How Rapper Brother Ali Nurtures Creativity Through Spiritual Practice

Brother Ali. Rhymesayers Entertainment

The author Tom Robbins says that “There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better.”

Whether Robbins meant to say that there are actually multiple kinds of people, or that we are all one, is unclear. But considering those who’ve built their careers on disintegrating such phony, divisive boundaries of otherness, who activate the part of our brain where humanity’s universalism becomes not only apparent, but beautiful, rapper Brother Ali ought to be included in the conversation.

On Minneapolis-based independent hip-hop label Rhymesayers Entertainment, over 17 years, Ali’s released six full-length albums of rhymes equally searing and inspirational. Though Ali tends to keep it in the family, working with fellow Rhymesayers like Jake One and Ant from Atmosphere, his work has always maintained a singular sense of vision. Ali’s an albino rapper and a devout Muslim, working out questions of personal identity through a flow that disintegrates our assumptions about identity in an age when identity is everything, from politics to market research.

Tomorrow Rhymesayers releases All the Beauty In This Whole Life, Ali’s most joyous, autobiographical collection of music yet.

Delving deep into the origins of his converting to Islam at age 15, Beauty reframes the stigmatized current narrative of violence about Islam—a faith that has long been Ali’s center, his heart, a lineage of peace to be summoned in moments of chaos. Ali’s story of otherness is not one you’re likely to hear anywhere else, and there’s no one better to share it than him.

The Observer talked to to Ali about what the discipline of a spiritual practice has in common the creative process, how James Baldwin helped him teach his son about blackness, and why Bill Maher forgot a timeless virtue.

Have you had a chance to bump the new Kendrick yet?

Not like I want to, but I did listen to the first third. We’re preparing for the tour and album, we were up really late last night programming lights for the show, and I woke up really early this morning. So I slept like four hours, got up and had a full day of rehearsal.

It’s cool you still have a hand in all of that sort of thing.

Ah, dude, I’m DIY. I program all my own lights, you know what I’m sayin’? [Laughs]

Well Rhymesayers has always had that hustle.

A lot of people talk about hustle, and it’s one element to work just to chase money, or advance yourself. But it’s not really just an ambition thing, it’s a care thing. We really care about the details of what we’re doing, we care what it feels like, we care what it looks like, We care about the amount of time that’s put in, so if you buy the physical product, especially from Rhymesayers, the conversations that we’ve had about the different shades of off-white, creme, mother of pearl or eggshell that are gonna go behind the insert on the inside of the record, you know what I mean?

“People talk about writer’s block, but it’s really true that the sweetest part of everything leaves and comes back, so the key to being consistent is being vulnerable.”

For sure. I just did a piece on Indian devotional chanting for this music journal, and it got me thinking a lot about music as a discipline or practice. Meditation, sure, but also active participation. That seems like a common thread in both Hindu Indian music and in Islamic music. Ritual and routine are important in religious practice, but they can also help elevate the intention and focus. What are the fruits of your spiritual practice, and how have they helped your creative process?

That’s a profound connection to make, especially on this album. The more we study about spiritual life, we understand that the heart sometimes experiences contraction and expansion. Some of the great Sufi teachers teach us…we think about being spiritual as soaring, my heart is just illuminated with the beautiful.

And yes, that’s part of spirituality. But the other part is, O.K., the heart will contract, and you won’t feel it exactly the same way. Really creating a spiritual practice through which you honor—in Islam they call it a wird—a daily ritual that’s sustainable whether you’re in expansion, flying and soaring, or contraction, when you’re just regular. What will I do when I’m regular, you know what I’m sayin’?

Having your practice in your back pocket for those times when you need to call on it, when you need that anchor, is helpful?

Yeah! Having a practice that you honor really is similar to being in a relationship. The relationship with the divine is the blueprint for our relationship to everything else. But in this culture, in this time, we’ve really lost the understanding of that.

I’ve been with my wife for 13 years, I’m crazy about her. There are times where its better than the first day that we met. There are other times, like right now, when I’m preparing for a tour, an album, and everything that comes with that. And she’s a master’s student nearing the end of her semester, we’ve got kids and all this stuff going on, so we’re both firing on both cylinders, burning the candles at both ends type of thing.

But there are certain things—every day I make her coffee and breakfast if I’m home, no matter what. It doesn’t matter what I feel about her, you know what I’m sayin’? [Laughs]

That’s your wird for the relationship?

That’s my relationship wird, brother, exactly! We start every day like that.

