Two Nights with Brother Ali

Justin Schell heard Brother Ali's concerts at First Avenue and at 7th Street Entry. Here's his take on them, and on the relation of hip hop to color and culture.

Brother Ali

“Wigger.” “Wanksta.” “White negro.” These and other terms form the lexicon of whiteness in hip hop. What it means to be white and participate in the culture of hip hop often falls victim to crass binarizations of black authenticity versus white usurpation. While there have been numerous instances of cross-racial collaboration, as well as numerous white figures in hip hop that challenge such strict binarizationsm, Twin Cities artist Brother Ali possesses a whiteness of a different shade. His identity as an albino Muslim reveals much about the fluidity of race and hip hop. Ali turns his own liminal identity into a positive marker of difference, overturning the historical associations of albinism with the Barnum-esque freak shows of the nineteenth century as well as contemporary stereotypes of the “evil Albino” (think Silas in The Da Vinci Code).

Ali has never shied away from speaking about his body, with attitudes ranging from the confessional to the comically ironic to the combative. On “Picket Fence,” he raps about the difficulty of living when you’re “allergic to the sun,” while on “Love On Display,” Ali speaks of how he has to “describe what I see in my mind,” since he himself is legally blind. On “Forest Whitiker,” he pokes fun at a body that falls outside stereotypical notions of beauty:

I got red eyes and one of them’s lazy
And they both squint when the sun shines so I look crazy
I’m albino man, I know I’m pink and pale
And I’m hairy as hell, everywhere but fingernails

He’s also explicitly linked his identity as one outside the strict dichotomy of black and white: “Unless I’m mistaken there’s like three kinda people / black people and white people and my people.” Yet on “When the Beat Comes In,” Ali scoffs “I’m the albino but ya’ll pale in comparison!”

To see Ali as strictly controlled by the discourse of albinism, however, is to reduce him to a pale novelty. On The Undisputed Truth, his latest album, Ali embraces his liminal identity in relation to the larger cultural matrix of race in America. On “Daylight,” after saying that “you don’t need to hear my race in the song,” he goes on to say:

They ask me if I’m black or white or neither
Race is a made up thing I don’t believe in it.
My genes tie me to those that despised me.
Made a living killing the ones that inspired me,
and I ain’t just talking ‘bout singing and dancing.
I was taught life and manhood by black men.
So I’m a product of that understanding.
And a small part of me feels like I am them.
Does that make me a liar maybe,
but I don’t want the white folks that praise me to think they can claim me.
‘Cause you didn’t make me.
You don’t appreciate what I know to be great yet you relate to me
And that frustrates me and what can I say,
‘Cause I know that I benefit from something I hate

While admitting the greater degree of anonymity that an audio recording brings, Ali enacts a complex negotiation of racial identity, simultaneously attempting to deracinate himself, identify with the black males who inspired him, and recognize the privilege that his white skin, even if it is viewed as excessively white, brings him.

Ali, however, takes it one step further, aligning himself with the struggles of African Americans and other marginalized groups in an attempt to critique American history and society. Taking its inspirational cue from Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” Ali’s “Uncle Sam Goddamn” vividly foregrounds the whitewashed elements of American history: rape, genocide, slavery, and, most importantly, the mindset that allows for the continuance of such horrific inequalities today, placing himself alongside other liminal hip hop artists such as El-P, Sage Francis, and Zach de la Rocha. Brother Ali’s deracination of his body, then, serves as the starting point for cross-racial identification and critique.

The problems and contradictions of these issues were pointedly displayed last weekend at First Avenue, as Brother Ali celebrated the end of a three-month, 50-plus city American tour. “It’s so great to be home,” he said to the sold-out crowds at First Avenue and the 7th St Entry who were extremely excited to have him back in the Twin Cities. Performing with label mates Boom Bap Project and Psalm One, along with hypeman Toki Wright, the shows had an air of triumph, and understandably so. It was Ali’s first headlining tour, promoting The Undisputed Truth, which has garnered critical acclaim from magazines ranging from Rolling Stone to URB to the influential and prestigious underground hip hop website “okayplayer.”

As great as it was to see over 1,000 fans screaming along with Ali, (as well as teenage girls yelling “Brother Ali I Love You!”), there was a disconnect between so many of the sentiments present in his music and the makeup of the audience. The crowd, if I had to estimate, was about 90% white; anyone familiar with shows in the Twin Cities (and underground hip hop across the country) would recognize this as not too extraordinary. As Chris Godsey noted in the City Pages a few months ago in his review of Ali’s opening show in Duluth, his lyrics play to the same people who may have shunned him because of his whiteness. (Ironically, Ali did not perform “Daylight” at either show.)

Sonically, there was a distinct disconnect in the Mainroom between the intimacy of Ali’s poetry and the beats. The beats, produced by Ant and played here by BK-One, became the audible focal point of the show. They overpowered Ali’s words, which sounded trebly and distorted. The resulting feeling for the show was very static, blunting the venom, for instance, of “Uncle Sam Goddamn.” The exceptions had to do with his son Faheem: Ali spoke nearly the entirety of “Faheem,” almost entirely a cappella, recognizing the importance of the audience hearing all of the words.

The show at the 7th Street the next night was remarkably more intimate. Even though the majority of the crowd was similarly white, there was a totally different atmosphere to the show. Playing to just a couple hundred people, Ali was more conversational with the audience, his words clearly audible in the mix. He even one-upped his performance the previous night by performing “Faheem” with his son on-stage. To end the show, he brought up that night’s opening groups, Big Quarters and The Chosen Few, to freestyle, ending with chants of “Twin Cities.” Such a gesture of humility not only showed Ali’s unquestionable talent, but also that he hasn’t forgotten where he began, the many nights that he was the one opening up for the bigger acts.

There are, of course, no easy answers when it comes to contemporary arguments about race, which is exactly the reason for taking seriously Ali’s claims about his racial status and what it means not only for hip hop, but for the place of race in American culture today.
The end of the 7th Street show was a moment of cross-racial collaboration between Ali and the Latino, white, and African American artists who make up these groups, a testament to the power of hip hop to bring people together across all lines of race, class, and ethnicity.