BROTHER ALI / “Walking Away”
…[B]ecause we’re so separated from the big cities like New York and L.A. which have their own identities as cities, we’re forced to develop our own individual personalities more. New York and L.A. can take the place of a personality in some people. Your talk, dress and demeanour can just be the norm for your city if you’re a bland person from a place like that. The city can overtake you and become who you are. Not true in the Midwest. You look at all of the prominent MCs from the Midwest, Kanye West, Slug, Common, Eminem, all the way down the line. What do you hear as a common denominator; these men are examining themselves as human beings. There’s a lot of introspection that needs to happen here if you’re going to be somebody. You don’t have your town’s personality to lean on as a crutch.
I’m not a hip-hop head—I’m not boasting, just contextualizing my comments about Brother Ali. If this cat was dropping jazz I could tell you a bunch of stuff after the first listen. On the other hand, I’m not a hip-hop hater, nor am I beat illiterate. Anyway, one of the big wishes I have vis-à-vis hip-hop is that we would get some grown up issues rather than adolescent fantasy, boasting, posturing, commercialism or nonsense rhymes. I listen to a lot of shit looking for a sound that will hold my attention. All of the above said, I like Brother Ali.
I remember when we dropped that T-Love several weeks back and Mtume dug the music but wanted the rapping to be stronger. What cha think about Ali?
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Ali ewlocated to the Twin Cities when he was 15. Thoroughly moved by reading Malcolm X, Jason Newman converted to Islam and became Brother Ali. He married at 17 and is now divorced with custody of his son and a restraining order on his ex. All of the above (and much, much more) is in his lyrics.
I’m an MC – one of the best of my generation. The fact that I’m albino and Muslim are secondary. I accept it though as the way people think. I can’t waste my time telling people how to explain me. I also know that my being an albino put my in a unique position to make me what I am today – the fact that my pride and self-image come from within. A lot of people haven’t learned that. Growing up looking like I do, I had to either build my esteem within myself or jump in front of a bus.
I dig that this man straight up handles up on his own issues.
Undoubtedly, being an outsider gives this lyricist an edge to work from. I wish “Dorian,” an anti-domestic violence narrative, was not marred by a homophobic cheap shot. That blemish notwithstanding, “Dorian” is an artfully told tale in which he casts himself as both a savior and a victim.
“Forest Whitiker" and “Dorian” are from Shadows Of The Sun (2003), Brother Ali’s debut full length CD. The other tracks are from his new CD, The Undisputed Truth (2007). The production on the tracks are by Ant (Anthony Davis), the in-house producer for Rhymesayers Entertainment. This is a case where I like the music almost as much as I like the lyrics.
In “Freedom Ain’t Free,” a song that is musically built on a Nina Simone sample from “Baltimore” (which itself is a Randy Newman songthat we wrote about in BoL before), Brother Ali and cohort Ant spin a wonder-filled tale of self-development, a building process that is grounded in the essential American characteristic of individual achievement.
“Freedom Ain’t Free” contains a truckload of beautiful metaphors and the use of metaphors is itself a statement in a musical genre in which comparative similes are the dominant form of word-work. As a poet, I generally believe that a metaphor (a person or thing is something in addition to itself) is stronger than a simile (a person or thing is like, or unlike, something), e.g. your eyes are like diamonds = simile; your eyes are diamonds = metaphor, but on the other hand, the strength of the metaphor is contextual and depends on the fullness of the image used and the depth of the context within which that metaphor is used, whereas the simile generally can stand alone and initially is usually easier to grasp.
Anyway, regardless of how close we do or don’t read Ali’s text, “Freedom Ain’t Free” really nails a number of issues including race and the individual’s obligation to rise above social conditions and social conditioning. Hence the following couplet, which may not rhyme on paper but through diction and pacing works in sound: “Listen, I don’t think that God’s obligated to touch you / If your ass would rather live in shit than work a shovel.”
For an albino born of white parents to say he doesn’t believe in race may seem on the surface to be a deep lesson in moving beyond racism. The truth is far more complex. Many, many Americans believe that they can individually overcome the socialization of a racist society. While it is true that every individual is responsible for their own actions, it is also true that dominant social systems work regardless of individual objections unless and until dissenting individuals overthrow the dominant system.
Brother Ali is no dummy. He recognizes this and thus acknowledges that race is an issue even while steadfastly refusing to make it a personal issue. Many hip-hop heads argue that hip-hop is intrinsically non-racial and even intrinsically anti-racial and anti-racism, and moreover, they argue that this disregard of race as a defining factor is what differentiates hip-hop from previous cultural movements in America. But a deeper reality is that the fight against using race as a definition of value or essence is an ongoing struggle that has been a hallmark of cultural production in the margins of American society since day one. Especially in jazz, we have seen this thrust over and over. Actually, this is an ongoing battle with the dominant system of social organization, a battle each generation finds itself obligated to either wage the struggle or surrender to the system.
