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Brother Ali Talks New Album, Being a White Muslim in America, and Department of Homeland Security

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Throughout the aughts, Rhymesayers Entertainment has produced some of underground's most prolific MCs. Amongst the Minneapolis label's list of talented rhyme slingers, Jason Newman, better known as Brother Ali, stands as one of the indie powerhouse's most heartfelt, and critically recognized MCs. After garnering nods from the mainstream thanks to his well-received projects, 2007's The Undisputed Truth, and 2009's Us, Brother Ali has is back with his fifth full-length project, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color. While his previous LPs were filled with personal offerings that touched upon deeply emotional subject matters, his latest output centers heavily on political issues, especially the state of America that Ali himself sees and fights to improve. A decade-long veteran in the game, XXL sat down with the rapper/political activist and discussed various issues including the now, quickly expanding Occupy Homes movement in Minneapolis, his appreciation for artists like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, and survival tactics on tour. —Jaeki Cho (@JaekiCho)

On His Involvement with the Occupy Homes Movement in Minneapolis

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Brother Ali: “The Occupy Homes movement started in Minneapolis and has been growing across the country—when 10 to 15 years ago we started reading these stories on page 13 of the newspaper about how black and brown communities were being targeted by banks and given bad loans. Buying houses is so much like going to college; if people in your family have a history of doing that, then you have a kind of generational understanding of it. But if you don’t, then it’s a very difficult thing to get involved in because, you know, it’s a different world; it’s a different culture. In the Midwest and throughout the country we’ve had a history of housing discrimination and redlining and stuff like that. So, black and brown families didn’t have that generational history of buying homes, so banks around the country targeted black and brown families with bad loans where they get them in a house, they make payment for five or 10 years, then we hit them with adjustable rate mortgage or the balloon payment that’s hidden inside the contract somewhere, and then they lose the house. So 15 years ago it was just a black and brown problem and it was largely ignored by the mainstream. So, banks took that problem and made it a mainstream white, middle-class problem. And it’s an epidemic now where there are literally millions of families in foreclosure right now. And these banks, you miss a payment, miss two payments, you lose your job, they’re taking the house very quickly and very quietly. So, some people in Minneapolis had the idea, ‘Let’s go to Occupy, where there’s a bunch of people chilling out. They’re planning and strategizing and talking about what to do and stuff like that, but let’s get those people and put them in these houses and defend the homes.’ And so, we start out by doing letter-writing campaigns—making it public so that the bank can’t just quickly and quietly take the house. Put pressure on the bank, put a lot of pressure on the local authorities—you know, we ran up in the mayor’s office several times, basically saying, ‘This bank is wrong for what they’re doing. If they tell you to send police out to evict this lady, don’t send the police.’ And then if it comes down to the police raiding the house, then we’d be in front of the house to defend the home and go to jail if we have to.

“It’s been extremely effective. It’s been about eight months since we’ve been doing this work and six or seven families that would have been homeless and thrown out in the streets unjustly have been able to keep their homes. This is part of what drew me to it so much; there would be a single white mom, African-American grandmother, Native-American grandmother, white Vietnam veteran—there’s such a variety of people. I went to jail defending a Mexican family’s house, and I went to jail with young brothers from the ‘hood, middle-aged white schoolteachers from the suburbs, and some of the people there too are just the average cast of characters you’d see at a protest: white dudes with dreadlocks and all that kind of stuff. They’re there too—which is fine—but I’m saying like real people get engaged. So, the bigger issue as we start connecting these dots around the country with people, who are doing the same thing, is to start a national push to reform the way that banks deal with homeowners when they are having hard times. So, these are some of the ways in which we can really start to push back. So, that’s where my heart is, that’s where my mind is, and that’s where my hands and feet are.”

