Brother Ali is a wise man. He’s like a preacher who doesn’t preach; a live-and-let-liver whose contemplative lyrics give new meaning to the word deeeeeeeeep. As a result of being born with genetic condition, albinism, the 32-year-old MC has seen the world from a different angle than most. Couple that with his teenage conversion to Islam (a faith he continues to adhere to), and the married father of two has an unmatched perspective on life – shared eloquently in his music.
He flies the flag of indie rap kings, Rhymesayers Entertainment, and has encountered much success on the hip hop underground. With his fourth long-player, Us, on its way out, Ali swooped into London for his first solo (and sold-out!) gig in Camden last month and spoke about fatherhood, independence, Obama and clarifies why exactly why he doesn’t identify with whiteness.
You’re about to embark on a big tour, and have two young children, how do you prepare to leave them for so long?
The only thing you can do is ensure that your relationship and bond with them is very strong. Because it’s damaging either way – it’s like fasting. I’ve been fasting for Ramadan, and the idea is that fasting is going to hurt your body – but if you eat healthy enough during the times that you can’t eat – you can minimise the damage that it does – you know what I mean? So when I’m home, I’m a really hands-on dad. I was a single dad until my son was four, so I do the whole baby thing.
How are you dealing with the time zones and breaking fast?
The thing is about Ramadan is that fasting is an option. You can choose to fast, or you can choose to fast and there is no blame on you for that – you can make it up later. When travelling in the states, I’d fast anyway – but like today – I’m not fasting. I wasn’t in control of my schedule or what and when I could eat. It’s not meant to break you down – it’s meant to teach you something. I think Islam is perceived to be this really strict religion, and it’s not. Fasting is a very unifying experience – any sort of common difficulty brings an automatic camaraderie.
How has your relationship with Ant (of Atmosphere) evolved after all these years of working together?
Ant is one of those people that...you know you have your friends, your loved ones, and then there are those you just can’t hide from. We show all of ourselves in the music. Our friendship is the number one catalyst for the music we make together.
Have people connected with Us, the way you’d hoped, in spite of it taking a slightly different route in telling others’ stories rather than your own?
I think my core fan base will be fine and like it. I don’t question it. Often when you make an album, you try to say something or offer a new way of looking at the world - so you want the world to hear it! So of course you want to know if it touches anyone outside of your bubble. And I have no way of judging that. I never know that.
All you can do is say, ‘I made the best music that I could this year – and I tried to present it as honestly as I could.’ You have to be confident in yourself and in people and believe that wherever it ends up, is where it ends up. I think a lot of artists feel slighted because they aren’t as famous as somebody else, but at some point you have to realise that what you’re doing is not going to connect with everybody – but the people who it does connect with, that’s a real thing. And you have to be comfortable enough in who you are to let that be what it is.
How important is it for you to remain independent?
It’s important for me to remain in control of my creativity and do what I want. So the particular team of people that I make music with, being Ant, my DJ, BK, my business partner Sadiq and Slug, being my mentor – that group of people – the way they helped me to grow and evolve – and the support that I have there – I don’t see that ever changing. I can’t see being offered a new situation that is better than that.
There has been a change in that we are now distributed by Warner Bros, but I still work in the exact same environment. It’s just that now, when the music’s done, rather than calling Best Buy directly, we give it to WB and they give it to Best Buy. So that part of it has changed – but it’s better.
Was that a difficult decision for you guys to make?
It was time to do that as there was a demand for our music that we, logistically, weren’t able to fulfil. We were servicing mom and pop stores in Canada and the US – but we started realising that most of those stores are closing now and so if that store doesn’t exist – where are the kids going to buy the music from? They’ll end up downloading it. So doing this with WB ensures that if people want to get our music, they can. Some people misuse that kind of machine though. And they jam the music down your throat. But we’ve made a decision to make that music available – but not force it on anyone.
How did you feel about Obama being elected?
I was really happy. I believe Obama. I believe that he is genuine and sincere. There is a saying that ‘real recognise real’ and I just really believe that he’s genuine in what he’s trying to do. He brings a new mind and approach to politics. There are things that he can change by himself and things that require other people - those are going to move way slower.
A lot of the attacks on him are race-based and often subtle, but he’s been able to turn those into really positive contributions and conversations that haven’t been had in America lately. The speech he made about healthcare was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t think my generation has ever seen a leader like this.
Will his election change the social landscape of your America?
Not by itself. It means that society doesn’t want to be exclusive in the way it has been –based on race, economics and gender. I think it’s a sign that Americans don’t want it to be like that. The problem is that we don’t know how to change it – we don’t know how to talk about it; we don’t even have a language to discuss it.
I read that you don’t identify as a white person. Is that because you believe that race doesn’t exist?
It’s not quite that simple. When I was a little kid, I had an interesting racial climate. Basically, because of the way that I looked, I felt completely alone. When I got a little bit older, I started to be embraced and taught and accepted and nurtured by people who were a wide variety of races, but mainly black folk.
So I got all these beautiful warm messages from the black people I was around but from my family and among other white people I was getting racist, hateful and judgemental messages. There was a lot of misunderstanding involved between white and black and that gave me a lot of anger.
It’s taken me a long time to resolve all that within myself. From things like Islam, and people that I look up to, I’ve learned that race is a made-up thing. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, as it exists in people’s minds, which makes it a real thing.
When I said that I don’t identify with whiteness – I mean on an individual basis – I don’t interact with other people with this brainwashing that I think whiteness is. Something happened when English, Dutch, Scandinavian, Irish, Italian and polish people went to America and were no longer Scots, and no longer Welsh, they all became white. What does white mean? It means you’re supposed to be better than everyone else. No one’s white. I’m albino and I’m not white like your paper. It’s symbolic.
Do you feel lucky to have had the experience of being albino?
Yes. I totally do. There was a weird time when I was about 12-years-old when my friends and their parents said, ‘You’re just black’ and I believed that. And it turns out that that wasn’t a good thing to tell me, because socially it’s not true. Once I got a balanced view about what I was, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.