It's been five years since Brother Ali dropped his politically-charged Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color LP. The album, which reached No. 44 on the Billboard 200, continued his legacy as an evocative, thoughtful, and socially conscious wordsmith with a powerful voice. Now, the independent hip-hop luminary is ready for his next chapter with his sixth album, All the Beauty in This Whole Life (due May 5).
"Now, more people are turning to politics and paying attention to what the administration is doing," the Minneapolis-based MC tells Billboard. "So many helpful things are being said about that, but my new album is about looking inward. I'm happy that this is what I'm offering the world in this moment ... It's not like there's less of a focus on outward justice, but the reality is that the first and most important battlefield for fighting for justice is our heart."
Ali describes the album by quoting the poet Rumi. "I used to be clever so I wanted to change the world," he says. "Now I'm wiser and I want to change myself." Through that lens, Ali speaks to Billboard about racism, police brutality and president Donald Trump, while reflecting on his plight as a rapper, as a Muslim American and as a father.
All of your albums mark an important place and time for you. What does All the Beauty in This Whole Life symbolize?
I agree. Each album is tied to different chapters of my life. This one's focused on the heart and the idea that beauty is the outward manifestation of virtue. When somebody has beauty in their inner reality, it manifests on the outside. At some point, it became very clear to me that whatever's going on inside me is going to be a reflection of what I'm able to offer the world.
[I read] something that said, "It's been five years since Brother Ali's last album." I didn't think about that, but it's true, and there was a point where I realized I wanted to focus on myself rather than spending so much time trying to project things into the world, to really look at what is it that I'm projecting. We pour from the vessel so whatever's in the vessel is what we offer the world.
There's a message of love, hope, and truth on this album and its single, "Own Light." How does that speak to the current political climate?
Those things are missing from a lot of the public discourse, but there's also a humanitarian response to the ugliness that's being projected. I think that's one of the consequences that might actually be positive, that so many people have a common focus to resist against. You see different groups becoming allies that were never really conscious allies before.
Just a few days after the election, A Tribe Called Quest's [We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service] came out with "We The People…" where they list people that the current administration is openly against. In the chorus, Q-Tip says, "Muslims and gays." It's weird that people still say "gays," but anyway, the LGBT community and the Muslims, I don't think, ever before now, have been such overt allies. I think that's one of the examples of different groups within the population that have become allies because of the fact that they have a mutual force to resist. There's been a lot of that, I think.
On "Uncle Usi Taught Me," you rap about being harassed at the airport. What was your reaction to the travel ban and the protests that followed?
I'm most focused on the enormous masses of people at airports welcoming refugees, visitors and immigrants. It's easy to focus on things like the travel ban, but what really speaks to me are these new alliances of people coming together. I was just talking to a Muslim woman who's from New York and her family is South Asian. She said she was walking into stores, businesses and schools, and just reading signs that said, "We support our Muslim neighbors," and "Refugees welcome."
New York is obviously one of the major cosmopolitan cities in the world and there's a lot of diversity, but she said that it's really only been in the last few months that she's seen these establishments really make it known, as an establishment, that they welcome and support her and her community. I think those are things that are worth focusing on. There needs to be mobilized and organized resistance to all this lovelessness, fear and overt hatred.
For a long time, there's been propaganda of fear of Muslims and statistically, it's just ridiculous. They talk about Muslims, but they almost never talk about what Islam is. Who are the Muslims and what do they really believe? There are incredible Muslim public intellectuals, thought leaders, religious, spiritual and cultural leaders in America and around the world. For as much as they talk about Islam in the news, the public does not know who these people are.
Other ones, we know who they are, but we don't think of them as Muslims. Right after the election, there was a Saturday Night Live episode with Dave Chappelle and A Tribe Called Quest. Everybody up there identified with Islam in one way or another. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are openly Muslim, Busta Rhymes, a Five-Percenter, there's Consequence, and then Dave Chappelle's a Muslim. The only non-Muslim in the group was Phife Dawg and he had a Muslim name, Malik. It's really amazing.
We have those leaders, but we talk about Muslims and we don't think about Dave Chappelle. Muhammad Ali, too. There are other amazing Muslim leaders that the public doesn't know about and it makes you think: What is the purpose or the media's role in this?
Who are some of those leaders?
One of the greatest was W. Deen Mohammed, who passed away a couple of years ago. He was the son of the honorable Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam for 40 years. This was a person who supported a healthy patriotism and saw America as a shared freedom space that African Americans helped create.
The people living now would be people like Dr. Sherman Jackson, a professor at UCLA who gave the prayer at the Democratic National Convention, or Imam Zaid Shakir, who led Muhammad Ali's funeral, a European American, Imam Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who's on ISIS's hit-list and started Zaytuna College -- the first accredited Islamic university in Berkeley, California --and another academic, Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah.
In Canada, you have a woman named Dr. Ingrid Mattson... You have these Muslim public intellectuals who have incredible Western academic credentials, but they're masters of Islamic tradition as well, and they bring those worlds together. They could be highlighted and they could speak on behalf of Islam. They should be household names.
"Dear Black Son" is one of the album's most powerful moments. What specifically inspired you to address police brutality in this manner, as a letter to your 16-year-old son, Faheem?
