ALEX COHEN, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
(Soundbite of song, "Truth Is")
BROTHER ALI (Rapper): (Rapping) I said the truth is here. The truth is here. I want more. Give me more.
BRAND: "The Undisputed Truth" is the new album by a rapper named Brother Ali. He raps about being discriminated against, about being poor and about finally having success in the hip-hop world. Yeah, yeah - you might be thinking; so tell me something new from an up-and-coming rapper. But Brother Ali has a unique perspective on all that, and you'll hear why in just a minute. The first clue: he was born Jason Newman.
(Soundbite of song, "Truth Is")
BROTHER ALI: I mean I'm been rapping since I was seven years old. I was a little kid. And I have a lot of different hip-hop names, MC that and, you know, like all these different kind of names.
BRAND: What was your first name when you were seven?
BROTHER ALI: My first name was MC Doc Ice.
BRAND: Doc Ice.
BROTHER ALI: Yeah. There's the rapper from UTFO, Doctor Ice. And so I was MC Doc Ice. Like I changed it a little bit.
BRAND: Commercial distinction.
BROTHER ALI: Oh, yeah. Yup. There was a period as an adult where I kind of stopped having this idea of being a rapper for a living until I met this independent label from Minneapolis, the Rhymesayers, that I'm part of now. So when I met them I was really inspired. You know, I'm going to start making music again.
And I was sitting with these kids at the mosque - I used to teach the children in Minneapolis Arabic and the basic principles of Islam, and I was like - so I'm performing, you know, next weekend; what do you think my name should be? And there's a little girl who said what do you mean, Brother Ali? And the way she looked at me and everything, I said, you know what? Nothing. Never mind. Thank you. And I mean - and that's what my friends have called me since I converted, when I was 15. And so for half my life, that's been - that's who I am.
(Soundbite of song, "Freedom Ain't Free")
BROTHER ALI: (Rapping) I don't like my life, I gut it, rebuild it. Keep nothing but God and my children. I kill the devil wherever he resides; even if he hide under me, he got to die. I killed little Jason, he was only fifteen. Sewed his good traits together, made Ali. Filled his lungs with the Quran until he breathe. Let him walk but kept him on a short leash.
BRAND: Why did you convert?
BROTHER ALI: I've always been a really spiritual person. I was raised in a Christian home. I went to the classes and realized it just wasn't for me. There was a few points that just didn't mesh with me. I've read a few other religions, but I definitely was drawn to Islam because of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, are two of my biggest heroes in life.
BRAND: So are you raising your son Muslim?
BROTHER ALI: Mm-hmm. Yes, I am.
BRAND: And he is six years old.
BROTHER ALI: He's six years old.
BRAND: And you have a song about him. His name is Faheem. And - so tell me more about Faheem.
BROTHER ALI: He's just a really amazing little person.
(Soundbite of song, "Faheem")
BROTHER ALI: (Singing) I ain't never met a child quite like you. Words don't suffice for me to describe you. You have a genuine goodness inside you. I watch you and wonder if I was ever like you. It's me and you, brother, for life, so when you put me in the ground, look for me in the clouds. You make me the definition of proud. You taught me what this life is really about, Faheem.
Basically, this particular album, "The Undisputed Truth", was about a five-year period where nothing stayed the same except for my relationship with Faheem. I went from working blue-collar jobs and having a few jobs at a time, trying to stay above water, to being a musician for a living, doing what I love the most as a job, you know. Along with that, I ended up getting divorced from my wife that I've been with since I was still 17, got custody of Faheem. We were kind of in limbo for a minute. We didn't have a place to live for a while.
BRAND: You were homeless?
BROTHER ALI: We - yeah. We didn't have our own space, you know. But what that allowed us to do and me to do is to rebuild our life. And out of all the things in there - everything on that album is really, really personal, but that one in particular, when I wrote it and when I finished it, it felt amazing to me.
(Soundbite of song, "Daylight")
BROTHER ALI: (Rapping) My friend, give me a minute here.
BRAND: Your album is called "The Undisputed Truth". There is one song that is, as you say, the songs on this album are very personal to you. Let's talk about the song "Daylight". And before we talk about it, let's just play it quick.
(Soundbite of song, "Daylight")
BROTHER ALI: (Rapping) About singing and dancing. I was born to life and manhood a black man. So I'm a product of that understanding, that 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 who praise me to think they can claim me.
BRAND: That last line, I don't want the white folks to praise me - who praise me think they can claim me, what do you mean by that?
Mr. NEWMAN: Well, there's a lot of issues at play with this on here. I'm a person - I'm albino, and my parents are white. I was very much an outsider among white people, or at least felt that way. And I was taken in early on by African-American people, by black folk. It has been that way my whole life, you know.
And so those are the people who taught me the things that I needed to know to survive, being who and what I am, the idea that you're never going to be able to get your own sense of value and worth from the mainstream society. You have to set your own ideas for what's good and valuable and important, and then you have to live up to those or not within yourself. And had I not been taught that, I don't know what would happen.
(Soundbite of song, "Pedigree")
BROTHER ALI: (Rapping) One behind the next in line, it's inspection time, let me check your design. Your pedigree don't hold up next to mine. I'm a thoroughbred of the most excellent kind. One behind the next in line...
When I was going up, with white folks in general, even if they had a few hip-hop CDs, they were not a part of the hip-hop community. They didn't feel welcome. And it seemed like there would be like one white kid at every hip-hop party.
BRAND: Were you that white kid?
BROTHER ALI: I'm not white.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BROTHER ALI: I've never identified with that word. Ever, not once in my life.
BROTHER ALI: Again, that's why I say, I think it's a made-up thing to facilitate white supremacy and institutional racism. I have no connection to this idea of being white. I don't think that it applies to me.
BRAND: Do you consider yourself any race?
BROTHER ALI: Not really, but the reality is that everybody else believes in it. So I still have experienced a lot of white privilege in my life. I don't have the same experience as my friends. I have something similar because I'm albino, but it's not the same thing. If I'm pulled over by a cop, it's not the same thing. If I walk into this office, it's not the same thing. Do you know what I mean? And these, you know, NPR is great people, you know what I mean? But it's still not the same thing, and it never will be.
(Soundbite of song, "Uncle Sam is Goddamn")
BROTHER ALI: (Rapping) Only two generations away from the world's most despicable slavery trade. Pioneered so many ways to degrade a human being that it can't be changed to this day. Legacy so ingrained in the way that we think we no longer need chains to be slaves.
(Speaking) The thing in hip-hop that's different now is that all those one white kids at the hip-hop party became great rappers or DJs, and they're grounded and rooted very much in the culture of hip-hop, you know what I mean? So the emergence of these guys - and women too - has made people who never felt comfortable in a hip-hop environment now look at the personal stage and say, that's me up there.
So there's a lot of fans and supporters of underground, independent hip-hop who are newcomers, and they're white. And so it's a different thing because when, you know, the room that - when I walk onstage now, it's not the room that I started out performing for. I'm not mad at this new room though.
I'm putting my real thoughts and feelings and soul into this music. And so if that's registering in you, then we have a very real connection.
(Soundbite of song)
BROTHER ALI: I don't try to preach or teach anything in my music. I just really try to show you how I feel, you know, and the things that I think and the things that I'm passionate about.
BRAND: Well, Ali, thank you very much for coming by and speaking with us today.
BROTHER ALI: Thank you so much for having me over. I really appreciate it.
BRAND: My pleasure.
Brother Ali - his new album is called "The Undisputed Truth".
(Soundbite of song)
BRAND: To hear more of Brother Ali's music, go to our Web site, npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.