Brother Ali Details How Our Pleasures Are Used By Those In Power To Control Us
After a nearly five-year break, Brother Ali will release All The Beauty In This Whole Life this Friday (May 5). The Rhymesayers Entertainment mainstay has crafted an album that confronts so many issues in the modern universe. Ali Newman has a lot to say on what’s happening with the world, and while he seemingly never holds his tongue on any issue (“Whatever comes up, comes out / We don’t put our hands over our mouth” is the chorus to one Ali fan favorite), he also works to provide themes of peace, and finding the personal happiness and spiritual order within the chaos.
Brother Ali signaled the arrival of his album with February’s video “Pen To The Paper.” Within, the Wisconsin-born, Minnesota-based lyricist admits that the federal government has actively profiled him since 2007, and cost the independent MC some sponsorship dollars. Asked if he ever imagined his words could cause such impact, Ali tells Ambrosia For Heads, “I thought there was a chance, but I wasn’t sure. I really, when I first started out, thought that I could say whatever political thing I wanted to, and that I could sample whatever records I wanted to. I thought the only reason I would ever get in trouble for either one of them is if we had a hit. So if I ever sold millions of records, then I’d have to worry about the samples and I’d have to worry about whether or not I’d get in trouble for the things I was saying. [If that happened] it would be worth it, ’cause of the impact. Then I quickly learned that’s not the case on either account. There are people at record labels that, that’s all they do, is track down new people that are sampling their music.” Perhaps explaining why Ali and longtime producer Ant (of Atmosphere) now extensively work with musicians (including the same G-Koop who worked on Migos’ “Bad and Boujee”), the risks of sampling make an album like Shadows On The Sun a liability in 2017.
As for the lyrical risks, Ali continues, “So, for the last 10 years, [the federal government has] actively communicated with me. Sometimes they have different methods and different levels of intensity. Ten years ago, when ‘Uncle Same Goddamn’ [released], it was one of the first independent videos to get a million views, and the Department of Homeland Security actually withheld a transfer of some of my money from a tour that I did in Australia. So that’s how it started. Since then, there have been different points where they’ve let me know that they’re tracking me and watching me and observing. I’ve had conversations where it’s made very clear to me that people are reading my e-mails. Different tones and different postures of people throughout those 10 years…it’s very clear that’s a reality I live with.”
That puts Ali Newman in the company of artists that he presumably admires, such as Chuck D, Ice-T, and Tupac Shakur. Asked if he takes solace in joining some of Rap’s documented revolutionaries, he replies, “I do have the understanding that that goes with the territory. And even further back than that. I mean, if you look at Harry Belafonte or Paul Robeson. These [are] people that paid a really amazing price for what they knew they needed to do.”
There is no obvious sequel to “Uncle Sam Goddamn” on All The Beauty In This Whole Life. Ali is not a serial songwriter. However, the artist who has recently collaborated with Public Enemy, Talib Kweli, and R.A. The Rugged Man does not miss an opportunity to speak up, and do so with great conviction. “Dear Black Son” is a jarring, highly personal listen from within the RSE release. In the song, Ali urges his teenage son Faheem (whom he has rapped about in the past) to seek permission from no one, including even his father.
Speaking about parenting, Ali explains, “We don’t own our children. We’re given their care and it’s a stewardship, an honor that we have. Ultimately, these children belong to the Creator, to the Divine. We’re here to do as much as we can, but ultimately this is a person that’s gonna have to figure it out for themselves.” The song, with all the love in Ali’s heart spilling out over Ant production, is a personal listen. Whether listeners can relate and apply the conversation to their own, or it’s a call to sympathy and compassion, it’s rare access. “I really learned that the more detailed we are and the more personal we are in anything we’re creating, the more people respond to it, because we really speak on that heart-to-heart level. Really, that’s a song that’s about what it means to love somebody. It’s a very specific set of circumstances, you know, being a father to a young Black man in America in 2017. But, really, that’s a song all about loving somebody and all of the joy and fear. You know, there’s a lot of pain and love. Love ultimately is the ultimate realization of death because of the fact that, to love someone, is to be vulnerable and to be in pain when you’re not with them. So, whatever the loss of that love is, it’s a representation of death. It’s a metaphor for life and death. That’s really what love is.”