On Kanye West’s Influence on Rap and Kendrick Lamar’s Rise

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Brother Ali: “I think Kanye had a huge influence on that. Every once in a while you get somebody that’s an iconoclast, so they come and they smash the dominant idea of what a rapper is supposed to be. Kanye comes from the same kind of school that we come from. The producer No I.D. and the producer Ant for Atmosphere were kind of working in the same circles and doing really similar things. I used to hear Jay-Z in everybody. And now all these dudes—you can really hear Kanye in them. And the thing that he did that was so beautiful to me is that he got rid of the categories, because he’s every category of rap in one guy; you’ll hear gangster shit, you’ll hear some street stuff, he’s never the trigger man, he’s never pushing packs and all that stuff, but you do hear that influence in him, heavy. He’s right at home next to Jeezy or Pusha T or something like that. And he also sounds right at home next to Mos Def and Kweli and Common, you know what I mean? His thing with Common was seamless, it was almost a flawless album—that Be album. He’s not necessarily that dude where he’s going to get on the microphone and be like, ‘Revolution! Fight the power! Power to the people!’ You know, but he has that in him and it comes out. I think the best example of that in the younger generation is Kendrick. His music is so eclectic and he’s able to pull from so many different areas—he obviously is a very well-rounded human being. And dudes my age—I’m in my thirties and people my age and older—we love Kendrick Lamar because he’s like the young rapper that makes sense to us. He is everything that my generation loves about rap, but he’s the best of the new generation, too. He could’ve come out in ’94 and been the shit.”

The Importance of “Fajr”

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Brother Ali: “I’m really proud of that song. Muslims have five prayers during the day and they’re all at specific times that relate to where the sun is. So, the first one that we have in the morning is called, ‘Fajr.’ You see Freeway tweeting, ‘Fajr boys—team early!’ That’s a thing for Muslims that really practice Islam. I don’t necessarily make prayer in public where everybody can see me. I usually find some little corner somewhere. I practice most of the time—I might have a week here and there where I’ll wake up at 10 o’clock like, ‘Ah man, missed it again.” But for the most part I practice like that.

“Fajr is the time before the sun comes up, but the sky starts to get light. That song really deals with opportunity for new possibilities—the new possibilities that exist, because of what I’ve seen in the Occupy Homes thing. You know, people who would have never been active; never would have cared about other people’s situations and other people’s homes. I’ve seen people from the suburbs drive into the ‘hood and be like, ‘Damn it! You’re not going to take Monique White’s house!’ A 70-year-old black woman they never would have thought twice about before, but now they’re in foreclosure or their cousin’s in foreclosure or something like that, and they’re like, ‘This is fucked up!’ In the ‘60s there was a white woman who got killed by the Ku Klux Klan because she was doing the freedom rides in the south. We read about that stuff but I’ve never seen anything like that in my life—not even fucking close. It’s very seldom that you find a white person that’s not very reluctant to even talk about race. But seeing these people in very polite, safe Minnesota, going to jail for other human beings. There’s something new happening in my lifetime that I’ve never seen, ever in life. So that’s what the song ‘Fajr’ is about. Also, musically I just really like it because Jake One gave me a beat that was huge with all these different layers and stuff going on. He gave me the session—he did this with all the beats, he let me do whatever I want because I produce a little bit, I engineer a little bit. And so, I stripped a lot of the sounds out—I brought them in for the chorus, but for a lot of it I stripped the sounds out. I don’t think there’s ever been a rap song that sounded like that before."

Linking Up With Jake One

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Brother Ali: "I’ve known Jake before anybody knew who either one of us was—since 2000, before we had any real releases. The president of Rhymesayers, his name is Sadiq. Somehow, he got in touch with Jake One and Vitamin D, who were like the two main producers in Seattle, and ended up bringing them to Minneapolis. They were working with our artist, Musab, who, at that time, was one of the more prominent artists on the label. So, they brought them in to work with him and I just kind of snuck in there and was like, “Hey, I rap too, I’m on the label too.” So, we went to the studio together, Jake and I made a couple songs together, back in 2000. They didn’t really work out. That was my first time being in the studio so—I wasn’t ready. He always stayed in touch with me no matter what. He’s done some really big things. He’s been working with Drake lately. Drake flew him out to that festival in Toronto. Him and Drake are getting cool. It’s cool that Jake has these huge opportunities and, you know, he could live off selling four or five beats a year and live a very nice life. His earning potential—like the amount of money he’s potentially going to make from this album—is like two of those beats. Why would you give me fifty when you’re going to get paid like you would for two? But he just loves rap like that. I need someone that values me no matter where they’re at, that’s the number one thing. I need someone who’s pursuing me if I’m going to do a project with somebody."

