BROTHER ALI is one of hip-hop’s most honest and outspoken cultural critics of this generation. The Minneapolis MC has released 5 studio albums and 4 EP’s all under the Rhymesayers banner. He is currently in the process of working on a new project with Ant of Atmosphere. A conversation that was scheduled to focus on the 20 year Anniversary of his label, the indie-stalwart Rhymesayers, quickly turned into a more meaningful conversation as we all reacted to the latest video out of McKinney, Texas which showed yet another conflict between white law-enforcement officers and the black community. 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.
Photo Credit: Rhymesayers – Interview by Cheats
Cheats: Before we discuss music, we’ve just seen another video, out of Texas, in which law-enforcement appears to have abused its power. This seems to be the narrative of 2015, whether it’s Ferguson, Baltimore, and now Texas, can you make sense of what’s happening between law-enforcement and the community?
Brother Ali: First of all the system that we live under now is domination; and domination is the opposite of community. It’s the opposite of coexisting; it’s the opposite of democracy, it does not allow people to share space, or resources, or power, or access; it’s a system where one group of people dominate other people, and the people that are being dominated are completely at the mercy of dominators. And that is not a sustainable morality. It’s not sustainable for a family, or a community, or a nation, or a civilization.
The effects that are being seen now are of a society, “the new world,” that’s exported itself and has become a global monoculture that is culturally predatory. It’s going around the world and it’s dominating, and it’s preying on and destroying the cultures of the people and the traditions of the people, and it’s replacing them with the global monoculture. It’s not a sustainable way to have group life because it doesn’t allow the people to thrive and live out their potential. And the fuel of a civilization is the people. So the situation that the people are in – the condition that the average person is in, determines the condition of the civilization.
This civilization was built on white supremacy, it was built on patriarchy, it was built on domination of the poor by the rich, and it has never corrected these things. It’s done some very ornamental change, when people cry out and organize to a degree where something has to be done, and the people have to be pacified. Those in power have done just enough to pacify the population.
The black freedom struggle did not start in the 50’s or 60’s. It started the day that the first African person was brought here in bondage. But it bubbled up in the 50’s and 60’s to the point where there was frustration and anger. If you look at what was done before that, what did the first generation of formally enslaved Africans do? Did the wait for handouts? Did they just languish? No, they built institutions for higher education; they built their own hospitals, funeral homes, business districts, not just individual businesses but their own townships, in some cases. And what happened to those things when they started to thrive? They were burned down. You can read about the Oklahoma race riots or the movie Rosewood, for people that don’t’ like to read a lot, that’s was a true story.
I live in the Twin Cities and in St. Paul we had a black business district called Rondo. And when the state of Minnesota built the big interstate 94 that goes from here to Chicago, they built it directly through the Rondo community and destroyed the Rondo community. These are things that are just not immediate but they are a result of a system of domination over time. Systems of domination are not sustainable so when they realize they are in trouble because their fuel – which is the people – are not able to flourish and they are not able to bring their potential to fruition, their response to hold on to power is militarism, brute force. They convert all of their resources into instruments of force; and you see that around the world. America has lost its respect around the world and is replacing that with drones and chemical warfare. And within the U.S., the system has lost any respect it still had and so they are militarizing the police.
You see the man on the tape (McKinney Texas Pool Party), it looks like there were maybe 3 or 4 officers on the scene at the pool party, one of them was the main one causing trouble. He’s the one that grabbed the young woman, put her on the ground, and when people responded, letting him know that he was overreacting, he pulled his weapon on them. He’s the one when the young boy says, “Please Sir, Why am I being arrested? I didn’t do anything wrong,” he’s the one that response with authority, in authoritarian tone to him. At the beginning of that before anything even happened, right when the camera starts rolling, he does this kind of like jujutsu, kung-fu, tumble roll thing – he does a summersault, for no reason. He’s not getting away from anyone, his not jumping over any thing; he does this sort of military summersault thing – Why’d you do that? And it’s just an indication that these people are being trained, the police department is an institution that has a history. And they’re being trained, and being militarized, and being weaponized, to institute brute force on a higher level.
