| Brother Ali
When it comes to social justice, Brother Ali is color blind.
His musical foundation is hip-hop, borne of a nomadic lifestyle around the Midwest, which he says was riddled with cruelty and exclusion by his white classmates, who mocked his physical appearance.
Though he’s been known to chide the media for mentioning his condition in the first lines of reviews, or previews, like this one, to feature his image without some explanation would be a disservice because as intriguing as his looks can be, his voice and his message are vastly more significant.
Born Douglas Newman, Ali Douglas Newman changed his name following his dedication to the Muslim faith at 15. Professionally known as Brother Ali, he is legally blind due to the rare albinism gene that shaped his outsides.
Close your eyes and listen to his music and you know that like Muhammad Ali, who influenced his name choice, this is a guy you want in your corner.
In seemingly diametrically opposed positions, like the deep-bass, rapper-recognizable voice and his pale skin, Brother Ali has used the usually aggressive, in-your-face medium of hip-hop to tackle injustice around him and to promote his flagship movement, “Occupy Homes.”
It was his strength in both that got him an invitation to perform recently at the annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum, held earlier this month in Minneapolis. The think tank works to inspire international peacemaking efforts.
Brother Ali describes his latest album, “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color,” as a “scathing, yet honest, critique of America and its many flaws while simultaneously presenting a hopeful outlook of its possibilities.” He explained his desire to step beyond his music into this specialized grassroots activism.
“People think because you’re losing your home that you did something wrong, that you were lazy or irresponsible, but we know there are real hard-working people whose narrative has been told by the power elite,” he said. “These are people who have done everything right but were made victims of situations outside their control.”
One of the first two cases in which he intervened involved a woman who had worked with at-risk kids and paid religiously on her mortgage for 15 years when government cuts to the health-and-welfare system took away her job. She was then unemployed for two years and finally got two jobs to bring her back to her feet when the bank wanted her home back. The second was a family being evicted over a bank error.
Both homes were saved because Ali and his supporters surrounded the houses and commanded face-to-face meetings with the decision makers. They are now taking the effort to the state level, and Ali says they have helped an additional handful of people.
Recognition for his music had a decade behind it, but his commitment to helping people of his city fight back against foreclosure, all the way down to going to jail to keep families from eviction, has gotten him on the charts as a vehicle for change.
“My music is autobiographical, and personal, but it connects with people, especially those that are in the majority, those living on the margins,” he explained. “I have a dedicated following, but I had a chance to give back, to break into the mainstream.”
Brother Ali has spent his life trying to prove that rarely is anything what it appears and urging independent, in-the-trenches exploration of people before judgment is cast.
The father of two also sings of gratitude for the simple but important things in life.
In the song, “Fresh Air,” from his album, “Us,” he sings, “Just got married last year/ treated so good that it ain’t even fair/ already got a boy now the baby girl’s here/ Bought us a house like the Berenstein Bears.”
Brother Ali will perform at Whiskey Jacques’ on Saturday, March 23, as part of SolFest 2013. Tickets are available in advance for $12 and for $15 at the door.
Brother Ali occupies the house
When: Saturday, March 23, 9 p.m.
Where: Whiskey Jacques’, in Ketchum.