The cover of Brother Ali’s All the Beauty In This Whole Life. Rhymesayers Entertainment

There’s something to be said about the vulnerability of that devotion, too. Practice is also about allowing yourself to be vulnerable, especially chanting. You open yourself up to the point where the prayer goes from being a weakness to a strength.

That’s absolutely real, and really what creativity is. This album I made really as a spiritual practice. I was at a point where, my last album was political and I was doing political organizing, protesting and activism, which is really great and I’m still involved in. But I experienced a sense of despair and almost bitterness about the way things are goin’.

“Still spinnin’ that ‘Uncle Sam Godamn!’ “

Yeah! And it really took spirituality to balance it out. Inspiration is kind of that expansion of heart—sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. It’s really an elusive lover. Sometimes it’s with you, and other times it leaves you and you don’t control it. People talk about writer’s block, but it’s really true that the sweetest part of everything leaves and comes back, so the key to being consistent is being vulnerable.

I might approach the altar, whether it’s the pad and the pen with the beats and the turntables, or the chanting and prayer, or the relationship, and might not soar that day. One of the things that the elders and the Sufi guides really taught me is that, when I’m in a contraction, often times that’s me growing.

Often times we need to contract in order to grow. When we’re soaring, we’re kind of reaping the fruits of that labor. But the times when we’re on Earth, it’s really regular and nothing special is happening…sometimes it may even be painful. Everybody creative goes through that, where you sit down to write and you’re repeating yourself, or it’s just wack somehow.

You mention your teachers, and I’m thinking of the late Jonathan Moore and Dr. Umar Faruq Abdullah. What were the fruits of their teachings?

Yeah, the last video was dedicated them. Dr. Abdullah was a spiritual father to me in many ways, and both of those guys really taught me a lot about the way that these things all connect—culture, expression, lineage, the way we honor heritage as the wings that we fly on and the shoes that we walk in. So much of it’s a lineage and a legacy that we inherit.

“I try not to be a child of the moment, I try to be a child of history.”

You’ve said something about “Helping a new generation of Muslims define what it means to cultivate our souls, and the agents of mercy in the modern world.” What does an agent of mercy look like these days?

Agents of mercy are the ability to embrace, the ability to love, and the ability to serve. In order to do that, the heart has to be right. When our hearts are right we’re able to see beauty, reflect beauty, express beauty, create beauty, appreciate beauty, experience beauty. But the heart can’t be blocked by things like jealousy, envy, and an overextended ego.

Were you working through that when you got booted off that Verizon tour, seeing your good intentions be subverted in the public sphere?

Yeah, I mean it’s a really interesting thing to navigate, being a public person. I went to Dr. Abdullah and said my ego was so wrapped up in what I do because what I do is so public, but I just want to be with God, I don’t know if I want to keep making music. He said, “God put you in public, and made you a musician, so it would actually be bad manners with God to leave the station that you were given. That‘s how you be with God—you figure out how to be at your center, genuine and authentic in front of people. When God takes the people away, then you’ll be alone.”

You have this Ta-Nehisi Coates moment on All the Beauty in This Whole Life where you’re narrating a letter to your son about blackness in the world, and it fuses with the heart-focused energy on this record. How do you see your relationship with him connect to that heart, and how has your perspective on your own physical appearance influenced your perspective on his blackness?

It’s interesting, because Ta-Nahisi Coates writes Between The World of Me in the style of James Baldwin, in James Baldwin’s voice. If you look at the beginning of The Fire Next Time, when James writes a letter to his nephew, that’s the voice. So we’re both channeling Baldwin.

Matter of fact, I have a song called “The Travelers” from 2009 where I quote Baldwin from that letter. He says, “White people are trapped in a history that they don’t understand.” And that letter is really beautiful, because it’s one of the most loving things in the world, but Baldwin’s understanding of the predicament of whiteness is really adept, really nuanced and really beautiful.

Brother Ali. Rhymesayers Entertainment

I was born an albino. My mother’s adopted, we’re not sure what she is, but my parents appear to be white. They weren’t able to give me guidance, and on the song “Pray For Me” I talk about the fact that my mom tried to dye my hair to help me blend in, and it actually made me more depressed and deeply self-hateful.

There’s a teacher, or somebody who works at the school, a black woman who helps me understand the concept of “Black is Beautiful.” Learn to be yourself, learn to accept yourself, embrace who you are and that’s the way you become free. Determine for yourself what it means to be a valuable human being.

That’s the way I learned how to navigate life, and so that story is a snapshot of what my whole life has been—a series of learning how to be a human being through the lens of that wisdom tradition. I didn’t really know the world until I was taught.

