He has performed hajj; wrote a song celebrating the election of the first black president; got arrested protesting with occupy homes; is a proud student of the late imam Warith Deen Mohammed; and performed one of the most politically incendiary critiques of America’s complicated race legacy on a late night talk show in recent television memory. His lyrics are filled with deeply personal and autobiographical meditations of a white American Muslim albino navigating the travails of race and marriage, and the struggles of everyday people. To some he is a contradiction, but to many of us he exemplifies what we love most about a particular truth-telling spirit and aesthetic in hip-hop, even as that spirit often gets tragically eclipsed or comprised by the overwhelming commercializing forces in the music industry.
|As part of the recognition and attention he is getting for his latest album, Brother Ali was interviewed by Dr. Cornel West for the Smiley and West show. Listen here.
Yet, Brother Ali’s connection to this tradition speaks to one of the most remarkable and still underreported aspects of the American Muslim legacy over the last 40 years: the emergence of a truth-telling spirit, aesthetic and expression within hip-hop, championed over the years by artists who either broadly self-identify as Muslim, or whose sensibilities have been deeply informed and widely influenced by an organic encounter with Islam. From Rakim in the pioneering 80s, to Mos Def in the globalizing 90s, to Lupe Fiasco in the new millennium, some of hip-hop’s most celebrated and accomplished artists come out of this experience.
Brother Ali speaks of and celebrates this legacy often. I first met with him in a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis with hopes of securing him for our 2005 Takin’ It to the Streets. We had a passionate conversation–the only kind you can have with this man–and he graciously agreed. Brother Ali would go on to appear at a number of IMAN events over the years and is scheduled to be among the acts at IMAN’s 15th Anniversary Takin’ it to the Streets, on Saturday, June 15th, 2013. The tension of honestly exploring the spectrum of raw emotions and experiences that makes well-crafted art truly transcendent, while remaining rooted in spiritual values that don’t degrade the substance of its expression, are among the conversations we continue to have.
That’s a large issue and the type of topic that can be debated for hours and if you were to have peeked in at IMAN’s last Artist Retreat around dawn, you would have found Brother Ali energetically leading a seriously sleep-deprived congregation of fellow artists and activists for an animated post-Fajr reflection on such themes.
One thing that is less debatable is the fact that Brother Ali remains one of the realest and rawest talents in the industry, and attending a Brother Ali show is about as close as many in his audience will ever get to engaging and embracing an unapologetically universal expression of Islam’s emphasis on love, justice, mercy and empathy for our fellow human beings. We are all truly honored that Brother Ali will be among our distinguished panelists on Saturday, December 15th at the Chicago Cultural Center, where he is uniquely positioned to be part of a lively and dynamic discussion about IMAN, and our larger spiritual, cultural and communal legacy in this country. We encourage you all to secure your ticket for Legacy Live! today.
At IMAN, “we believe that the Prophetic principles of compassion, service and justice, informed by local and global organizing models, can be transformative forces for creating social change.” This fall, recent Al-Azhar graduate & IMAN’s Grow Your Own Scholar, Ubaydullah Evans, led an eight-week course, called IMAN Reflections, that highlighted aspects of the Prophetic biography and tradition that inspire and undergird our work of social change and uplift in urban communities.
Every Wednesday, for the last seven weeks, the interactive class has examined a different aspect of the Prophet’s life and reflected on how the prophetic tradition informs IMAN’s social justice and organizing work. Every class brought 40-50 IMAN leaders together in a conversation, led by Evans’ framing of prophetic life, over spiritual and social healing in our time and space, and how that can help us come together to meet the challenges in our communities.
At a time where senseless violence, failing schools, foreclosure and lack of jobs continue to plague low-income communities on the South Side of Chicago, where IMAN does its work, we understand the critical need to create a space that connects the larger Muslim community and the South Side community we directly serve, in an effort to bring spiritual and social healing to both. The series is an effort to develop an understanding of the Muslim tradition that can help us speak and act meaningfully in the face of our greatest challenges, and to bridge that tradition with the organizing work of IMAN.
Based on attendance and participation levels, the deepening engagement of current leaders with each other and IMAN staff, and the real possibility of engaging new leaders, the classes seem to have been very meaningful and successful. The last class in this session will be this Wednesday, December 5. Then, the classes will resume as we start a new session in early 2013.
Since 2001, every Thanksgiving Day has brought with it the Annual Chicago Muslim Turkey Drive, and this year was no different. With this annual drive, Muslims of Chicagoland come together to help their neighbors in need on the South Side celebrate with their families on Thanksgiving Day. As in years past, IMAN collaborated with the Webb Foundation and Sabeel Food Pantry to purchase and distribute turkeys in the Marquette Park and Jackson Park neighborhoods. The Drive has grown every year, and a total of 845 turkeys were distributed at three different locations on the South Side this year, making this the most successful drive yet.
The Annual Turkey Drive is a grassroots effort, led by American Muslims for Activism and Learning (AMAL), and is coordinated by an all-volunteer team with the help and sponsorship of community partners. Once again, the beneficiaries of the turkey drive were families in need in Chicago’s Jackson Park and Marquette Park neighborhoods. In Jackson Park, the recipients were families of children attending Emmett Till Math and Science Academy, while in Marquette Park the recipients were families in need in IMAN’s neighborhood.
The number of turkeys distributed this year by IMAN was boosted by a generous first-time donation of 60 turkeys by Midamar Corporation, based in Iowa. Midamar has been a sponsor and supporter of IMAN events, such as Takin’ It to the Streets, in the past. We hope that such partnerships will continue and grow as the American Muslim community’s efforts to live the best of our faith are institutionalized.
As IMAN attempts to bring systemic change in urban communities with services and organizing aimed at alleviating entrenched and complicated problems such as violence, foreclosures, lack of jobs, and failing schools, we believe it is still meaningful to bring some holiday hope and caring to our neighborhoods.