Reflecting Beyond His Personal Tragedies

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Brother Ali: “Yeah, in the past, that’s what I would’ve done. I know that I could’ve made an album with a song about each one of those things. Eyedea died—that was a dear, dear friend of mine. It would’ve been easy and it would’ve been my typical formula to make a song about Eyedea dying. And the underground fans would eat it up. They would come to the show and they would cry. One about my dad, one about my Hajj, and then one about the relationship would’ve been my typical album. But I made that album five years ago, it’s called The Undisputed Truth. I could have done that, and I know very well that that would’ve been successful. When someone’s being very personal it’s very disarming, because you can’t diss that. But, in my mind, I’ve made that music and it wasn’t a challenge to me. In Islam, there’s the age of 40—once you hit 40 you’re supposed to be a complete human being. So, in our thirties, that’s our time to establish ourselves as being bigger than just the individual; as having concerns and responsibilities for things outside of ourselves. Our twenties is our time to really focus on self. So, in my twenties that’s what I did; got divorced, was homeless, got remarried, bought a crib, built a career, all these things. Now I’m in my thirties and I’m trying to make it right. On this album, I wanted the whole first half of the album really undeniable, like, ‘This world is fucked up.’ The second half of the album is still very hopeful.”

Being a White Muslim in America

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Brother Ali: “Well there are a lot of issues there. There’s the racial thing, the religious thing, there are whole countries of white Muslims in Eastern Europe. Like, there are whole countries of European, Caucasian people where the whole country, almost, is Muslim. Malaysia and Indonesia have the highest population of Muslims in the world. And when you’re on Hajj, you really get a sense of that. There are as many Asian people there as anybody. It’s equal Arab, African and Asian, and now and then. I saw a group of Muslims from Kazakhstan.

“The perception is that it’s a black and brown religion. America’s entire perception of Islam is really, really off. Americans know so little about Islam, and what they do know is almost entirely wrong [laughs]. For my entire career as a Muslim—I became Muslim when I was 15, so that’s more than half of my life—so, for the last twenty years I followed the leader of the biggest Muslim American group, Elijah Muhammad’s son, who brought almost the entire nation of Islam to orthodox Islam. Then, years later, Farrakhan found the people that didn’t want to make that transition and made the Nation of Islam again. But the majority of the people that originally followed Elijah Muhammad—Muhammad Ali and other people—all became orthodox Muslims. I mean this man was one of the most lucid and incredible teachers of Islam on the planet. Very moderate and mainstream, really pushed interfaith dialogue, Muslims and Christians working together. Muslims and Jews working together. During his entire life, he was on a mainstream news channel maybe five times in the 20 to 30 years that he did his work. Every time I see somebody I’m like, ‘Who is that?’ There are star Imams—rock star Imams—all over the country. There’s a white Muslim Sufi leader—one of the biggest Sufi leaders, definitely in America, but around the world—his name is Hani Youssef, he’s from the Bay. I’ve never seen him on TV. Here in New York, you’ve got Siraj Wahhaj, who’s amazing, and every bit the public orator that Farrakhan is, but you never see Siraj Wahhaj on TV. There are people from all over America that—when they have huge Islamic conventions and there are thirty thousand people there, this is the person that’s making the keynote address—those people are never spoken to, they’re never invited. So, it shows me that there are powerful people in place that have a vested interest in making sure that Americans don’t know Islam, and what they do know is wrong.”

Department of Homeland Security File

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Brother Ali: “I have a Department of Homeland Security file. Right around the time the ‘Uncle Sam, God Damn’ hit the first million views, in the first couple months that it was out, I was in Australia performing and the promoter for those shows wired the money to our bank account in Minneapolis. The Department of Homeland Security seized that transfer and froze the Rhymesayers’ bank account, and kept it frozen until I reported to them and gave them all the information they would need to track me. So I had to give them my name, address, social security number, phone number, my schedule, all of my websites, my bank account information, and then I had to give them some people that were traveling with me too. I had to have a full conversation with them. I said, ‘Are you suspecting me of anything? Am I being accused of a crime?’ ‘No, we just want to make sure you’re one of the good guys.’ [Laughs.] And I’m like, ‘Man, what do you mean? What does that mean?’ And eventually it was like, ‘Well, if you want your money back then you have to give us the information that we need.’ They froze the bank account; we called the bank to ask what was going on, they said, ‘You need to call this number.’ We called the number and it was the Department of Homeland Security in D.C. We got it worked out within 24 hours, but I had to give them my information and I had to get on the phone and talk to the guy who was organizing that. Since then I tried to make my Hajj three years in a row. The third year, I finally made it, but the first two years, my paperwork didn’t go through because it takes extra processing for me to go somewhere like Saudi Arabia.

