Ali: When I was pretty young. I did my first show when I was eight. I did some of my stuff, but a lot of other people’s stuff. I started writing little passages and things then. When I was 13 I made my first song. It was my first entirely original song.
PK: Was there a moment for you that spelled out this profession as the one for you? Was it a struck by lightning kind of moment or a series of things that occurred for you to discover that hip-hop was for you?
Ali: When I was seven, my brother and I lived in a cul-de-sac. It was all duplexes, low-income area. There were these two brothers that lived at the end of our street that were a few years older than us. We looked up to them. They were beat boys, they were break dancers, and there was hip-hop around their house all the time. We just fell in love with it.
I remember I bought my first rap tape. It was a compilation album called, Kings of Rap. I memorized everything on that. It was very big for me. I remember Houdini in particular. I really liked them because they had themes to all of their songs. They all had a topic, and they all really stuck to that topic. They had one about love, one about friends, and one about people who talk too much. That was a big thing for me.
I would have to say that there is one big moment for me. When I was 13, I met KRS-One. I saw him speak at Michigan State University and then during the Q&A part I asked him to sign a book he had published. He brought me on stage, talked to me, and asked me questions. Between the lecture and meeting him, it was life changing for me.
PK: What was the title of that book? I’ve talked to a few other rappers and KRS-One has a book they all refer to.
Ali: He has a few. The one that I’m talking about was Stop the Violence. He and a writer, Nelson George, did it together. It was part of the stop the violence movement he was part of. He had a song called, “Self-destruction” which was part of that movement.
PK: There is a lot of you in your songs. You talk about having been broke, homeless, and sleeping on friends’ couches. Now, according to a single like “Fresh Air,” you’re sleeping on the couch with Conan and own your own home. Is this success surreal for you? Are you the “luckiest son of a bitch that ever lived,” or are there still boxes left unchecked for you professionally?
Ali: There is a lot left to be desired. I’m not lavish. There are times when I’m not even comfortable. I have enough money to live when I’m active, but I don’t have enough money socked away to just be when I’m not, and I take a break when it comes to my family’s finances. There is still a lot to do. The biggest problem I have is when I take too long between albums. I basically end up with a year when I hardly have any income. That is one of the things I want to work on, being more productive. That way, there aren’t these yearlong gaps between projects. I need to manage my money a lot better. I feel like for me to be sustainable, what I am doing needs to be bigger. My fan base needs to be bigger. I need to be more successful before I can say, “This is fine. I can ride this out for the rest of my life.” I’m not 100% comfortable. I’m not 100% stable. There are still long periods of time when my family doesn’t have insurance. I still have big tax bills; I struggle to pay my taxes.
It’s still tough, but I am still extremely grateful that I don’t have to work a job and that I do own my home and that kind of stuff, but there is still a lot to be desired there.
PK: You’ve got a long and growing discography. Starting with a single like “Rain Water” from the Rhymesayers sampler and albums likes Shadows on the Sun and now your next album. When you do decide it’s time to put something out? Is it the financial need to put something out? Is it fans screaming for more stuff? Do you just wait until the content piles up and you just need to put one out? How do you determine it’s time for another project?
Ali: I would like to get to the point where I am always creating and always have a body of work that’s ready to go. Normally, I just say that it’s time to make a new album. I normally put one out and tour it until I can’t tour it anymore, and then I say, “OK, I guess I need a new one so I can go and start the tour cycle again.”
So, I put an album out and tour it for a year. It would be good to tour it for a year and then come back and make the next one, but I’ve been touring them for two years. I come home and take a year or so making the next one. For this one [Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color], it’s been three years. Between Shadows on the Sun and The Undisputed Truth, it was four or five years. It was quite a long time.
PK: You’ve come from difficulty in your life. From being on your own at 17, married young, being broke, how did you stick with this and persevere? What did, or do you, turn to or tell yourself to keep going through self-doubt and difficulty?
