Brother Ali, Hip-Hop's Truth-Teller, Speaks

Brother Ali is one of hip-hop's most honest and outspoken cultural critics of this generation. The Minneapolis MC has released five studio albums and four EP's all under the Rhymesayers banner. This is a small segment of our hour-long conversation in which Brother Ali took time out of his schedule to speak about some of the current challenges he sees in the community and the legacy of his label Rhymesayers as they celebrate 20 years in hip-hop.

Giving the current relationship between law enforcement and the community, is there a path forward to co-exist?

People are very afraid of the term "radical." And for the people who know a change needs to happen, for people of good conscience and intentions, who know that things are not right -- those divide into two approaches, not that a person has to believe completely in one; they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. On one hand, you have progressives who say that this is a good system, that is just not operating properly and we need to make progress within this system. We can work within the system and do better. Part of Martin Luther King's life in 1963 when he made the "I Have a Dream" speech, he would have been considered a progressive. Whereas, contrasted with Malcolm X, who was saying that the system never had poor people in mind, never had black people in mind, it never had women in mind, and so Malcolm would be considered a radical. There are people who are radical, like Malcolm, who would say the system is fundamentally flawed and there needs to be radical changes. Radical doesn't necessarily mean violent. The conservatives have conflated these issues to imply that radical means that somebody wants to kill people, and to be violent. That's what they said about Malcolm, they said Malcolm is the violent one, Martin Luther King is the non-violent one and it's much more complicated than that. Malcolm never committed any violence and never told anyone to commit violence. Malcolm may have asked the question, why is America violent in all of her disputes?

This idea that is pervaded by people of power that being a radical means that you're violent. I would say that my philosophy is that there are some very flawed things in the make-up of our civilization, and that those things ought to be addressed. Does that mean that I don't believe in progress action? I think short-term, progressive things are good. Is that the ultimate solution? No, it's definitely not.

Because you speak honestly, the media gravitates to your criticisms of society as oppose to some of the more compassionate lyrics in your music. Are you optimistic about the future?

I'm not necessarily optimistic. I have a degree of hope that is related to my faith. I do believe in a creator. I do believe that there is a cause and a meaning behind the universe; and behind life. And I believe that that creator is always in complete control. That's on a very personal level. Now, that doesn't mean that we're not supposed to speak out and fight injustice. It doesn't mean that we're not supposed to be building community. And honestly, that has become more and more of my focus -- rather than fighting injustices, watering the good plants. I did a lot of organizing and activism around fighting institutions like banks and the police department -- trying to hold them accountable -- and I feel great about all of that, but what I've really found lately to be more worthy of my time and energy is just trying to build the things that I want to see more of. And that is trying to really foster and nurture community.

When I look at hip-hop culture, there are so many artists worried about technology; is that something that concerns you within hip-hop?

Yeah, I keep using the term global "monoculture," but I think that's what the modern age is about. I really feel the modern age is about separating us from meaning, separating us from each other, separating information from poetry, separating information from beauty, separating the heart from the mind, instead of holistic living. And that's what we really should be promoting and talking about; and that's what we should really be trying to get right; how do we live together. I do talk a lot about what's wrong, both in my personal life and also in society, but I also try to always be inviting. Ultimately, I'm not condemning for the sake of condemning. This music is here for everyone. I'm here for everybody. My heart -- and I hope I'm not making a false claim -- but my heart field includes everybody.

I saw you perform last year, headlining the Home Away From Home Tour. After the show, I saw you greet every fan and they left with an overwhelming feeling of love.

I appreciate you saying that. On an ego level -- which is a dangerous level to really exist on, because our ego will always destroy us -- but on an ego level, as artists we want to be understood, and we think we deserve to be understood. And for me, when I'm at my most base level, when I've experienced being the most bitter or despair, it's because I don't feel like I'm being understood. There are two dimensions at the same time; on the one hand, there is open-embrace, love, and hope. And on the other side, because I love us so much -- if you love a person, you hate when they are hurt. If someone you know is being treated unjustly, then you hate that injustice. So the songs in which I'm angry, I'm extraordinarily angry, and the songs that I'm loving, I'm extraordinarily loving, and they are tied to each other, but I agree that people tend to focus on whichever side serves them best.

Looking back, what do you think the Rhymesayers legacy has been over the last 20 years?

What I think Rhymesayers had a role in bringing to the table was that their fans did not have to be traditional hip-hop fans. Artists can make an entire career touring in cities where major hip-hop artists never went before. And also, you don't have to have what is seen as the typical hip-hop story, or content, or delivery, or presentation. It's only been very recently that's been normal. That's Rhymesayers, but we're not the only ones to do that. Living Legends had a hand in that, Def Jux had a hand in that, Tech N9ne had a hand in that. But when you look at the label, Rhymesayers has stood the test of time. And we've done it in a way that is very legitimate and respectful to the culture.