It's a real conversation and it's part of a series of songs that are written directly to him [including 2007's "Faheem" and 2012's "All You Need"]. This one's a conversation we had, that I think every boy of color has had in their home. Tamir Rice was 12, so that conversation is one that you start having really young, about the fact that the society you live in fears your manhood. It's such a tangible reality in our family, but I know that that's a conversation that not everybody's privy to.
For people who also have to have that conversation, there's a collective healing in suffering together, with acknowledgement from other people who say, "Yes, I feel you." We can be mirrors for each other and we can witness and process pain together. I think there's a real healing in that. That song has potential to be beneficial to me and my family, but also to others who are in that situation. For some, it's a window into what those sentiments are really like.
We can argue all day about a lot of political points. That's part of the problem. But there's no arguing with my personal story if I'm being vulnerable, transparent and genuine. This is our lives, and this is a conversation that has been held in American life for 400 years.
You've talked about each album as a process of suffering and healing. What do you feel like you suffered and healed from to make this one?
Any time we're actively engaged in something positive, it's easy for our ego to slither its way in there in ways we don't always recognize. In our society, we've become keen on seeing this in religious people. We realize when they become self-righteous, when they think themselves to be exemplary and don't realize the role that the ego is playing, but that's true in organizing and political work, as well. The role of the ego in all of that is tricky and nuanced. The suffering that happens is almost like a death and there are different deaths. If political work is not driven by something that truly forces us to stay in touch with gratitude and with a healthy perspective, it's easy to get jaded and fall into despair. Like a lot of other people, I've had some experience with that, which led me to want to turn inward, to have a fight for justice that I'm very clear starts inside myself.
That's part of why I sought the wisdom tradition and spiritual path as being so valuable. It's an apparatus by which we take stock of our own hearts. In this political climate, it's easy to externalize evil, to say, "All of the evil is over there with those people because they're so outwardly evil." It's true. These are the poster children for unabashed evil so it's easy to say, "I'm one of the good guys. I'm on the right side of this. All of the evil is on the other side." But that's actually dangerous because once we lose our ability to check ourselves, the fight we're in isn't one of virtue, principle or truth. It's just, "I'm on one side. You're on the other side. I want my team to win because I'm on it." That's an egotistical and self-centered fight.
What's really connected to something larger than ourselves is to be principled, virtuous, and truth-driven. That require some sort of method for looking inward. When you study community organizing, that's one of the things they talk about. You have to do your heart work. You have to check in with self. What's the state of my heart right now? There's a spectrum where complete and uncompromising sincerity is on one side and straight up hypocrisy is on the other side. Most of us are on a spectrum somewhere in between. Being self-aware enough to know where you are on the spectrum, it takes a language and an apparatus to access the heart. For a lot of people, that's what the spiritual path is about. For a lot of people, that's what meditation is about -- to know "Where am I at? What's the dictator in me doing? What's the president in me like? What's the administration of my heart? What's that doing?"
The nation has also undergone changes since your last album. From your perspective, what led to Trump's presidency and what does it mean for our country today?
The one percent who are in power have a long history of oppressing people. For a long time, they oppressed their own people in Europe. The rich landowners oppressed the masses, the workers who really made everything happen. In order for them to make that a global system, they created a way to make their poor go out and try their best to conquer the world on their behalf. They created this idea of whiteness for that reason. Prior to that idea, people had long legacies and traditions of culture. Their lives had meaning and who they were as a group had meaning. It means something important to be Polish, Irish, Scottish or English. They had their spirituality, art, music, the way they dressed had a lot of meaning so the elite unleashed their poor with this idea of whiteness that says they're superior, that God created them to be the natural rulers.
More recently, the America that a lot of people signed up for and that they were born into just isn't available to them, both financially and culturally. For years, the baby boomers were taught that, if you get up everyday and you go to work everyday, somebody will give you a job so you can feed your family and take a vacation and lead at least a decent working class life. That just doesn't exist anymore. Also, they were taught, if you're nice and follow the rules of society, culturally you'll always be the leaders of this society, and that's just not true anymore.
So I really think that European Americans are experiencing an identity crisis. They're basically split in half. It's a fork in the road moment where you have to figure out, what has this project of whiteness really gotten us? Half of the country wants to double down on it and they want to fight to keep it alive. The other half is saying, "Clearly, white supremacy is an evil lie." They don't want to re-up on the old white supremacy stuff. These are people who have grown up with a different perspective. So you have a country that's having a deep identity crisis. That seems to me to be where things are, and the healing for that requires a certain type of humanity on an individual level.
A lot of emphasis is put on your message, but your sound and your flows have evolved over the years too. How important is that balance for you?
One of the YouTube videos that has as many hits as most of my videos is the "Five Fingers of Death" on Sway in the Morning, which shows that ultimately, that's how I came into this. I didn't start out like, "I want to be the autobiography king of rap." I came in rapping, and trying to do it at a high level while respecting the art form. For me, those things have always been connected, from the time I was a little kid looking at KRS-One, Rakim, Public Enemy and Ice Cube. What they were talking about as well as how they were saying it, their artistry, it all took a huge leap at the same time. This was black genius.
What's being discussed and how it's being done are equally important to honor not only the truth in that message, but another truth that's conveyed by the beauty of the energy, the vocal performance, the beat and how well-balanced those things are. Going in and having something that's written at a high level, and then also having the vocal performance, the mood and the energy of it -- all of that conveys meaning.