Ali: For this [album] I put myself in a certain place. Working with Jake One, he lives in Seattle, so I would go out there. I would go out there for a weekend, or a week, and eventually I got an apartment out there to stay for months. Being there just put me in a space where I was here to make music and that’s it. So make music. Normally, I would start to make something and if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t finish it. I would feel depressed, just down, feeling blue about it. I would have to wait for inspiration to hit me again and I would have to flesh out an idea. If that came together then that would be great. In this scenario, I was in a situation where I couldn’t wait to write the perfect song, I just had to write songs. Because of that, I wrote 14 songs that I really love and I’m really proud of. In between those times [in Seattle] I was also writing songs. With this album, there wasn’t that time when I was stagnant and not doing anything.
“Writer’s Block” is a perfect example of that. My friend, Slug [of Atmosphere], told me, “You need to just create. If you have writer’s block, then write a song about writer’s block.” I put myself in a space where I just forced myself to work through it.
PK: Going back in your history, with songs like “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” “Tightrope,” and even songs like “Walking Away” and “Puppy Love,” do you ever cringe and want to pull back from writing a song or including certain content. You ever cringe and think, “That’s gonna piss somebody off?”
Ali: Yeah. Sometimes you talk about your relationship with somebody and that relationship deteriorates, and that becomes a sore point. There were a couple of things on this one [the next album] where my wife was like, “Hey, I don’t know if you should really be comfortable saying that.” There were a couple of things I went back and changed. There is stuff in this album that is going to be problematic for people. I just know that. Sometimes relationships come to an end in life, and they don’t always end well. I know that on this album there is one song in particular that I’m going to catch hell over.
PK: Those are the personal relationships. With some of your tracks, to return to a track like “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” as a Muslim speaking out against the U.S. government, are you ever afraid of the wrath of the Patriot Act coming down on you? Ever feared prosecution from officials or big brother spying on you because of some of the content in your songs?
Ali: Yeah, it already has. Right around the time that “Uncle Sam Goddamn” hit the first million views [on YouTube] the Department of Homeland Security stepped in and froze the Rhymesayers bank account and seized some of my money. I was forced to register with them and give them all of my information so that they can track me and the people who work with me. I’ve had some difficulty traveling to other countries; particularly the Middle East. It just takes longer for my paperwork to go through. It’s still approved, and I’m able to go, but I have to apply earlier for visas and things like that.
That is a reality I face.
PK: Does that outrage you? I can only imagine for myself, but that might piss me off. Do you have any anger, or is this just something that comes with the territory? Something you knew might happen.
Ali: It’s a reality. Even when I made that song, this is the reality I was talking about. Even the people who speak up for justice are challenging and a problem for people in power. You get silenced and all sorts of other things can happen.
I didn’t choose to be in this struggle. The way that I was raised just put it in me. I can’t not think about it. It is just so paramount to who I am that it is not an option for me to say nothing. More and more I am getting to the point where I am doing something, but at the very least I have to say something.
It is just necessary. I have a wall of heroes, the people who inspire me, and they were all persecuted for standing up for what was right. A lot were killed. A lot were put in jail. A lot were blacklisted and ostracized. They were pushed out and rejected. That’s just the reality of it.
I just try to be smarter and more effective. Make these sacrifices more worth it.
PK: As you’re going along making your albums, you grow as a person, and so does your sound. I use Atmosphere as the example of artists that have changed from their first album to their latest, and there can be backlash from OG fans when they do something different. From your first album to this next one, are you ever afraid of alienating old fans with a different sounds or tone? Do you think about fan service like that?
Ali: I think you can’t do that. You see that old dude trying to keep up with the kids, and trying to still act like he did when he was young. It’s more sad to see a grown-up trying to be a kid than it is to see a grown-up who doesn’t have the same friends as he did when he was a kid. I’d rather be that grown-up that outgrew his friends than be the grown-up who stops himself from growing so that he can still hang out with his drinking buddies from when he was a kid.
I haven’t lost any of my passion. If anything, I am more passionate. I think I got better at what I do. The main thing that I lost was that my world was so small and I was so angry and frustrated back in that time. There are people whose world is small, and they’re frustrated, and it speaks to them more. I think what I am saying to them now is that the world is bigger. It’s a bigger place and I’ve had a chance to see it, and I am inviting you to see the bigger world for what it is.