There’s something that comes through that—a liberation from the intimacies of your own reality. I guess the therapy term is “across the street.” It reminds me of this old line you said once, “Anything that offers undeniable proof of the humanity of black people is a political statement.” In a lot of ways, you’re in a very unique position to speak your truth. And you’ve been making super-political work for years. But spirituality is back in popular black music, as are politics. We could mention Kendrick, Thundercat, Flylo, sure, but even dudes like YG are getting political.

I try not to be a child of the moment, I try to be a child of history. I feel like my community includes James Baldwin even though I’ve never met him. He’s as much a reality in my life as Kendrick is, you know? I’ve met Kendrick, I’ve talked to Kendrick, he’s nice to me, but I don’t kick it with him, you know what I’m sayin’? For me, Kendrick and James Baldwin are happening at the same time, part of the same movement.

You allude to a story about KRS One on “Pen to Paper,” claiming he introduced you to Malcolm X. 

Yeah, so he was doing a lecture tour when I was 13, and snippets from the lectures appeared on his album Edutainment that came out in ’91. He came to Michigan State University and at the end, I had bought his book, Stop The Violence, read it, loved it, took it to the lecture and asked him to sign it during the Q&A.

He brought me onstage, asked me some questions and signed my book. I became Muslim two years later, but at the time, my birth name was Jason, but I’ve been Ali longer. He wrote, “Jason, unite humanity. KRS-One.” There’s a picture of me standing there with rolled-up, stonewash, Silvertab jeans, a Letterman jacket on, and KRS-One.

He told me to read the autobiography of Malcolm X during the time Spike [Lee] was making that movie. It took him two years to make that movie, but all of the stuff about Malcolm X was really pervasive and we loved that idea, that image, everything. I loved every part of it, and still read through that book regularly.

When he gets to the end and goes to Mecca, he says, “There are people there that would be called white in America, but that’s not what they are, that’s not who they are. They’re human beings.” Then he came back, and later at an interview in New York he said, “If the Europeans in America would study Islam, it would make them human again, reconnect them with their humanity again.” But I also loved Minister Farrakhan then, in the early ’90s he was the Pope of hip-hop. Still is.

James Brown name-drop aside, you get pretty funky on this record. Is there a full funk album in your future?

You mean like Tuxedo, or something like that? [Laughs] It’s funny because I made my last album with Jake One, and now he’s doing the Tuxedo project with Mayor Hawthorne. I can’t sing or anything, so I’ll probably just stick to rapping or talking.

What would you say to pundits like Bill Maher who walk the Islamophobia line? He’s always asking this question of why more Muslims can’t be accountable for rooting out radicalized people in their own community or sleeper cells before they do something horrible. There’s this expectation of supernatural accountability being held to the modern Muslim community that’s also a huge double standard. What do you say to someone like that?

It’s dehumanizing. I don’t think he’s walking an Islamophobic line; I think he’s one of the leading, bold-faced Islamophobes in American life. It’s the thing that he has in common with all of his otherwise political foes, and I think that he’s really driven by a sense of identity more than a sense of virtue.

That’s something Dr. Abdullah helped me understand—it’s very easy in political talk to say, “I’m on this side, you’re on that side” and fall into that instead of dealing with virtues that are universal and timeless.

One universal, timeless virtue is humanizing people, letting them be human beings, and understanding that there are common threads within all human cultures, societies, groups, religions, civilizations. Within every group of people there are some whose ego has gotten the best of them, or are in a deep sense of despair. When they’re humiliated, they resort to horrible things. To say that the Muslims can’t have that is a really dehumanizing thing, to say, “Here’s this thing that is a human phenomenon among every group of people.”

It’s really interesting for Bill Maher as a rich, straight, white, modern man. Every category this man’s in is among the worst purveyors of violence in the world.

Think about modern people versus pre-modern people. Who’s killed more, who’s been more violent then modern people? We just dropped the Mother of All Bombs. Who’s more deadly than Western Civilization? All of these categories that Bill Maher is in make it interesting for him to point fingers at anybody in terms of violence, you know? It’s interesting to me because I’m also in a lot of those categories.

It’s all culture, nature/nurture I guess? You walked a different path, and you’re a seeker.

Yeah, and I think I’m a different person because of the way that I was taught. I was taught by people whose identities weren’t enough for them to make it in the world, and so they had to be attached to virtues, to meaning bigger than time and space.

Brother Ali plays Bowery Ballroom on May 31