Brother Ali is a respected Hip Hop artist, speaker, and community leader. His two-decade resume includes eight critically-acclaimed albums, mentorships with iconic Hip Hop legends Chuck D and Rakim, and performances on late night shows with Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien. His provocative and uplifting brand of Hip Hop has earned him coveted press features like Rolling Stone’s 40th anniversary edition and Source Magazine’s “Hip Hop Quotables”, while his outspoken social justice message has landed him on government watch lists. He’s also lectured at universities from Princeton to Stanford and delivered the keynote address at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. When he’s not rocking the mic at Coachella or being arrested for civil disobedience in support of marginalized communities, Brother Ali travels the world learning and teaching Islamic Spirituality under some of today’s most renowned teachers. In addition to leading worship services and classes, he co-founded The Gemali Project, an organization that helps Muslim converts and spiritual seekers access the beauty of the Islamic tradition.
Brother Ali sat down with DHRC intern Rahel Petros during his visit to Duke University to discuss hip hop, race, Islam, and more.
Describe your original exposure to hip-hop culture and music. What was the context surrounding that exposure?
So, I’m albino, and my parents are white. I was raised in a mostly white environment, and I moved around a lot so I was always the new kid in school. When you’re albino, you look very different, and also I’m partially blind so I had a hard time getting around. Sometimes, people would be very, very cruel — now they call it bullying, but when I was a kid I thought that was only physical. My mom really wanted to help me, but she wasn’t equipped to do that, because she had never been such an “other” or visible outsider that she didn’t know how to prove that she was human enough to be treated like a human being. So her solution was to dye my hair when we were moving to a different school. It took a lot to dye my hair because hair dye works with the color that’s in your hair already, but our hair is white, so we ended up dying it blonde. Also, my hair just grows straight out, so we had to use all kinds of sprays and gels to lay it down and look like a regular white boy’s hair. It was all these chemicals that smell bad and took a long time and it hurt. I went to school that year and I was really depressed, I think because my mother didn’t realize, I was basically changing my appearance to look more like the people that were telling me something was wrong with me, and it deepened the idea that they were right.
There was a Black elder lady that worked at my school, and over the course of the year, she talked to me about hair and music. She showed me Elvis Presley and she was like, “Look at his hair. Why does his hair look like that?” And I said, “He’s trying to be cool.” But she said, “White people’s hair doesn’t look like that.” And then she showed me the great blues musician Muddy Waters and his hair, which had a whole process and a perm. It was clear Elvis was trying to make his hair look like the Black man Muddy Waters. So she said, “Well, Elvis is putting chemicals in his hair, to look like this Black man putting chemicals in his hair, to make white people more comfortable. That’s really dehumanizing to have to change your hair.” She knew what was going on. Then she showed me James Brown, “say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!” And that pride really resonated with me. So from then on, you know, all my friends were Black. That became my community, my people, especially since my family split up a lot. From the time I was a little kid, I was raised in Black people’s homes and treated like a family member.
A lot of white rappers hear the music and are like, “This is amazing!” And then if they really fall in love with it, they start to learn the culture, little by little. But for me, it was the opposite. The music came second for me.
So how did you find hip-hop then, within the Black communities that you were immersed in?
My friends really loved it, and I felt like I could tell from the time that I was really little that America doesn’t know the truth about my friends. And I felt like hip-hop was the way that America was finally gonna get to see how smart, funny, and powerful Black people are. So I was just in love with it from the beginning. I tried to get tapes any way I could, memorize anything I could. I just started dancing at talent shows and things like that, and I would say other people’s raps in the second or third grade. And then eventually, in the late 80s, when things got really pro-Black and conscious, I loved that — when things got really lyrical and the music got more intricate.
My friends really loved it, and I felt like I could tell from the time that I was really little that America doesn’t know the truth about my friends. And I felt like hip-hop was the way that America was finally gonna get to see how smart, funny, and powerful Black people are.
How did your parents feel about that?
They felt that the music part was cool, but they felt rejected. It started out with love, like these Black people love me and they know what to say to me and how to resonate with me. Their advice actually helps me. People knew what it felt like to walk in a room and automatically not be seen as a full person or have to explain yourself, all these microaggressions. They made life make sense to me in all the ways that mattered the most. But then eventually racism made me really angry and confused, because I was connected to white supremacy in some kind of physical way. I developed all types of hatred of my body, or just lovelessness about my body, that I’m just now starting to really deal with. I liked my character and my personality, my humor, my intellect, my talent, all that stuff. But for a long time I didn’t realize that I didn’t have that same love for my body because of how it’s connected to this stuff that I hate. So my parents felt rejected by me and I understand why they felt that way.