“I think there’s a few of us now, not many. I would say probably me, Dead Prez, Immortal Technique. Kweli is probably watched. But if the Department of Homeland Security was around in the ‘90s? Oh man, they would have a hip-hop task force just like the NYPD does. ‘Cause I mean they were the X-clan; Jungle Brothers you know what I mean? They would’ve had to track everybody, but now its like five rappers. So, yeah, that’s my Grammy—that’s my version of a Grammy. I don’t have a Grammy, I have the Department of Homeland Security—somebody’s recognizing the work that I’m doing.”

On the Changing Tour Culture

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Brother Ali: Tech N9ne comes from the same school as us. Nobody would let us in, so we built our own fan base by going on the road and going to cities where nobody else goes, where there’s never a rap show. I started in the early 2000s, and dudes from the ‘hood would come to our shows back then. People be like, ‘Man, my favorite rappers are DMX and Brother Ali.’ ‘Cause they love DMX, but they’ve never seen DMX, but I go there and they’ve seen me rock and they’re like, ‘This is tight, too.’ These dudes never gave a shit about touring ‘cause they never had to. They got their money from their advances and they could do features and make twenty grand for a feature—that’s not even the big, top-tier guys. So, what they would call a tour they’d do like five cities and be like, ‘Man, we went to Boston, can you believe that?’ But now, all these dudes have to be on the road too so now they’re all in our space. We used to go on a fall tour and literally there would just be nobody touring. Now, in the fall, there’s a rap show in every city, every night of the week. But the good thing about it is, though, rap shows are getting better—the performances are getting better. There was a time when they were really bad. And now everybody’s realizing that that’s how you really do it—live."

Survival Tactics on the Tour

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Brother Ali: “Being on the road? Well, first, having the right people with you. A lot of guys, when they’re brand new they’re like, “I’m just going to bring my friends—the guys that I hang out with.” You can’t always do that, ‘cause not everybody’s built for the road. So, you have to bring as few people as you can to get the job done. Everybody’s got to have multiple jobs, ‘cause just those bodies being there will eat up all your profit. So just having the extra dude that’s like, ‘Well, what does he do?’ ‘That’s my man.’ ‘No, what does he do?’ That’s a big, big thing. Everybody that’s not a performer you have three or four jobs. You’ve got a guy that drives, tour manages and does the sound. The other thing is that merchandise is extremely important. Our school of tours is there’s no market that you’re too big to play. If they want a Brother Ali show, they get a Brother Ali show no matter how big or small they are. If all they have is 70 people, they’re going to get a show at least once every album cycle. So, depending on how big a production you have, there are nights where you take a loss. ‘It costs more to put the show on than what I’m getting tonight, but I’m going to do it anyway.’ That’s important. We keep our ticket prices low—our tickets are like $12 to $15, some places are a little higher—I think New York it might be $17 or something like that, because the expenses are so much higher in New York. We keep our merchandise prices low. We encourage people to buy music, as opposed to a t-shirt. The profit on a shirt is more, but if people buy music than that music becomes part of their life.

“One other ethical thing: you have to talk to your fans. Like if your fans can meet you, hug you, and tell you their story show you their tattoo that they got of your lyrics—that goes a really long way. That’s something that I learned from Atmosphere that we started doing 10 years ago that now, a lot of these dudes are building their touring career off that. ‘Cause there are people that will come to your show just to meet you—just ‘cause they want to like talk to you. Survival tactics, man. Eating well. There’s Whole Foods in every city, so we start every day, we wake up every morning, put Whole Foods into the GPS, go to Whole Foods and buy food for the whole day. That’s something that’s really important. Got to get your kale and your spinach—all that kind of stuff—‘cause it’s so easy to just eat Denny’s or some bullshit, and you’re going to get sick. Man, hygiene is really important on the road. You get somebody that’s funky it just depresses everybody [laughs]. So, I’ve written detailed emails to my guys like, ‘You need to bring your soap from home, that hotel soap is not getting’ it. You got to buy your own soap, shampoo…’ Hoop shorts are important—when you’re sharing rooms. You’re already in close quarters with all these men, and that’s unnatural to be around only men. You’re around these seven dudes pretty much for two months, that’s unnatural. That’s when people do stupid shit on tour. That’s when you start getting guys coming back being like, ‘Yo, all three of us fucked this same girl.’ ‘That’s disgusting, man! You got to get right with yourself. You need to call your mom now.’ You get people doing unnatural shit. I have my own personal things, like I should not have to smell your farts. I just have little things like that. I don’t want to hear you piss, man. I just don’t want to be that intimate with you, run the water when you pee. But that’s just my own personal thing—everyone’s got his or her own version of it.”