It is no accident that the freedom to fully express oneself is found within a form developed by those who are socially marginal and among the least developed from a dominant culture perspective. Brother Ali points to Malcolm X and KRS-One as his two seminal inspirations, and acknowledges that most of his musical heroes are Black men. Ali’s battle is not to become Black but rather to become fully human, a human being inspired by the battle of Black men who themselves struggled to reach their own fullness as human beings.
Listen to "Daylight" to hear Brother Ali’s credo. In a far-ranging interview, Brother Ali responded directly to the question of being an albino AND a white rapper.
AVC: Most of the press about you mentions that you’re albino. Does that bother you?
BA: Early on, it bothered me. I didn’t have any distribution for Shadows On The Sun, I just kind of went on tour, and that was my distribution. So I really wasn’t prepared for press. I’d never really done it. It’s different, if you have to write 115 stories about musicians, then you’re looking for something to mix it up a little bit. So I guess I could see that. But there were stories where [being albino] was the whole story. And I was kind of concerned that it started to look like this was a gimmick I was trying to play up. I felt like I went out of my way to not do that. I wasn’t gonna not mention it, but they made it sound like it was the key thing to everything I was doing, and it’s not.
I will say this, though—when I first came into this and started touring and becoming friends with all these underground, independent rappers, I started being floored that there was an entire scene of mostly white rappers who had mostly white fans. And there was a lot of publications covering them that never talked about hip-hop and never cared about hip-hop until there were white artists making credible hip-hop. And it seems like that was the point where a lot of them got interested. They were kind of deifying these people, like they invented hip-hop. I think those guys are great, I have a lot of respect for them, but let’s not get carried away. Where’s the balance? If you’re talking about these people, there’s still an entire realm of amazing artists that’s not being talked about. So I started wondering, is this an underlying weird racial thing? I’m albino, my family is white, but I was really raised, and taught my important life lessons, by the black community. It’s weird to have these writers be like, "What race are you?" I’d be like, "Fuck you, why is that so important to you? Why did you ask me this?" But then, I’d just be like, "I don’t want to talk about that." There was a time as a teenager when I was like, "I’m not white." Because being white is a religion that you either believe in or don’t believe in. Of course, in the world, I’m white, I get white privilege and all that kind of stuff, so it’s like, lately, I’ve been having to go on record. A lot of these guys aren’t going to get it unless you make it that simple for them. So that really bothered me, and I think it’s really tied to the albino thing, because if it weren’t for that, that question would have never come up. —Brother Ali interview
I would have picked “Freedom Ain’t Free” as the featured song were it not for “Walk Away,” which I personally feel on a deeper level than “Freedom.” Although my divorce was nothing like his in the details, I certainly feel, understand and can relate to the divorce pain he declaims.
“Walk Away” is about the breakdown of Brother Ali’s first marriage. Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear album is the gold standard when it comes to popular culture deconstructions of marital disintegration. As a single track, “Walk Away” is a brilliant example of painfully honest introspection.
On both “Freedom” and “Walk Away,” Ant lays down a stripped-down, albeit complex, soundbed from which the uplifting lyrics rise. On “Freedom,” the Nina Simone sound is supported by deftly-paced conga beats, while a metronome-like drum beat ticking on the bottom with a syncopated bass line snaking through the phrases and whistling (it could be keys rather than a human being, but regardless it is a musical master stroke) on top of tinkling keys and bluesy guitar noodling.
In both cases, Ant is working at the primo level of DJ-beat mastering, i.e. a level where beats are not just rhythm but also melody and harmony that draws on the full tradition of the music to compose and craft a sound that is both a worthy extension of a rich past and simultaneously an exploration of something new.