If you look at the police force as an institution, in this context, they were born out of the militias that were patrolling slaves, runaway slaves, refugee slaves, there was a law called the Refugee Slaves Act, where if a black person was caught in public without an owner and without proof that they weren’t somebody’s slave, they would be apprehended on sight, and treated as a slave – and they would be returned or put into slavery. So a lot of free black men and women were returned to slavery when they were rightfully free, even under American law; they had militias of people that did this. And also the Ku Klux Klan was birthed out of that, so America has always had a very deep and profound fear the enslaved Africans and their children. They always had instruments of other force and violence to control them. Those refugee slave militias created two different arms that became institutionalized, the first being the police department and the other being the Ku Klux Klan. The day the Ku Klux Klan was abolished was the day the National Rifle Association (NRA) was formally established. And so this is the birth of the – kind of- right-wing militia.
You notice on the tape of the pool party that there are several white men that are not in uniform, they do not have badges, they are not identifying themselves as officers, but they are clearly on the side of the police. And they are sort of assisting the police. George Zimmerman was sort of this vigilante, self-appointed law man. The man that shot the two Muslim youth in the parking lot in North Carolina, this overarching tone of authoritarian brute force as a response to a crumbling civilization that’s built on domination of all kinds; there is absolutely racial domination, white supremacy specifically, that is part of all the institutions in American life. This does not mean that every white person is racist. They are a lot of white people that don’t want to be racist, but the reality is that these institutions are set up to administer and protect white supremacy.
Is there a path forward to co-exist with law enforcement (community policing, body cameras, etc.)? If the system starts corrupt is there a successful way forward?
People are very afraid of the term radical. And for the people that 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 one has to believe completely in one; they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. On one had you have progressives that 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 Malcom 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 say about progress, “if you stick a 6 inch knife in my back and then pull it out 3 inches, I’m not interested in talking about that as progress. There are people that are radical, like Malcolm, that would say the system is fundamentally flawed and there needs to be radical changes. Radical doesn’t necessarily mean violent. And that is something that 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. Every time America is violated she responds with violence. The majority of struggles for freedom, justice, and equality on earth have been violent. Most of Europe’s revolutions were violent. Americans own revolution was very violent, and there was property damage. The Tea Party, (Boston, not current), makes burning a CVS look like child’s play in terms of property damage, and economic violence, and radical action.
I think there is misinformation on both sides of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
He (Malcolm) was never associated with violence besides from the fact that his home was fire bombed and he didn’t respond violently. And the day that he was assassinated, he told his bodyguards not to search anyone. He knew he was being targeted and not only by black Muslims but by the FBI and the New York Police Department and he didn’t want anyone on his side to respond with violence. In his own life, he was nonviolent but he was posing the questions, why is it understood when everybody else uses violence but we’re told by our oppressors that the only legitimate and moral response for black people is nonviolence.
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. I’m from North Minneapolis which is a black neighborhood, the police that work in North Minneapolis are almost entirely white and almost entirely from the suburbs, they don’t live the neighborhood. I’ve experience everyday them disrespecting people, the names that they call people, the tone in which they interact with people. Now, when there are police who are from our neighborhood, regardless of what culture they come from, when they are from our neighborhood – they do carry themselves differently. So would that be a good thing? Sure, that would be a good thing. Is that the ultimate solution? No, it’s definitely not.
I feel like some of these progressive ideas are good but look at the body camera issue. Many of these young black men and women who are being murdered, we have it on tape. There is a tape of Eric Garner being strangled to death. Many of these interactions are on tape, they have been videoed and it doesn’t matter. Because fundamentally, as a civilization, we still believe that black men are dangerous, black bodies are dangerous, especially men, and so that is always a factor when dealing with an African American man regardless of what he’s doing or not doing with his body, his body alone is just a dangerous thing. So for a white person, in authority, to respond with violence, just the fact that this is a black body that they are interacting with is reason enough for suspicion, for fear – that’s a fundamental radical shift in thinking that needs to happen. And again, radical doesn’t mean I’m going to go burn down the White House or anything violent. But it is saying we need a much more radical, transformational shift, otherwise these progressive, incremental changes that we’re making will not mean much.
