Rap, Religion and Politics: Brother Ali Bridges the American Divide
Midwest rapper Brother Ali is one of those rare breeds of artists who is not afraid to make social issues a priority in his music and personal life. Whether it’s occupying homes on the behalf of those in danger of foreclosure or helping to change the mindset of privileged society, Ali Newman is truly a Hip-Hop soldier fighting on the front lines like a modern day William Wallace.
With the release of his latest album last month, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, Brother Ali sat down with AllHipHop.com in Los Angeles, CA to talk about politics and religion – taboo subjects that have Americans extremely divided these days.
AllHipHop.com: Did you get a chance to watch the Republican and Democratic Conventions?
Brother Ali: Just clips. I don't have a TV at my house, and I don't watch TV at all.
AllHipHop.com: Really? Why?
Brother Ali: I hate its guts. I hate everything about TV; although, sometimes, I'll hear about a basketball game and a part of me will want to get one again. [laughter]
AllHipHop.com: How long have you been doing this?
Brother Ali: For about 10 years now. I don't like the idea of being programmed. There's this idea of mass culture where people who are in power control it. It's like the news – everybody basically watches the same thing. You've got three major news outlet,s and when you step away from it, you will see that are all saying different degrees of the same thing with the choices that they are making in what to cover and not to cover. There are choices in how they decide to talk about things.
Take the Occupy Movement for example. There was an agreed upon media position on it. The media decided very early on that the Occupy Movement was unorganized, and that they didn't know what they wanted. That's how they all covered it, with almost no exceptions, and because of that, that's what a lot of the public thinks about it. Both of those things aren't true! The Occupy Movement is very organized for what it is. There's no leader, but there is organization, and it's governed by the people that show up to do it.
AllHipHop.com: I was watching Fox 11 in Los Angeles, and one of their reporters was at the L.A. camp, and she was being very condescending while interviewing the protesters. It was clear that she didn't like those people, and didn't want to be there.
Brother Ali: And these are the same people that legitimized the Tea Party. Their coverage of the Tea Party wasn't the same as Occupy. Movements do attract some people who need movements the most. Anytime there's a movement for anything, somebody crazy is going to be there. There are some crazy people at Occupy – stoned, crazy people.
AllHipHop.com: Like homeless people looking to camp out?
Brother Ali: Occupy is more than just a camp. It's a space for people to convene to discuss strategies on how to really affect things aside from just voting. It's about getting the people in a position to mobilize and demand things. In Minnesota, we’ve gone to occupy homes, demanding that banks renegotiate with people instead of kicking them out of their homes. These are people that are working and want to pay their mortgage, but the banks want to kick them out and keep all of the payments that they’ve already made, resell the house for a profit, and destroy the family’s lives. So we get together and demand that they renegotiate – and most of the time, they do have to renegotiate. This is going to continue to happen until there’s a reform that deals with how banks interact with people.
AllHipHop.com: Police have stormed the camps and arrested people. Do you think they were reasonable in the manner they’ve dealt with the protesters?
Brother Ali: No. The police are an army. Who do you call your army on? There are choices that are made on who they go after. Oftentimes when we occupy a house, the bank ends up getting investigated for fraud. That means that there’s a crime going on.
A family had invited us to protest at their home. The bank had foreclosed on them and sold the deed to their home to FreddieMac. Technically, the family didn't own the home anymore so technically I was trespassing. The police came and arrested a total of 37 of us. The family had come from Mexico, and the children were participating in The Dream Act. They made their mortgage payment, but they did it online and there was a technical problem, and somehow the payment did not get transferred. When they went to make the following month's payment, the bank notified them that they still owed from the previous month. The bank wanted them to not only pay for the past and upcoming month, but also an extra month's mortgage as a penalty. There aren't a lot of people that have three months of mortgage payments just chillin' in their bank account.
AllHipHop.com: So the police came in and roughed you guys up?
Brother Ali: Not me. I was in Europe when the police came in and roughed up some of my friends and then charged them with rioting. They were just sitting on the ground in locked arms. The family went from Minnesota to Pittsburgh where the bank was located to meet with them to try to negotiate. Some of the Occupy members went, too, and they told the bank that if they didn't meet with the family and try to negotiate, there would be more protests at the house. We went right back to the house, and the police ended up arresting me and 13 others. In Minnesota, I'm somewhat of a somebody, so the news picked up on the story.
AllHipHop.com: At least you got arrested for a worthy cause, instead of some of the dumb things that rappers get arrested for.
Brother Ali: You know, these high school kids in my hometown painted a mural at their school about social consciousness, and in the midst of their mural is a likeness of myself. When they had the unveiling, a reporter asked me about these kids looking up to someone who was arrested and known for being a radical. They tried to turn this positive event in to a negative. That's why I don't tune in to the television set, because I don't want anybody trying to control how I think. I don't want to know about "Jersey Shore" or any of those shows. I'll watch "The Sopranos", but that's on DVD. I check out DVDs of "Breaking" and "Mad Men", too.
AllHipHop.com: What did you think of Clint Eastwood's strange speech at the Republican National Convention?
Brother Ali: He's a good dude and a certified genius at filmmaking. But he's an old, White man, and he's got old white opinions about things. Spike Lee asked him about Blacks being left out of World War II movies, and his response was, “Shut up.” He's got blind spots in his thinking because he's got old, White opinions. I don't think that his attacks on Obama were race-based like a lot of attacks from other old, White men. A lot of old, White men are mad just because other types of people exist.