Like I’m saying, I’m no hip-hop head and do not have the requisite background to be able to make a definite statement but to my ears this is one of the best rap albums in years, certainly a candidate for the best of 2007, and possibly one for the ages.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Similes and beats
Generally speaking, I’ve never been into the underground or independent hip-hop scene and I doubt that I ever will get into it. One of the reasons is something that Brother Ali touches on himself: "[T]here was an entire scene of mostly white rappers who had mostly white fans." That alone isn’t a problem, or even particularly notable. But then Ali goes on to talk about the real problems. How there are media that pay special and specific attention to those types of rappers. How they don’t care about hip-hop otherwise. How many fans of indie hip-hop aren’t knowledgable about the music outside of the relatively small group of like-minded MCs that they know about. And besides all that, I just don’t like the way these MCs rap. It’s hard to say what it is exactly that I don’t like because I haven’t spent much time trying to break down their individual styles. The only thing I can say right now is they bore me. I listen to rap music for two things. #1, to hear MCs play with words. To me, that’s what MCing is all about. I like subject matter and meaning too, but those elements are just a bonus. What I really like is listening to someone put together strings of words in ways that I’ve never heard before. And also very importantly, they have to do their thing while keeping the beat going. (Their verbal rhythm, I mean. In other words, they have to flow.) That’s it. That’s MCing. Keep it fresh. Be original. Throw some complexity in there. Spit those syllables in unique patterns – patterns that make me want to repeat it myself, just to hear the way they sound coming out of my mouth.
On the subject of MCing, I have to put in a quick word about similes vs. metaphors. I think Kalamu is (probably inadvertently) judging the art of MCing by standards more aptly applied to poetry or other forms of creative writing. MCing is something that was initially done on the fly. It wasn’t necessarily free-styled (made up on the spot), but like the blues, it wasn’t composed in full and then repeated word-for-word. That initial spirit remains in the music. And that initial on-the-fly spirit is the reason that MCs like similes so much more than metaphors. Metaphors are excellent for more literary pursuits because, as Kalamu said, they tend to be used in the wider context of the poem, verse, short story, novel, etc. An extended metaphor also tends to grow in impact as it is explored. Similes work differently. It’s like the difference between telling a one-liner (simile) and telling a tall tale (metaphor). The point is, MCing has to work on the spot, instantly. The crowd has to feel you and react to you now, not later on when they’re driving home and it occurs to them that you were actually working an extended metaphor through your entire verse. (Of course, there are always exceptions, and we talked about one of those a few weeks ago. It was an Outkast song named "13th Floor/Growing Old," which happens to be based on an extended metaphor.)
Another issue here (and I guess this is no longer a quick word) is that a good rapper’s similes aren’t really similes in the traditional sense anyway. I’m thinking about Big Boi saying, "They got me bent like elbows," or his partner 3000 saying, "Some issues need to be addressed, like envelopes, I mean." Neither one of those are a simile in the poetic, traditional manner of "her eyes are like diamonds." Big Boi isn’t comparing himself to an elbow and Andre’s line is memorable precisely because "like envelopes" isn’t what he means. They’re both playing with the fact that English words often have double meanings. They’re saying one thing and meaning something else. They’re calling attention to what they really mean by claiming to mean something else. That’s not a simile or a metaphor. That’s MCing. I hope this helps to explain a little why MCs use similes (or word-play in the form of a simile) so much.
So somewhere at the beginning of this ramble, I mentioned that there were two things I listen to rap music for. The second thing is beats. I just like the way it sounds when hard drum beats knock. The things Kalamu praises about Ali’s production ("beats [that] are not just rhythm but also melody and harmony") are things that just don’t matter to most hip-hop fans. When listening to rap music, I couldn’t care less whether there was well-developed melody and/or harmony. In fact, too much of that is actually an impediment to hip-hop music. A lot of classic hip-hop has no melody or harmony at all, other than brief snippets that come from other records and appear almost incidentally. The fact is, harmony and melody is simply not an important part of the hip-hop aesthetic. Again, there are always exceptions (The Fugees come to mind as a great hip-hop group who did use a lot of melody and/or harmony), but generally speaking, rap music isn’t about harmony and melody. Rap music is about MCs rapping to the beat. Voice-drum over computer drum. (Or sampled drum, or beat-box, or live drum, or whatever.) It’s a different genre of music, period. "Normal" standards just don’t apply.
Brother Ali, huh? I don’t know. I feel kind of how I felt about my man HK Finn. I agree with a lot of his beliefs and sentiments, but I don’t necessarily want to hear all that in my music. Not so matter-of-factly stated, at least. It doesn’t excite me. Doesn’t make me want to repeat any of it. There’s no fun factor. It’s like going to social studies class or something. And as I tried to explain above, the beats don’t knock enough for me. It sounds way too "musical." I was definitely feeling that "Walking Away" track and I kind of liked "Letter From The Government." (But I think the latter was just because of the classic Public Enemy reference. Chuck D: "I got a letter from the government the other day / I opened and read it / It said they were suckers.") I’ve heard a lot of good press about Brother Ali and he seems like a straight-forward, sincere individual. I wish him and his career all the best, but it’s just not my thing. I’ll take some ignorant-ass Southern shit that really bangs over this erudite melodicism anyday.
—Mtume ya Salaam
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