Just a Man: An Interview with Brother Ali


The first thing people notice about Brother Ali is that he’s a white albino rapper. To ask him about this fact completely ignores his life, his struggles, and the experiences he’s witnessed. With his last album The Undisputed Truth, Ali delved into these experiences like his failing marriage and being homeless, providing one of the rawest personal narratives in recent hip hop albums. With his new album Us, Ali now looks outside himself, trying to understand American society discussing slavery, rape, and race. His messages are not preachy, but insightful, encouraging, and entirely what hip hop needs. SFCritic took a moment to speak with Ali, about his story and ours.

SFCritic (SFC): You’ve put a lot of emotions and truth in each of your tracks. Do you ever worry you’re being too honest?

Brother Ali (BA): No. As soon as Ant and I started working together, I adapted the approach to be as open and honest as possible.

(SFC): Do you ever hold anything back?

(BA): Yes, I hold back things that I think may hurt the people close to me. I have a code where I don’t put other peoples’ business in my songs that I think can hurt them. I put all my business in my songs. I’ll tell you about marriage that broke up, but I’ll never tell you about all the crazy stuff my ex-wife did or continues to do. No matter how I feel about her, that’s not right for me to voice for that reason.

(SFC): Compared to your earlier work, this new album, along with “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” has a lot more political conscious messages. What changed? Was there a particular event or person that motivated you to go in this direction?

(BA): Anytime you start talking about people and the way the world affects people it can be considered political or conscious. All my music is personal, it’s not political. It feels political, because there is some politics in it, there is a bunch of people. We talk about something personal that rings true in a bigger group, that stuff feels political, but none of them were intended to be that.

To me political [sounds like] I’m telling you what needs to be changed in the world, or I’m telling what law needs to be passed, or I’m telling you what you need to be doing different, and that’s not it at all, this is just how I see things.

(SFC): With artists like you and Eminem proving that anyone can be an amazing emcee, do you think race is still a factor in being accepted as a true emcee?

(BA): Nope, I don’t think it ever was. I have no patient for white people whining about not being accepted in hip hop.

(SFC): I’m not just talking about Caucasian. I’m thinking about Latin, or Asian. I’m talking Big Pun, Fat Joe, and Jin.

(BA): I’ve never seen that as being real. In terms of having trouble being accepted for your ethnicity in hip hop. If you’re dope, people are going to embrace and accept you. It’s always been like that. The second Pun came along he was accepted, and Joe was already accepted and there were other Latin dudes way before that.

(SFC): On “Breaking Dawn,” there is a point where you say, “Them folks having singing like this for years,” what is the importance to you that people understand this music legacy? Is it intended to explain to your typical audience, or to show you understand to the audience you hope to gain?

(BA): I’m not trying to gain an audience with anything I do. I don’t do anything to appeal to these people, or any particular demographic. I mention it on “Daylight,” on Undisputed Truth, there are a lot of people that never listen to rap until they feel they can identify. That’s fine. On a certain level I understand that.

But if you’re brand new to hip hop, don’t start judging it, don’t tell me I’m the greatest emcee of all time, don’t tell me I saved hip hop because that’s not what it’s about. When people embrace us, people like me, Aesop, and Slug, as a way of saying, “I hate rap, but I like you,” well that’s crazy–because I love rap.

(SFC): What I’m trying to ask about with “Breaking Dawn” is that the track suggests that this is a historically black musical culture, and it seems that you’re paying ode…

(BA): I’m sorry to cut you off, but that song is basically my story. I used singing, and class and the race divide as a way of telling that story, and those are elements. I learned hip hop within the hip hop world. Hip hop has gotten to that point where people listen to hip hop and appreciate it that are not from the hip hop world, traditionally.

That song is about more than that, it’s also about feeling rejected and wanting to be accepted. Once you get up close to that group, you realize they’re not doing any better than you are. It’s about inclusion and exclusion, and wanting to be accepted. You realize this isn’t any better than what I had before that’s really what I experienced with the race thing. People think that it’s so different, that the experience is so different, they trade benefits for losses, and everything comes at a cost.

(SFC): Will hip hop ever have a female or gay Rakim?

(BA): Well definitely the female is an issue. You were talking about ethnicity in rap, and in my mind that has never been an issue. In my mind what really is a problem, we have such a deficit of strong female voices. To me, that is something we need to focus on. I got someone to sign to Rhymesayers. I took Pslam-1 on tour with me. I tried to do my part where I can. I feel like the space is open, someone could really come along and be that person.

(SFC): In an interview with HipHopDX you talk about “Breaking Dawn,” and you mention the importance of talking about these issues. How and where do you think we can create a dialogue on race between races in the US?

(BA): It just has to be really open, based on love, respect, being human and getting to the truth that the truth is better for everybody. That is kind of what I tried, and hope to give an example of that on this album. I just wanted to be human. I tried to do that by talking about people I know from all different walks of life and experiences, and talk about them just as human beings. You don’t really know what race or nationality people are in those songs. I hope you just feel that they’re human and their struggling, and I love them.

Brother Ali will be performing At Slim’s Oct. 17th, w/ Evidence and Toki Wright

For more information, see the full article at SF Station.