If you must see one rapper this year who happens to be Muslim, albino and legally blind, it should be Brother Ali. The musician, now on a national tour, counts some of hip-hop's biggest names among his fans, including Chuck D of Public Enemy.
Inspired by Rakim and other old school rappers, Brother Ali sought out the Quran and the writings of Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X.
Courtesy of the artist
His latest album is called Us. In a song with the same title, the musician explains his start: "I started rhyming just to be somebody / to make people notice me at the party."
Finding Allah Through Hip-Hop
Back in the 1980s, Brother Ali was a teenager named Jason Newman, cutting school and beefing on the streets of North Minneapolis. He loved hip-hop's energy and joy, and its criticism of harsh social systems.
Rappers talked about people he'd never heard about in school or church — like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.
"You know, a kid like me from the Midwest, who was so enthralled by the poetry and artistry of people like Rakim ... It made me want to know, what's he talking about?" Brother Ali says.
Rakim, an all-time great MC, produced classics like "Move the Crowd."
"He said, 'All praise due to Allah' — that's a blessing. I wanted to know what that was," Brother Ali says. "And so when Chuck D and KRS-One were saying things like, 'Farrakhan's a prophet, I think you oughta listen to him,' that is initially what made me track down the Quran."
Brother Ali converted at the age of 15. He followed Imam W. Deen Mohammed, who moved the Nation of Islam away from black nationalism and toward a more global, conventional Muslim identity. Mohammed was forward-thinking, a champion of interfaith relations.
"When I was a kid, there was a group of people that he sent to Malaysia to study the way that a more liberal Islamic society could have this peaceful coexistence between different religions," Brother Ali says. "I was one of the people he picked to go over there and study."
Hip-hop and Islam tend to get caught up in the same misconceptions, he says — that they're somehow inherently violent, disrespectful of women and homophobic. Brother Ali says these attitudes are much bigger than either hip-hop or Islam.
"They come from weaknesses and insecurity within human beings," he says, adding that he's faced those weaknesses and insecurities himself.
"In my old work, I was so ignorant to the hell that gay people are put through because they're deemed to be different," he says. "I said the word 'faggot' in my first album, and I'm so thoroughly embarrassed by that now. I have gay friends and gay people I look up to."
Hard And Aggressive
You never quite know what's coming on any given Brother Ali track. The first single from his new album is about domestic ecstasy — his intense satisfaction being home with his wife and kids.
"In every album, I try to talk about a lot of important things to me that are good and try to come from a sincere, genuine place," Brother Ali says. "But I'd be lying if I didn't include at least one song in which I'm just an [expletive]."
On Us, that might be the song that fantasizes about getting even with an obnoxious neighbor by stealing and selling his drugs. Or it might be the boasts about his former life as a hoodlum.
"Hip-hop, both musically and lyrically, has always been about being hard and aggressive," says Jay Smooth, host of New York City's longest-running hip-hop radio show. He's a longtime fan of Brother Ali. The two are also friends.
"Brother Ali is one of the artists who's showing there can be as much drama in the day-to-day life of being in a family — like, love can be just as exciting as fear," Smooth says.
Smooth says that telling the truth brings grit and attitude to Brother Ali's music. When he rhymes about dealing drugs — before his conversion — it's about the excruciating boredom of standing on a corner for hours, not the supposed glamour of thug life. In the same way, it's the mundane details like crashing on the couch with his kids that fill Brother Ali with an uncompromising, un-corny integrity.
An Act Of Worship
Brother Ali's language is not always so squeaky-clean. He curses a lot, and that's drawn disapproval from more orthodox Muslims. But the musician says he can express his faith even with what he calls his grown-up words.
"Everything in Islam is an act of worship — everything good and pure and genuine you do is an act of worship," Brother Ali says. "I believe being the best artist I can be translates to being the most honest artist I can be. Were I not to show the crass side of myself, I'd be holding something back from my artistry."
Brother Ali says his music reflects his progress on a spiritual journey. And maybe he's still growing into his faith. Right now, he's on a strenuous physical journey, as well. His current tour across the U.S. takes him to almost 50 cities in the next month and a half.