Ali finds the vibrations of love and peace in a crazy world. Even using matters as close to him as one can get for illustration, he wants the listener to receive the message. “I just know that I have to be as descriptive and as genuine and as raw as I can. That’s the only way that I’ve had any success in music. I’m not a person that knows how to write hit records, and I don’t know how to make a song for a specific demographic. That’s a skill that I really admire, but it’s not one that I have. I make music that’s immensely personal to me and then, sometimes it resonates with people and sometimes, it doesn’t.”
In some ways, All The Beauty… is a blend of the themes from two of Brother Ali’s most beloved records: “Uncle Sam Goddamn” and “Forest Whitiker.” Reacting to that possibility, Ali ruminates and then proposes a third related song from his catalog. “There are three songs that I’d never wanna do a show without performing, the third one is ‘Babygirl,’ which is about what it is to love a survivor of sexual violence.” On this album, Ali takes a stance on an issue few MCs are willing to confront: pornography. From Kool Keith to Necro, Snoop Dogg to Lloyd Banks, Rap and XXX have gotten increasingly close.
“Everyone basically has some sort of relationship with porn. You know what I mean? It’s not even something that you have to, like, seek out. It comes to you,” Ali says. In the lyrics to the song, he raps that porn is in our literal back-pockets thanks to mobile technology trends. “We don’t know what it really means to have a whole society, a whole culture, a whole civilization that all has a certain kind of relationship with porn. And there’s an addictive nature to it…So, basically, for me, I never considered myself like an addict or it was controlling my life or anything. But when I decided I wanted to take the spiritual path seriously, something that one of my teachers said to me is, like, ‘this is not conducive to the spiritual path.’ And it’s really because of all of the lies that we have to tell ourselves to make that okay. So you may not feel like an addict but once you say to yourself, ‘Okay, I would like for this to never be part of my life again,’ then you start realizing just how deep it goes, and how many changes have had to happen internally for that to become part of our lives. It’s a lot of things that we have to accept, and a lot of unconscious beliefs we hold that go along with having [porn] in our lives. So, it is courageous in the sense that, like, yeah, you’re admitting that you have a relationship with this or whatever.”
In other places on the album, the Twin Cities vet speaks about the exploitation of women within the sex industry affecting his own family. Like “Dear Black Son,” this is personal to Ali, but relevant to something greater. “Everybody is struggling with this on some kind of level, and I think most of us don’t realize it. ‘Cause we think, like, ‘I’m not that sick dude that’s getting nice with myself on the train,’ or something. But, it’s a drug. There’s no question about that. It’s a drug. Some of the studies that are starting to come out really say that, that it’s a straight-up drug. It’s a thing that happened in our brains. Before, during, and after [consuming porn], [our brains] are exactly the same as with drug use. I think you don’t know that you’re addicted to something until you’ve tried to kick it, until you’ve tried to quit it. Like, Muslims aren’t supposed to drink. So, like, I have a whole bunch of friends who drink that say ‘I’m not an alcoholic.’ And, it’s like, Okay, maybe, maybe not. But are you able to ever have a really good time at night without drinking? Are you able to have a tragedy in your life where drinking isn’t a part of the process? You know what I’m sayin’? Your highs and lows. Are you able to have a weekend where you don’t have to drink to really enjoy yourself? Is it a problem if you’re not drinking? ‘Cause if the opposite is true, then yeah, you have some level of addiction.”
A song like “Bitten Apple” may seem to be more “Baby Girl” than “Uncle Sam…,” but not quite. “[Porn] really turns our attention from the big things in the world. ‘What are these bigger issues?’ It just makes us focus on hitting the pleasure button, and whatever way we choose to do that. Hit the pleasure button. Hit the pleasure button. Hit the pleasure button. And, ultimately, that’s the connection between spirituality/the spiritual path and politics. Not living lives that are driven [by] and rooted in virtue means that we just do whatever…we’re just interested in being pleased. So we have unchecked egos and unchecked desires, and unchecked lust for whatever’s gonna please us in that moment. And then, those pleasures are used by the people in power to control us and to take us away from virtue. Because standing up for virtue is often going to mean a sacrifice of pleasure. You can hate organized religion all you want. But any time we’re saying ‘I’m going to delay, defer, or sometimes even deflect gratification for some greater virtue,’ then you’re dealing with spirituality. You’re dealing with the life of meaning. You’re not concerned with the material life anymore. You’re in the spiritual life now. Whether you connect that with a spiritual tradition or not, that’s a different matter altogether.”
In a rich tradition of soulful, lyrical Hip-Hop, Brother Ali hopes All The Beauty In This Whole World marvels at the world. What a time to be alive.