Brother Ali: Truth-Teller & CommUNITY Café Headliner

He has performed hajj; written a song celebrating the election of the first black president; been 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 under-reported 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 most recently performed at IMAN’s 15th Anniversary Takin’ it to the Streets, in 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 2011 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.

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