I feel that 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 were not supposed to speak out and fight injustice. It doesn’t mean that were not supposed to be building community. And honestly, that has become more and more of my focus – is 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. I believe in community. I believe in meaning. I think that this global monoculture is really big on removing meaning from things. So they really focus on technology – they are really focus on data, but not much meaning. And to me, art is all about meaning. It’s not about data, it’s about meaning and trying to remember what’s it means to be us; who are we, what are we about, why are we important, and why is our community and legacy important.
When I look at hip-hop culture, there are so many people worried about technology or trying to be the next Steve Jobs but you can’t interact with those people – they live behind gated fences; is that something that concerns you within hip-hop culture?
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. A lot of my listeners are poor, and brown, and black. A lot of my listeners are middle-class and white, a lot of them are upper-class and white; and I genuinely love all of them. I appreciate them and want the best for them. So when I’m talking about that part – people who are privileged, even if they don’t know they’re privileged – some people are privileged in some ways and depressed in others. Some people that you tell are privileged, maybe they’re middle-class and white, and they are like, I can’t even afford my student loan, what are you talking about. I say okay, somebody else in your same situation, who is black, could get shot by a cop at any moment; you’re not going through that. So it’s not to say that somebody else’s oppression is not real but for people who are relatively privileged in certain ways – when I’m talking about being embracing and loving that’s reassuring to them, and so they love that part. But when I say here is the slant to all of this, these are the things we need to be working on and thinking about, these are the problems, they feel accused and a lot of times they either tune me out or they get really mad when I do that. So that is a challenge.
I had the pleasure of seeing 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; our ego is always trying to destroy us. But on an ego level, artists, more than anything, 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 is both dimensions at the same time, on the one hand, there is open embrace – love, what you’ve called humanity, 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. The level of love you have for the person dictates the level of hatred you have for them being wronged. 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. So if somebody wants to write me off and say he’s a crazy Muslim, then they can say look at all this stuff, he hates the police, whatever. And then on the other side, people can say something like, I’m having a Brother Ali type of day. And when they say that they’re listening to the happy, hopeful songs and they skip all the songs that are about pain. On an ego level, I’m like, “I want to be understood,” but really the Home Away From Home Tour taught me so much because I realized if I’m going to do this for real, it’s about serving people and I can’t be so egotistical to decide how people experience me. And whatever I’m able to provide – whatever they get from the music, I just want to be good at that for them. If I can help them attach meaning to anything, I’m happy to do that. I’m going to stop being so concerned about how I’m understood or how the music is understood, and just try to serve. I’m not there yet. That’s an aim not a claim.
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. You can make an entire career touring in cities where the big 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 – you don’t have to fall into a traditional rap category. One of the things that Rhymesayers help usher in is that you don’t have to be one of the typical rappers. And those fans (in non-major markets) should be taken seriously. Look as Soundset, the biggest all hip-hop festival in the country; and that it’s in Minnesota says a lot. Those fans should be taken seriously – not just New York, LA, Atlanta, and Chicago. You should take Omaha (Nebraska) seriously – because if you string together Omaha, Lincoln, Iowa City, Champagne, Illinois, you put those places together – you got a tour, and you’ve never hit a major market, but now you’ve been touring for a week. You put it all together and you can go on tour for 3 months and every day you’re making fans, every day you’re connecting with people, every day you’re selling merchandise, you’re making money – you can build a career like that. And Rhymesayers, 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 labels – Rhymesayers has stood the test of time. And we’ve done it in a way that is very legitimate and respectful to the culture.
Follower Brother Ali on Twitter: @BrotherAli – Follow Cheats on Twitter: @CheatsMWC