By Nicholas Peterson
It’s about 1 a.m., and I’m sitting on a black leather couch beneath the stage of Boulder’s Fox Theater. I’m in the VIP room of Brother Ali, Bambu, DJ LAST WORD, and MaLLy, their September 18th hip-hop show having just concluded. You might imagine some loud, lavish, and licentious after-party that I can boast about to friends later on, but this isn’t the case. Rather, I’m talking to MaLLy about freestyle technique, a linguistic, musical ability that fascinates me. To my right, Bambu and DJ LAST WORD comment on the show and eat some local pizza that I’m hoping they’ll offer my colleague Alec and I. Bambu borrows my phone charger--I think he needed to stay charged and in touch with his child. All is smooth and affable, while Brother Ali mingles with fans.
“This is a letter to my countrymen. Especially those my age and younger than.
We’re up against an ugly trend. Everybody’s hustling, don’t nobody touch their friends.
...This is not a practice life. This is the big game, we got to attack it right.
Each one of us is headed for the grave. This old crooked world won’t be saved by the passive type.
This is a letter to my countrymen. Not from a Democrat or a Republican.
But one among you, that’s why you call me brother. Ain’t scared to tell you we’re in trouble ‘cause I love you.”
So raps Brother Ali in his song “Letter to My Countrymen.” Not your everyday, cheap hip-hop. But what of the man, Jason Newman (Brother Ali), who raps it? Is he for real?
Once Brother Ali enters, his crew leaves, and we dive into the life of this unique m.c. to have a look.
“My friends were being murdered, and like my friends were selling crack to each other’s parents, and my friends were, you know, having sex with drug addicts for free drugs when I was like thirteen. And so, that life was really terrifying to me, but that’s the life that we were in. But I always knew that I wasn’t supposed to be engaged in that, that these people are my community,” he says, describing his younger years.
He continues, “I cannot smoke weed, and I cannot drink, and I cannot sell drugs, and still be with you, and I still love you. I’m just accepting something different for my life, and people respected that.” Indeed, before Brother Ali took center stage, Bambu told fans that Brother Ali would not be smoking any ganja.
“My God there's got to be more to life than this.
There's got to be a bigger reason that I exist.
Work to eat to earn my keep.
To ensure somewhere to sleep and spend the weekend buying shit,” Ali wonders in “Work Everyday.”
Speaking about what goes on inside him during a performance, he says “I try to always remember the Creator, I try to remember the Divine when I’m performing my music. And it’s always been like that. Now I’ve been learning some techniques--how to really pray, how to really, you know, cleanse ourselves: you know, how to really live this thing. It’s been easier and easier to just feel connected to the divine, which makes you feel connected to people and, you know, the moment--all those things,” he explains.
Ali speaks thoughtfully and is also mindful of his fans. “There’s people here, and they’re the reason that this show is happening. I need to first and foremost just do the mechanics of doing a good job. Once I feel like that’s in place, then I try to really connect with them, you know what I mean?”
As his journey continues, we find Brother Ali in Saudi Arabia during a 2010 Islamic pilgrimage, or hajj. He describes a moving moment upon realizing his achievements and blessings: “I was just very overwhelmed with gratitude, and that was the first time that I ever cried out of gratitude. Since then, it happens all the time now, and that’s a good sign. Being full of tears is a good sign, you know what I mean?. If we can’t cry, that’s a bad sign.”
What of the lifestyle of a hip-hop artist on tour? Surely he’s living it up.
“In touring, I had certain rules that I wouldn’t break. I stayed true to all of them. I broke most of them once, in like ten years of touring. I had one slip-up in each area that really just kind of like snapped me back into reality.”
Now here, it seems, is a man attempting a rare feat: personal integrity and authenticity.
In September, the New Yorkerran an interesting little piece by Andrew Marantz in which he looks at hip-hop and its crisis of authenticity. Entitled Who is "The Realest?", Marantz points out the disconnect between artistic persona and the real person behind the lyrics in hip-hop, even in Bob Dylan. Marantz seems to have not known about Brother Ali and this new breed of rap poised to lift up and inspire reflection rather than a rap that has abandoned us within materialistic mania and emotional ego-beat.
When I asked Brother Ali about pith actions he thought people could take, he replies: “I feel like the ultimate enemy of the human soul and heart in this time is the meaning is just being taken out of everything. Everything that we have is a distraction trying to convince us that nothing has meaning, and that whatever worldly joys and pleasures, momentary joys and pleasures we can have is what we should really be living for. So we’re losing the meaning in everything. We believe that’s the enemy, you know what I mean? That’s the devil. He’s not gonna stop until we lose the meaning in everything. So anything that increases meaning is good. Those are political revolutionary actions.”
Preach it, Brother! You’re singing my song! Oh wait, there’s more...
“Talking to your neighbors is very political. People don’t talk to their neighbors. You know, if you talk to your neighbors and are just like ‘Hey, what’s going on, how’s your mom? I haven’t seen her walking the dog, I know she’s gettin’ a little on in years. Like, what’s up with her?’”
More specifically, Brother Ali talks about a subversive day-trip for those seeking a world improved. “Going to the other side of town and just being in spaces. I really recommend this for people who are from privileged groups, and I’m a member of every privileged group in America, except for wealthy. But every other one: straight, white, male--whatever. Just go be in spaces where your group isn’t dominating. There’s a difference between participating and dominating, and men and white people are very bad at not trying to dominate. It’s too many centuries of dominating everything. And so, being in spaces where you’re just not dominating and you’re not encroaching on other people’s things, and maybe where you’re not the majority. Those are good things to do. And to just go there and just shut up and not have to have an opinion, and not have to be a savior. Just check the ego a little bit and just be among people and learn what’s great about them and just be in a supportive role.”
I enjoyed my late-night conversation with Brother Ali. It’s not everyday that you converse with a hip-hop artist whose education goes beyond theory or sound bites but is a personal practice and artistic aesthetic.
Ali and I end up back inside the human person, where I believe this huggable, thirty-seven year-old rapper has looked closely, and felt tenderly.
“We believe in self-purification: that what happens in the world is a reflection of what’s happening inside me. And so, if I’m noticing ugliness in the world, then that is a reflection of some ugliness that’s going on inside me.”
See more from the interview:
Hajj - Brother Ali describes his Hajj, which culminated in a spiritual death.
Conversion - Brother Ali describes his conversion experience and the benefit of knowing specific details of the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
Performing - Brother Ali describes his experience when performing.
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