How do you feel about how hip hop culture and music has changed since then?
I think there’s something to love about all of it. First of all, we fell in love with the words, when it was storytelling, when it was about sampling records. Obviously then the dance and the graffiti and the fashion came after, but that’s what it was at the beginning. With Public Enemy, KRS-One, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and all those people that came along, the lyricism got to be so elevated. So that’s where the genius of this whole thing is — it’s sampling records and word play. So now when the words are less of the focus, and there’s more emphasis on the energy, the vibe, the emotion, the sound, the resonance, you know, that is also a really important part of exploring the human expression. I don’t even like putting a certain value on it, it’s just another part of the expression that always mattered to us but we focused on the words. So when you take that away, you get more of what the expression is, and we had people in our time that did that too. I think that’s been one of the major changes, but you know I think the youth figuring out how they can make something their own and have their own take on it is really essential. The spirit of hip hop still lives on through that, because for example, we didn’t want to play instruments. Rappers would talk about, “We’re not a band, that’s corny!” And our parents were like, “You’re just saying that because you don’t know how to play it.” I hate when people in my age group and older say, “[Today’s rappers] all sound the same. We all sounded different.” No, they don’t all sound the same - they just sound the same to you because you don’t listen to this music. “But they were all called Baby this and Lil’ that..” but we were all called MC-this and Ice-that back then too! We all sampled the same drum breaks, we all sampled the same records… if you listen to that music, you know that it does not all sound the same. Just say you don’t want to listen. It’s similar to people who criticize cultures they are not a part of.
I think the youth figuring out how they can make something their own and have their own take on it is really essential.
Describe how your religion shaped your perspectives on hip-hop, race, and society since your rap career started.
So, the modern world is created upon white supremacy and the several types of oppression that go along with that. And there’s people critiquing that, but there’s such a separation that people are not aware of what had occurred pre-modernity. So these critiques are, in my mind, uninformed by what was before. For example, in a pre-modern tradition like Islam, there’s a million ways to be a woman. There’s a million ways to be a man. So it makes it really tough with these issues, like this whole religion versus science thing — that is not authentic to Islam. If all you do is, with your modern mind, try to fix the problems that people just a generation before you did, but you’re never informed by the past, then you’re still just responding within the context that you’re trying to reform.
What would you say to other young artists who aspire to use their craft to be an activist in their communities?
The number one thing is, they don’t need me to say anything. But the way that I was taught, is that we’re always operating on different levels. There’s spirit and heart, and that’s always the most important. The way that Muslims see it is that a human being is a soul, and the soul is the breath of God. Then we have the level of strategy, intellect — that’s an area that is important and we should engage in, but there’s always going to be a lot to disagree on, especially with ideology. And then we have the heart, which is always in different states — we’re sad, happy, forgetful, present, etc. And then we have the intellect, which has identity, language, strategy, ideology. And then we have the ego — the ego just sucks and it’s horrible all the time. We’re all connected on a soul level, but we want to try to stay connected on a heart level. I don’t have to agree with somebody to know that they’re human, and care how their heart is doing. Regardless of what we think, you’re a human being experiencing pain, isolation, loneliness, or maybe joy, or maybe your heart has certain wisdom I can learn from. So that intellectual, political level is important, and there’s times when I’ve chosen to do it. A lot of people listen to me because they’re white and they see themselves on stage. But I could only tell them the truth about how I see white supremacy, if they know that on a soul level and on a heart level that I genuinely care about them. And they know that because I’m vulnerable with them, and I let them see all of my vulnerable moments. As artists, we have access to people’s heart and their soul, and you can communicate through that.
We’re all connected on a soul level, but we want to try to stay connected on a heart level. I don’t have to agree with somebody to know that they’re human, and care how their heart is doing.
Special thanks to Dr. Mona Hassan, the Duke Islamic Studies Certificate Program, the Center for Muslim Life, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, the Office of Global Affairs, and the Duke Islamic Studies Center for bringing Brother Ali to Duke.