It’s one of the wettest days in Manchester this year when Mike Milenko meets Brother Ali at Band on the Wall. We wonder what he makes of the city, not at its best in the cold grey light of early spring.
It’s the 15th anniversary tour of his Shadows on the Sun album, and Brother Ali is performing in Europe as well as some UK cities. Tonight it’s Manchester’s turn and we are excited to be seeing him on stage later that night. His music explores a variety of topics, societal inequality, racism and political persecution (he’s endured investigation and travel restrictions in the USA) but also love and relationships.
His experience of having albinism and his Muslim faith has aligned him more closely to African American communities and he uses this as an opportunity to be vocal about marginalisation and inequality, these being especially relevant under the current Presidency.
We introduce ourselves and Ali immediately invites us to sit down, handing us bottles of water with quiet courtesy. His handshake is warm and firm and if he senses our nervousness, he doesn’t acknowledge it. He seems slightly apprehensive, but welcomes us all the same. He is wearing dark blue trousers and a sports jacket, brightly coloured. Brother Ali may have hit 40, but his complexion is that of a much younger man and his eyes sparkle when he speaks.
We’ve brought him some dates and he graciously accepts them, “Muslims don’t drink or smoke marijuana” he says, “but coffee, tea, tobacco or dates and we are happy. We love those things”.
We have 20 minutes of his time so we dive into the interview, aware the clock is ticking. He agrees to be filmed during the interview, and gradually becomes less cautious as our questions are deliberately chosen to avoid the usual journalistic fixation with his albinism and faith.
So what do you think of Manchester?
“I like it a lot, it reminds me of Baltimore; the port kind of city where there’s a really good mix of people. I like that, when there’s a variety of people living together and sharing the same space. I’ve always really liked it.”
What books do you read, do you have any particular favourites?
“Yeah, different things for different purposes. The James Baldwin book; The Fire Next Time is a really important one. It’s a really easy book to read but even if people aren’t able to read the whole thing, there’s a letter at the beginning where Baldwin is writing to his nephew about what it means to live life. I think that letter is really influential.”
I know you’ve cited The Autobiography of Malcolm X as being influential too?
“Yeah, that book has probably had the most impact on my life. Almost every Muslim of European background that I know, became a Muslim because of that book. It’s interesting because when people convert to Islam it usually isn’t under circumstances that you’d think, it’s usually the opposite, so a lot of African-Americans become Muslim in prison and a lot of Europeans become Muslim because of Malcolm X.
“The Qur’an also has influenced me in its own way. There’s an English language version called The Study Qur’an and I’ve been reading both the commentary and the translation. There aren’t a lot of good books in the English language about Islam and most western people think if you want to learn about Islam you read the Qur’an and for some people that works, but it’s a really difficult, disorientating book for most westerners to read, especially because the English commentary and translation can be difficult to understand.”
What influences your music?
“I try to make music about what’s going on in my heart but I don’t think it’s different from what influences anybody else. I think that even the people that make pop music would say that their music is influenced by their life and what they experience. I think that that’s true for everybody.”
I’ve noticed that in your latest album All the Beauty in this Whole Life, there are no swear words within, is this intentional?
“I don’t curse in my life the way that I used to, just because I became more conscious about how important beauty is; speaking beautifully, having beautiful manners.
“I just released a song; ‘Sensitive’ that I produced myself featuring a sample by Erykah Badu in which she says “Keep in mind that I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.
“I sent that to my primary Muslim Sufi and he told me if you look at it from a certain perspective, that word is only a foul word because people believe it to be that way, if you need to use those words then use them, you’re the artist but you should know that words are like weapons and sometimes you just have to pull your sword, but if you just walk around with your sword out, you’re gonna be really irresponsible, you’re gonna end up cutting things that don’t need to be cut.”
Are there any artists you’d like to work with?
“Yeah, I’d love to work with Madlib, I’d love to work with Black Thought, Pharoahe Monch. He’s one of the greatest of all time. India Arie, Yasim Bey (Mos Def), Gregory Porter the jazz singer, he’s really amazing, Erykah Badu.
“There are a lot of people [I’d like to work with] but I don’t really pursue that though, I don’t try to track people down and ask them. If I’m writing a song I usually think about the whole song and I usually don’t have a problem filling it myself, there’s always more that I wanna say but I have to take out to make the song listenable.”
What is your life like away from the studio?
“Half of my time is spent recording, writing and performing music, the other half is spent studying, trying to practice and teach Islamic spirituality. These have always been the things that have really driven me and now I get to do both of them, kinda equally in life. I see them as being the same, as extensions of the same thing.
“My wife and I actually have a community project at home in Minneapolis, we have a really small group of people that meet. The idea is to have communities and circles of applied spirituality where people are really seeking the spiritual path together. So we do that, it’s small, we don’t advertise it, you won’t see it on social media or anything like that.
“It’s hard not to like Brother Ali, his warmth and genuine humility emanates constantly. He is a man who loves his faith without false piety and we get the sense that in another context he’d happily chat all day.”
Brother Ali – Band on the Wall, Manchester: The view from Far Out
Later in the evening we join the hundreds of people who’ve come to the show. DJ Last Word has provided the soundtrack prior to the main act and the crowd love it. There’s great mix of religions and ethnicities attending and it brings to mind the great Antony H Wilson quote ‘This is Manchester. We do things differently here’. All the more poignant in the light of the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand and an ever increasing rise of Islamophobia in the UK.
Exactly on time, Brother Ali enters the stage. Immediately, two things stand out during his performance. Firstly his voice is clear and the sound engineering is excellent. The vocals are distinctive and what we are hearing is close to the album quality. Unusually for a rap act we aren’t deafened by the beat.
Secondly, Brother Ali doesn’t have a posse with him. He raps whilst DJ Last Word provides the backing beats and it feels like we are getting something that feels pure. The vocals are like honey, with a hint of a sound you could have listened to in an old jazz club, rich and smooth. In between tracks he takes a moment to engage with the crowd.
Moving well on stage, he encourages us to sing with him, but dispenses with the encore. His eyes twinkle as he declares he’s not going to go through the charade of pretending to leave as we pretend to beg him to return for “one more ‘choon’”, which he says in quite a decent approximation of a Manc accent. Instead, he performs another song before he leaves the stage.
When we leave, we feel we’ve met someone special, and someone much more than the beautiful lyrics he writes. Brother Ali is definitely a true gentleman of hip hop.
Brother Ali’s Latest Release Sensitive is out now on all good streaming services. Find out more at www.rhymesayers.com
All words & questions by Mike Milenko