I’m not going to go back to that. I’m not going to go back and un-know what I know now so that I can relate to that better. That would be a huge mistake. The choices are quit, grow, or force yourself to be Pinocchio. I’m still going to grow.
I know what you’re saying about Atmosphere. I hear it, but you can still go to an Atmosphere show and they’ll perform those songs. Slug is still the guy that made that. I’m still the guy that made this. Another thing is that I don’t reject any of the music that I made before. Neither one of us do that. How many times do you go see a band and they just want to play their new album? That’s cool, it’s good, but we want to hear everything.
PK: Speaking of doing stuff from the new album, from the cover art that I’ve seen, you are kneeling for prayer on the American flag. You’re already on a list, so what is the statement you’re making? If we can judge a book by it’s cover, what is this saying about what people are in for listening to Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color?
Ali: It’s multilayered. The first is that it is a literal depiction of what the title of the album is. We’re in this condition in America that this country is not what it’s supposed to be. The principles that people have been believing in, fighting for, dying for, are really under attack. The idea that all human beings are equal and endowed with certain right; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; freedom, justice, equality; that we’re a sovereign nation, that we’re not an empire, that we’re a democracy where the people rule; are dying. I’m not saying that they’re dead, but they’re down for the count.
We’re in a situation now where we’re in a permanent war economy. It depends on us always being in a war. We have unjust wars around the world. We have drones that have something like 2,000 innocent people. People are losing their homes. Banks are literally robbing people of their homes. Largely, politicians aren’t standing up for them, some are, but most of the politics are controlled by powerful corporations. Our country is not what our country was supposed to be on paper and in our hearts. Nobody, if they really look in their heart, can tell us that this is what America really is; we’ve lost that idea.
For a lot of people it never existed. For people of color, and for the most vulnerable of people, that reality has never existed. Except for the mainstream popular culture, it never existed. So, the idea is that I saw the flag on the ground. The flag being a symbol of what America stands for, and I saw it on the ground and I kneeled down and prayed for it. That’s the most obvious and literal depiction of it. I do still have hope. I do still have faith.
There is also a challenge in there. The idea is that we are in this position because we’ve been separated. The people, the common people, have been divided based on identity. We are defined by one aspect of our identity. So, if somebody is gay, then that’s who they are. Never mind the fact that they’re a dad, a college graduate, or disabled. Human beings have so many layers, but our society picks what part of you you’re going to be identified by: Your religion, your sexual orientation, your class, your race, what language you speak, what country you were born in. So, there’s this idea that somehow being a Muslim and American are at odds with each other. That Muslims and Americans are somehow enemies. I’m challenging that. I’m an American, that’s my flag, and I’m a Muslim. It’s challenging either to Muslims who say that’s the flag of the people who are trying to kill us around the world, or to Americans saying those are the people who are trying to kill us. I’m saying I am an American and I am a Muslim, and I’m not conflicted by that. If you’re conflicted by that, then you need to check yourself. You need to figure out what’s wrong inside you that’s making that hard for you.
It’s also a statement that that’s where the solution lies. It lies in us seeing our identities connected as opposed to at odds with each other. I think that’s the biggest part of the statement, that we need to see our identities as bonding tools and not as war tools.
PK: I love that. We have the old adage that it’s our differences that connect us more than divide us. We’re in a melting pot and it’s boiling over, yet no one seems to be trying to put out the fires stoking the mess we’re in.
Ali: It’s also that what I am doing there is reverent, caring, loving, sensitive, and gentle. I’m not dancing on the flag. I’m not wiping my ass with it. I’m kneeling on it praying, which is the most intimate and sacred thing to me as a Muslim. If that’s offensive to people, we need to think about why they’re so sensitive. There’s the problem. The problem is not that I am doing this to offend, it’s why is it so offensive? What ideas and beliefs do we have to have about ourselves and the rest of the world which makes that [picture] such a challenging and sensitive thing.
