised me is Black. That’s the way that it is. To me, that’s what made me fall in love with it. It’s Black genius. It’s Black humanity. It’s Black truth. That’s what Hip Hop is to me. African people are not exclusive. They’re not exclusionary people because they’re people of abundance. [They have] abundant knowledge and an abundant wealth of resources. Everything. You go to Africa, everything’s in abundance. There is an abundance of love and an abundance of food as well. You go to Europe, that’s where things are scarce. People are fighting over the eight potatoes that are in the ground. It’s freezing. You gotta kill an animal and wear its skin there. It’s a different thing. And my ancestry is from Europe. I’m not talking bad about anybody else, I’m saying, this is the truth.
So, people can participate, but European people living under White supremacy for all these hundreds of years. We’re talking about 500 years of White supremacy. European people are taught that they’re White before they know their name. So, dominating is what comes naturally to them. That’s happening in Hip Hop. It happens in everything. So, my being in Hip Hop has to be from a position of gratitude. It has to be from a position of truth telling, speaking truth to power. There have been times where I feel like my message is not being heard.
DX: Are you feeling that way now?
Brother Ali: No, ‘cause that’s an ego thing. When you’re in that space that’s an ego thing, like, “I’m important.” Like I said, it’s like being the UPS man. I didn’t create this truth, somebody entrusted me in it. Ultimately Allah entrusted me in it. But Chuck D is a mentor to me. Brand Nubian took me on tour. Rakim took me on tour. Atmosphere took me on tour. Murs took me on tour. Ghostface took me on tour. KRS-One brought me on stage when I was 13 years old. These people have entrusted me with this, I’m just passing it out.
There’s a chapter in the Quran that deals with the end of the time and it basically says that our job is to believe and do good and be loyal to honesty. Be loyal to the truth and be patient. That’s our job. Tell the truth and be patient. And you can’t have one without the other. You can’t be patient and just go along to get along and you’re never telling the truth. You gotta tell the truth. They’re gonna call you a radical for that. But you also can’t be radical just telling the truth and not be patient. You gotta have both. It’s a balance. Cornel West is a mentor to me. I just had a private meeting with Farrakhan. All of these people that I love and look up to. It just makes me know that when I’m around these people, they been doing this work. Farakhan’s been teaching for 53 years. You know what I mean? Chuck D has been touring for 25 years.
Brother Ali Reveals New Music
DX: I guess you’ve been doing this for 14 years yourself?
Brother Ali: 12. It’s gotta be like that. I’m in a good place now. So when I’m bitter, touring takes the life out of me. But when I’m grateful, touring feeds me. Which is the majority of the time. I love it 90% of the time. 10% I’m bitter though and I just gotta be honest about that. There are people that have come to see me and they haven’t gotten the best me.
DX: So, on the next album, who will you be working with on the production side of things?
Brother Ali: I hope Ant.
DX: Is it just the timing of whether the collaboration will work?
Brother Ali: Well me and Ant had to rebuild our friendship and we did that. I lived in the Bay over this summer, I was going to school out there and he spends a lot of time out there. Our lives just took us in different directions. We were never mad at each other but we used to be the closest friends on Earth. Then we just didn’t see each other for like four years. So we got to rebuild the friendship. So we’ll see. I wanna do it. I think he’ll be a part of at least but I wanna do the whole thing with him. So it’ll be all with him or he’ll contribute to it. I’ll talk to some other producers. I been producing a lot too.
DX: I remember you did an interview with Narduar a couple years ago and made a beat from the records he gave you and released the song. I don’t think many people know that you can produce.
Brother Ali: I’m not that good at it. But I can do it, but I’m not great at it. I have like an EP’s worth of stuff that I produced myself.
DX: Do you have plans to put that out?
Brother Ali: Maybe. It’s very radical. It’s very, very brutally honest. I made it when I was at my most bitter period.