Brother Ali interview: The MC who re-built his life

by Mark Pollard on January 12, 2009 · 5 comments

in Interviews

“I was able to re-build my life the way I wanted it to be.
In order to do that, I had to go without the old stuff.”

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Brother Ali is an inspiration. Bedded down with Minneapolis’ pioneering Rhymesayers crew (home to Atmosphere and Eyedea & Abilities), Brother Ali has faced huge obstacles in his life and has overcome them with resolute determination, releasing acclaimed releases such as The Undisputed Truth – 2007, and Shadows on the Sun – 2003, along the way


As a kid what were some of your life-changing moments?
Brother Ali:
I’ve had a tonne of them. Definitely when I first got involved in hip hop was a big one. That was in the mid-80s when I was a little kid. I got involved in the whole culture of it – breakdancing, listening to the music. Later on I started rapping, making beats and a very small amount of DJ-ing. That was in the late 80s when the more ‘educated’ rapper took over and had a really strong message of self-empowerment and being intelligent and strong, and these kind of messages. that made me want to be a certain kind of person. so I would say that becoming involved in hip hop was a big one for me.

Also, I got married when I was 17 so that was a big one for me because I went from being a kid to being an adult in a day, and was taking care of myself and my wife and had a son together. Another one would be when I first started going on tour and put out Shadows on the Sun, and didn’t have to work these very low-level jobs any more to survive. I started being a little closer to being free, and was able to do what I cared about doing and be the person I wanted to be. Then that led to me divorcing my wife and getting custody of my son. We were just hanging out there in the lurch for a minute – didn’t have anywhere to live, didn’t have our own space, didn’t have anything. My ex-wife was really “ugly” [not looks] so we weren’t really able to make a good, healthy split – we just had to leave. We had to re-build everything. Since then I got married again and it’s really good. I’ve had a lot of really big, important things that made me who I am.

Tell me a bit about your mindset at 17, thinking you were ready to marry.
Brother Ali:
I really wanted to have a family. I wanted to have the family that nobody around me had. I wanted to be married. I wanted to grow together with somebody and build a life together. I was really involved with my mosque at that time. American Muslims are a young community and we’ve tried a variety of things to figure out culturally how our practice of Islam is going to be. And one of the things that was being done at that time – and one of the things that’s still being done – is that young people were encouraged to get married young rather than go through a bunch of different girlfriends and boyfriends, but to not necessarily live together. So, still go to school, still go to college. But the thing about that was my wife’s family wasn’t involved with her at all and my family wasn’t a Muslim family so we basically ended up being out on our own. Their approach to it was: “Well, if you’re married, you need to go through your own thing then.” At 17, I was out on my own, being with my wife and hadn’t finished high school, and had to provide…

Were you fairly busy with the lyrics right around then as well?
Brother Ali:
I’ve been busy making music and writing lyrics since I was 17 years old – earlier than that, but 17 is when I got a bit of equipment and started recording at my house. I’ve made music ever since then. I’ve never really stopped.

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I read about your desire to not ‘be forgettable’. Talk to me a bit a about that.
Brother Ali:
I think that so many people make music and there’s no real point to it. It doesn’t make any connection to anybody other than the person who wants to be a musician. It seems that a lot of people aren’t that passionate about what they’re saying, they’re not really doing anything new or different. There’s nothing wrong with it but I don’t want to make music like that. I want to make music that’s important to me and the people around me. I really put my heart into it. If you hear my music you know something about who I am.

In terms of Rhymesayers. I guess they would have been the most active crew in your region at that time. Did you approach them? How did you connect?
Brother Ali:
I started out being a fan of theirs. I met everybody through the circuit, doing shows and being involved in hip hop. There was another MC on Rhymesayers called Beyond who took me to Ant’s house [Ant produces the music for Atmosphere - with Slug] and we became friends. And then I became friends with the guy who runs the label. His name is Siddiq. I didn’t really become close friends with Slug until we went on tour together the first time in 2002. But, from that point on, me and Slug became really close friends. We’re from the same place, we believe in the same things and we work the same way. There’s not some crazy story. It was just a natural thing.

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How did the ethos of the Rhymesayers crew help you grow as a person, as a performer?
Brother Ali:
Well, they were the first people that I ever knew personally who did it independent. I’d always heard about people doing that but I never knew anyone who did it. So the way they approach music is really just straight to the listener. They believe that we make our music for the listeners, not for the industry necessarily. And giving people as much for their money as they can – not over-charging people for anything so that people feel that when they deal with you there to give them as much as you can. A lot of thorough thought is put into everything. And touring – staying in front of the people you make the music for.