There’s flags on everything all over the place. When doing this, I’ve looked into and studied the codes and the ethics of the flag. Why is it that it can’t touch the ground? The flag isn’t allowed to touch anything beneath it. Flags are supposed to be taken down and folded very specifically at night. The flag is supposed to come down if it rains. The flag is not supposed to be used in advertising or to be part of someone’s clothing unless it is approved like Boy Scouts or police. A flag T-shirt, hat, do-rag, are not complying with those ordinances either. So, what is it about those things that makes them ok? “Oh, we know what they mean and that shows pride and patriotism. Why are you doing this Muslim prayer on this flag? That’s our enemy’s thing.” Well, then the problem is choosing that [praying on the flag] to be offended by.
PK: Well, now we’re getting in to the heart of the album. You’ve worked with Ant in your past works, but you worked with Jake One on this album. What came out of the collaboration or what did Jake One bring to this album that was significantly different from your work with Ant? Anything about this album that could not have been done without Jake One on the project?
Ali: The main thing was the process. When I write with Ant, it is very collaborative. The words are collaborative, and the music is collaborative. I write the words sitting in his house and he hears them. I’m writing things based on conversations that we have which are intimate and personal. He’s keeping track of what’s being said and how it’s being said, which is great. I made some very important music that means so much to me that I couldn’t have made with anyone else. When I work with Jake, he’s not in the room when I’m writing the song. He hears it after I’m done making a demo version of it. He’s not paying attention what I’m saying at all. He’s just thinking is the flow right, is the vibe right. Until we get ready to put a song on an album and work on it over and over again, he doesn’t hear them all the way through. A lot of those songs, he couldn’t tell you what they were about until I said that it was going to be on the album.
I don’t know if I could have made a political album with Ant. He wouldn’t want to hear that. He just doesn’t view the world like that. That’s a part of who I am and that would have taken a lot of convincing for me to do that with Ant. Whereas Jake is just not paying attention and I can literally go wherever I want with it.
Also, I got to be a lot more hands-on with things. Ant just handles so much of it. I can leave so much of it with him in terms of arranging things. So, I was forced to exercise new muscles [on this album] and all of that led me to create in different ways and say different things.
Jake is really big on the flow. He’s telling me that, “You can’t keep using the same style on these songs. You already did that flow, you’ve got to switch it up.” He doesn’t care what I’m saying. It’s more about the cadence, the delivery, the style, and the flow.
PK: I saw a short YouTube video where you were talking about the title of the album. You had originally set out with a title of Mourning in America, but decided to change that and add Dreaming in Color. Was this an organic thing that came out of the process or did you specifically go out of your way to bring some light to the darkness of the idea of mourning a country?
Ali: I think it’s both parts. I think they are separate but they need to be connected. I started out having a terrible year. Everything was bleak, so I was gonna make and album titled Mourning in America about how bad it is. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being depressed and that being the album you should make. So, I was going to make this terrible, dark, hard album about being depressed and it was going to be loud and angry. Then I made my Haj, my pilgrimage to Mecca. I started working in the community, and got involved in the Occupy movement. I started working with kids and my family a lot. I got more connected spiritually. I started doing a lot of the work I’d always wanted to do, and it started to show me the other side that got me over that hump. I was able to say that, “Yes, there are great things going on out here.” What we should be doing is not just telling people how terrible it is, though that is important, that witness is important. Cornel West said that, “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” People, when they’re suffering, are rendered invisible. So, allowing that voice to be heard is very important, but there is the other side where you need to invite people to the good possibilities that I’m seeing and witnessing.
PK: You said you could never make a political album with Ant. Would you categorize this upcoming album as a political one?
Ali: I would say it is more social. It’s not political. I’m not saying you should vote for this and not vote for that. The focus is more on activism than it is on politics, but yes it is both social and political. There is plenty of personal stuff on there, but the personal stuff is where our politics should come from. We should be saying that this is what’s going on in my life, and it’s made me care about this [or that], but I would say the theme is social and political.
PK: Speaking of social and political, would you like to speak about the Occupy Homes movement you’re involved and active in for which you were recently arrested? Why is this so close to your heart that you’d be willing to be arrested?
