Since Shadows on the Sun, I've been a big fan of Brother Ali's cadenced narrative and hard-hitting word play. The criticism is that Minneapolis’ Brother Ali can be kind of preachy, and not like on some Baptazia-style master of ceremonies, but the hit you over the head with the truth type. But Brother Ali is almost always able to drop science in a way all his own. His voice is truly unique in today’s clusterFuck of emcees. As a activist, he’s made a name for himself beyond the rhymes. With Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, Ali has taken what we love and hate about him, and served up a heaping helping.
Wordplay, a distinct voice, and an eye for his own fresh interpretations of topics beaten to death by other emcees, is what makes Brother Ali a monster in the game. His uniqueness inarguably stems from being, well, unique. I mean dude is a Muslim albino! There ain’t nobody in the annals of hip hop historycarrying those type of cards. Beyond his religion and skin color, what sets Ali apart is his smarts. Both street smarts and unmistakable literacy have been evident since day one. For many, this uniqueness paired with the strength of dude’s brain makes him a literal force. He might crack you over the head with his big ole butterballs, and then write about in a song later on. Or he might break down your situation so succinctly that you wish he had just went ahead and smacked you up. There are very few emcees that can create that short-of-breath feeling I get when the truth punches me in the solar plexus.
Most people who say they pass on Brother Ali mention his constant talk of disempowerment, prejudice, and the struggle to overcome. They get tired of being told the real deal all the time. To many, rap is a fantasy music, better suited to stripper poles and rented Bentleys. For a warrior like Brother Ali, it isn’t a question of if he cares if you are listening. He doesn’t. I think he is compelled to expose the marionette strings. I think he is born to call out your bullshit. And he remains decidedly unapologetic about it.
Brother Ali has written eloquently on homophobia in hip hop. He’s been arrested for civil disobedience in an Occupy protest defending the house of a family being wrongly evicted. This dude lives that life. It's easy to say Fuck the police. It's another thing to actually stand up to them while defending what you believe. We have so many artists who seem all too willing to endorse wanton violence, drug-use, and misogyny. We have too few who stand up for civil rights, advocate sobriety, and confront the skeletons in the closet of hip hop so directly.
Mourning in America..., is a chunky, sample-filled, record for graduates of the school of smart-knocks. I’m reminded of Lauryn Hill’s, “Throw in a mother fucker so y’all ignant niggas hear me.” Take for instance the track, “Life I Know”, a standard phat beat with a sped up R&B chorus. Many, many an emcee’d be tempted to write about that clichéd #raplife shit. Ali seizes an opportunity to flip the topic on its head and spit the gritty truths faced by working class people everyday. Calling out what we do in the name of a dollar, without assaulting the dignity of the people going through the struggle. “They ain’t paying nothing but 3 hots and a cot. Don’t you know that’s the biggest hustly they got?" It’s commentary without judgment. Like Chuck D said, Ali is on some CNN of the streets shit.
An everyman, a man of the people, a blue collar emcee’s emcee, Brother Ali is the people champ, whether or not the people realize it yet.