Hip-hop artist and activist Brother Ali, playing at Whiskey Jacques’ on Sunday, isn’t afraid to speak and sing about hot-button issues in the U.S. like racism, violence and poverty..
This is who we are
Not who we have to be
—Brother Ali, “Singing This Song”
Brother Ali is both mourning and dreaming.
On his most recent album, the hip-hop artist and activist finds much to critique about American society, but he’s hopeful, too.
Hence the album’s long title, “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color.”
Brother Ali is back on the road after a few difficult but enlightening years away from the touring spotlight. His “Home Away from Home Tour” will stop on Sunday night at Whiskey Jacques’ in Ketchum.
Ali speaks/sings frankly about racism, apathy, poverty, homophobia, violence and war in America, but also about a love for this country despite its flaws.
On the album’s opening track, “Letter to My Countrymen,” he sings:
This is a letter to my countrymen
Not from a Democrat or a Republican
But one among you that’s why you call me brother
Ain’t scared to tell you we’re in trouble ’cause I love you.
“I think it’s really important to tell the truth and diagnose the disease,” Ali said in a phone interview from his home in Minneapolis. “But it’s irresponsible unless you help find the cure. “
The “disease,” he said, is distraction and apathy.
“I think we’re disconnected as a culture from meaning,” he said. “That makes us susceptible to all forms of evil, to become more apathetic. The response to that is hope, connectedness, love, caring.”
He also says groups and individuals need to reclaim their power.
“Marginalized people can do it, and people who are part of oppressive histories don’t have to continue to oppress people,” he said.
The artist, who was born Jason Newman in Wisconsin, converted to Islam as a teenager; he’s named after Muhammad Ali.
He’s never shied away from controversial social and political topics (his song “Uncle Sam Goddam” from his 2007 album “The Undisputed Truth” is particularly scathing), but Ali’s music has often focused more on his own troubled past. The artist, now 37, has albinism, and endured cruelty as a kid from white peers who mocked his condition. He also moved around a lot and had a troubled family life.
Black people accepted him, however, he said, so he naturally gravitated toward hip-hop, or what he calls “black music.”
“I’m not black, but my community is,” Ali said.
Racism in the Midwest, where he grew up, is “more covert than in the South,” he said. “In the Midwest you have to talk about it or it’s completely ignored, and in my family, that didn’t happen. So I talk about it now.”
Ali, who was arrested in 2007 after joining an Occupy rally in Minnesota, also spoke out during the Trayvon Martin shooting controversy in Florida last year.
“We as the people in the dominant group have an unfair advantage,” he said. “Whether or not we as individuals are bigots, we are benefiting from a system that holds some people back for the benefit of others.”
Ali said he’s held off on speaking about the similar situation in Ferguson, Missouri, where a black, unarmed teen was killed by a police officer.
“Within the last month though, in Ferguson, hip-hop artists have snapped back to reality, not just creating music that’s entertaining and distracting,” Ali said.
Home and humanity
Ali is calling his latest tour “Home Away From Home” because it’s a return to his musical roots.
“I built my career by going on tour to little clubs,” he said. “As my career grew, I got invited to do tours with other artists and festivals. It’s cool to be on bigger platforms, but the way I got there is by playing intimate experiences, not being on a Jumbotron.
During his time away from touring in the past few years, Ali made a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The trip “made me recalibrate my priorities, mainly the idea of success and fame—that fame is such an illusion,” he said.
“To take a break and tell about this political stuff, and identify more with my Islam, it wasn’t a good business decision to make, but it was more genuine and honest.”
As he says in the song “Singing This Song”: “Inside our soul, we got to find out what the hell happened to our soul. … I want my humanity back.”
Karen Lindell: firstname.lastname@example.org
Brother Ali Concert
WHEN: 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21.
WHERE: Whiskey Jacques’, 251 N. Main St., Ketchum.
COST: $12 online, $15 day of the show.
DETAILS: 726-5297, whiskeyjacques.com or brotherali.com.