AllHipHop.com: So he's not an Archie Bunker type.
Brother Ali: No, he's not Archie Bunker.
AllHipHop.com: You really put your thoughts in to your music. There are other artists like Immortal Technique that do the same, but not too many rappers create music like that. Most use it for entertainment purposes only.
Brother Ali: In the mid-'80s, I loved dancing and fashion along with the fun rhymes. But when I really wanted to be a rapper is when I heard rappers like Public Enemy and KRS-One. To me, the best lyricists were conscious dudes. Even artists like Ice Cube, Scarface, and Ice-T had conscious aspects had to them.
AllHipHop.com: Do you ever wish that you came out during that era of rap? Maybe you would be accepted more?
Brother Ali: No. You’re not supposed to be accepted. If you’re accepted, then you are not doing it right.
AllHipHop.com: Public Enemy was pretty accepted at one point.
Brother Ali: Yes, but they weren’t doing what was acceptable. They made their music accepted. My thing is different. You mentioned Immortal Technique earlier, but we are not the same. He’s a dear friend. He’s sat on my couch and held my kids. He has a friendship with my wife, too. That’s my brother. When someone is friends with your wife, that means you love and trust them. We are different in that our positions in the world are different.
AllHipHop.com: You two are not afraid to speak your minds though.
Brother Ali: We definitely both speak out about sh*t. We care. We love the same people, and we love the same things. We are becoming more and more alike, and moving in the same direction. I’m speaking to privileged people. I’m speaking to blind, sleep-walking, privileged people. That’s who I’m talking to. Immortal Technique speaks for the oppressed people. I’m speaking to privileged people, not on the behalf of oppressed people, but to tell them, “Look at who we are?” We believe a lie about ourselves. Our vision of ourselves is a myth and a lie. We believe that we are these holy beings, beautiful and perfect. We aren’t these things, though. In ways, we are the worst people on earth.
AllHipHop.com: Have you ever had one of those privileged kids come up to you say, “I used to think a certain way, but because of you, I now think a different way?”
Brother Ali: I do get a lot of kids from privileged situations that say that. When you say that word, it's funny because it’s not even a good language to use. In ways, we are all privileged and oppressed. You start talking about White privilege, and you’ll start hearing stories from kids about how they are poor and their fathers weren’t there for them. You will hear individual things in their lives that are challenges to them.
I had one guy recently tell me not to talk to him about White Privilege, because he was sexually molested as a child. I asked him what that had to do with anything. There are people of color that have been through that, and they still have to deal with the disadvantages that come with being a minority in America. You have to also be careful when you use the 'White Privilege' term, because not all White people think that way. There are a lot of White people that are concerned just like the rapper Invincible from Detroit. There’s a guy named Tim Wise. He’s a Jewish guy who does a lot of anti-racism work. His job in this world is to talk to White people about White privilege.
I have had people ask me what they are supposed to do after realizing that they are benefiting from it. I tell them that it’s for them to figure out.
AllHipHop.com: At least you know that you are getting through to people, and that your work isn’t in vain.
Brother Ali: All of the prophets had a core of people around them, but in society didn’t get what they were saying. I’m studying Moses. I’m studying Dr. King. These are people that were dead before I was born. I’m not saying that I’m them either.
AllHipHop.com: No, I get it. Sometimes society doesn’t understand the message and the messenger right away, but later on it will.
Brother Ali: That’s one thing that being friends with Chuck D really helped out in. He told me that you cannot try to quantify your results. You will go crazy trying to do it. Your work is a reflection of you, and you are a reflection of God.
AllHipHop.com: You’re a spiritual and religious person. Why are religious people, who are supposed to be reflections of God, the most judgmental?
Brother Ali: I don’t think that’s all true, but here’s how it works. Evil never presents itself in an honest way, because honesty is good. Evil is based on deception. Evil knows what masks and costumes to put on. If a guy dresses up like a cable guy and kidnaps someone’s daughter, you don’t blame cable. You blame the crazy motherf*cker who did the crime. All of Christianity comes from Catholicism – they are all reformed versions of it. Catholicism came from the Romans. The Romans were the ones who killed Christ, because he was such a revolutionary, and he was messing up their ability of control. They killed Christ, but they realized that they couldn’t kill his movement, so they bought the movement and turned it in to a tool to control the world.
There are a lot of beautiful people who are Catholic. I’m just talking about the institution at its beginning. There are Popes, Priests, and Nuns that have done great things, and they are doing so because they are connected to the truths that are still in it. They are connecting to what Jesus was. I’m not condemning a whole group of people. I’m just saying that the people who came up with it in the beginning, that was their purpose for doing it. But people do blame religion itself for the wrongs in this world instead of blaming themselves. It’s just like me saying that all White people are certain way, when they are not.
Look at all of the murders that were done supposedly in the name of love. Do you blame love? What about all of the people that are raped? Do you blame sex? You don’t blame s,cience for the nuclear bomb. People are intent to do something wrong and they grab whatever tools they can.
AllHipHop.com: How does America get back on track?
Brother Ali: By including everybody, and by using all of our resources. There’s a lot of ideas that are not being heard and ignored. There’s different ways to think about things like the “War on Terror.” Black people have been dealing with terrorism since they got here. We like the entertainment and fashion that different cultures bring, but it’s got to go beyond that. We’ve got to include everybody in our system.
Follow Brother Ali on Twitter (@BrotherAli).