Ali: Yeah. It is just such a clear, symbolic, and real picture of what’s going on and what the solution is. Obviously, our whole financial crisis was created by banks, and the number one area was in homes. Banks decided that the way they were going to make money over this most recent period was to steal equity out of peoples’ homes and shifting that wealth to themselves. They already have an evil system with compound interest on mortgages, but it’s really become intensified in the last ten years. There have been several different stages, but the current stage is that they’ve made all these bad loans, sold them, bet against them, and then got bailed out because of them. So, now there’s all these bad loans out here that people can’t maintain and the way [banks] make money at the tail end of this is foreclosing on all of these homes, keeping the years of payments they got from people, and then reselling those same homes.
They’re using fraudulent practices, they’re rushing the process along, and they’re using local police and sheriffs to evict people from their homes. What happened in Minneapolis, an African-American woman in north Minneapolis went to the Occupy movement and asked for their help. So, they occupied her house. They kept the police from evicting her and basically bought time to put pressure on the banks and the local authorities. Basically, the district attorney postponed the eviction so they could investigate this situation and US Bank ended up renegotiating to keep her in her house. These are people who want to make their payments, want to stay in their houses, and the banks aren’t accepting their payments.
The thing that endeared me to it, what touched me so much, was that for the first time I am seeing white, middle-class people from the suburbs who are in this situation, too. Housing crises and predatory lending has been going on in the black and brown communities for years, and if we had stopped it when it was just a black and brown problem, then it wouldn’t have become this nationwide epidemic, but it did. So, white people, middle-aged people, people who never thought they’d be going through this, are in this experience now and they have a reason to see themselves as being in the same boat and being connected to these black and brown families. So, I am seeing these suburban, middle-class, white professionals putting their bodies and their police records on the line for black and brown people to help protect their homes. I had to get in on that. I had to support that.
The thing is, they’re successful. We have what we call the Minnesota Five, which is five different families who’ve won their houses after bringing focus on their cases. These are people who would have been homeless on the street. They’ve got different ages, backgrounds, races, neighborhoods, and the community has been coming together to support them. It’s been incredible.
We’re going to keep going. First of all, there will be a moratorium on evictions. Even if people are in foreclosure, the police should not be summoned to throw these people out. Then, eventually there will be some reform in how banks need to deal with homeowners.
PK: You’re hitting the road soon. What’s the show gonna be like? Who are you touring with? Also, I have to ask out of my personal curiosity, are you going with a DJ or are you going to channel some live band work like back on the Hip-Hop Live tour you did years ago with everything from guitars to a horn section?
Ali: Actually, I’m glad you brought the Hip-Hop Live tour up. Me and one of the managers for that band stayed in touch for years. When my DJ, BK One, retired from the road, me and that guy started working on putting my band together. That will be the configuration with this tour. I’ll have that horn section and the full, live band thing.
The main support [for this tour] is Homeboy Sandman. He’s probably my favorite lyricist out there now. He’s out of New York and he’s on Stones Throw Records. It’s a label that feels a little like a sister label to us [Rhymesayers] in a way. They do stuff we don’t do, and we do stuff they don’t do, but there is a lot of overlap there. It’s a label run by music lovers, collectors, and enthusiasts which is exactly what Rhymesayers is too. Homeboy Sandman will be on the whole tour.
For most of the tour, the openers will be a group out of Colorado called The ReMINDers. They’re a husband and wife team that gets compared to the Fugees. He’s compared to Mos Def a lot. He’s originally from Africa. She’s originally from New York and she gets compared to Lauren Hill a lot. They are really big on the Muslim hip-hop circuit. Basically, for that kind of circuit, they are everybody’s favorite group, but they’re able to speak to a broader audience. Their music is like mine. We’re Muslim, and we talk about the way feel, live, and see thing, but it’s not Muslim music per say. They are dear friends of mine, so I’m really glad to have them on the tour, too.
Brother Ali will be touring starting August 11th through the end of October in the U.S. and Canada. Go to www.rhymesayers.com for more information on tour dates/tickets, his upcoming album (releasing Sept. 18th), and everyone else on the label.