In another interview, you said that music was sacred to you, that it’s a place you can find peace, so you guard it. Being that you write fairly personal stuff, how do you find going on the road and performing stuff that is so sacred to you?
Brother Ali:
I mean, I wouldn’t want to perform anything that I didn’t care about like that. That’s one of the main reasons why it has to be so important – because you’re going to have to stand on stage in front of people, look them in the eye and perform these songs night after night after night, and if they’re not really important then it’s just going to suck. It’s like, if you had to have the exact same conversation with a new person every day you would really want it to be important – you wouldn’t want it to be small talk. Having songs that mean so much to me makes it so that I can never have a show that I’m not into. I could never go through the motions in a show because I’m up there talking about everything that’s most important to me.

What’s the strangest thing that’s happened on tour?
Brother Ali:
It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of weird things that go on. I have a lot of people who listen to the music and they can tell I’m talking about my real life so I have a lot of people who really want to connect with me and some of them can get a bit intrusive. When my mum died a couple of years ago I had this girl at a show turn up with a photo of my mum. Me and my mum have different last names and I never told anybody that she passed away so I have no clue how she knew that but she showed up and showed me the photo. I have people cry to me and tell me that we’re soul mates. Stuff like that. It kind of goes with the type of music that I make.

brother-ali-small2How do you deal with that?
Brother Ali:
I’m just honest with people. I told that girl, “This is really weird. This is my personal business. I don’t know how you figured it out but you’re getting too much into my personal business. If I choose to put something out there then that’s my choice but it’s not an open life. It’s not right for you to spend all your time researching my personal things.” I had a girl the other day when I was with my new wife and my son at my show… I had this girl cry saying I’d done so much for her – which is beautiful and that’s great. But then she was saying she wanted to be my woman and that we’re soul mates and stuff.

What’s it like working with Ant?
Brother Ali:
It’s great because we’re really close personal friends. I think that has a lot to do with why it comes out the way it does. Those songs – we talk about those things. That’s how our relationship is. Ant has had a lot of similar experiences to me – he got married really young and went through a divorce, and we view music the same way.

Is now the best time of your life?
Brother Ali:
Yes, by far. I was able to re-build my life the way I wanted it to be. In order to do that I had to go without the old stuff… people get comfortable in their life and even if they don’t like it they just go with it. Me and my son definitely went through that. I did it because I believed we could re-build things in a much healthier, happier way. Musically, my career is exactly how I want it to be. I’m in control of the things I create. I work with my closest friends. I’m able to do the things that are important to me. I’m never really forced to do things I don’t believe in. I’m able to make a lot of choices for myself which is important to me. I’m married to someone who is really amazing as a person and who is really supportive of me. I have custody of my son. Everything is great. Not only is the music the way I want it to be but, in my mind, it’s successful. I know there are people who sell a lot more records than I sell but I’m very happy with the way things are going.

- This previously unpublished Brother Ali interview was conducted mid-2007

More Brother Ali: Record label Record label MySpace Last.FM A bunch of videos Wikipedia

Brother Ali – Uncle Sam Goddam

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 North January 13, 2009 at 6:54 am

Good interview man. That’s what I like about this guy. He’s deep without being a wanker. He’s never seriously going to say “I was doing this before anyone else” or “I’m the greatest rapper alive”. I think you were were able to let him portray that with the questions asked. Cheers for uppin’.

2 datsun January 14, 2009 at 6:11 am

shadows of the sun remains his best
undisputed is way to preachy for me. Islam doesn’t have the answers, by filling rhymes with religion rappers expose huge holes in their philosophy.
just my opinion.

3 moos3 July 10, 2009 at 7:18 am

who said brother ali was preaching? he always talks about how his music is about him and his life and what he went through, he’s not preaching he’s just keepin it real with his life and how he lives it. he’s not filling rhymes with religion…rhymes are rhymes. not to mention that the whole entire Qur’an is an entire holy book that is pure poetry. so the rhymes and religion in that is totally interchangeable…think before you spread ignorance.

4 tom September 19, 2009 at 12:25 pm

yeh brother ali isnt about preaching his religion. He is about spreading positivity to everyone and being accepting no matter what their beliefs are. Hes not materialistic or cocky like some of the rappers out there, and hes an inspiration with how hes grown up and got by with all the hard times hes had. Learnt alot from him and his music.
Awesome interview!

5 Milk September 10, 2011 at 4:20 am

I took that picture of Ali on stage. :)

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