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Privilege and its Discontents: A Review of Brother Ali’s “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color”
- Published on Monday, 01 October 2012 03:53
- Category: More About Music
Sometimes it takes your classic outsider to show you the beauties and flaws that lie within.
Such has been the case for Brother Ali, one of America's most critically acclaimed and financially successful Muslim rap artists, as well as one of its most controversial. Hip hop intellectual. Mainstream periphery. Arrested during an Occupy demonstration Red-flagged by the Department of Homeland Security. For Ali, hip hop isn't about the notoriety or the bling; where he raps from boils down to activism - that intersection between music, lyrics and purpose - where laying beats and spewing flows isn't just about what he has to say about society, but what he knows how to do in order to better it - called out disenfranchisement, advocate for the marginalized, give a voice to real issues we would rather feel better to pretend don't exist.
It's an exceptional feat to challenge the dominance of United States exceptionalism. Then again, Ali doesn't come at it from your average American narrative. Born Jason Newman to white Christian parents in Minneapolis, he found himself an outsider looking in at an early age, an outcast for two reasons: 1: He is Albino. And 2: He is legally blind. Without many in his own community to turn to for support, he eventually found acceptance amongst black communities, hope through his conversion to Islam, then validation through hip hop, which quickly became his way of expressing himself to others as something more than the expat who couldn't fit in.
And yet, with all his success, Ali is definitely not one to forget the underdog status that he came from - in many ways, he thrives on it as his instigator in rapping about issues he sees as plaguing American culture and society. His latest album, Morning in America and Dreaming in Color, released on September 18 under the critically acclaimed indie label Rhymesayers, is just such an outcome. Inspired by the 2011 uprisings sweeping across the Arab World, Ali's subsequent pilgrimage to Mecca that year and his involvement in the Occupy Movement, the album is both a criticism of United States politics and foreign policy and a celebration of the faith he has in American citizenry, "a scathing, yet honest, critique of America and its many flaws while simultaneously presenting a hopeful outlook of its possibilities," Ali explains on his website. The first half of the album - "Mourning in America" - not only assesses the state of contemporary American culture, but also "highlights and critiques the dire situation in which we live." The second half - "Dreaming in Color" - is more hopeful, looking to examples set by the Arab uprisings and Occupy Movement for proactive change as it "outlines the tremendous opportunity we have to re-imagine and reform our society."
The thesis begins with its first track, "Letter to My Countrymen," in which Ali looks at both the despair he feels in wanting to improve a country he feels defeated in and the hope he has in the grassroots potential of recent social movements:
"I used to think I hated this place
Couldn't wait to tell the president straight to his face
But lately I've changed
Nowadays I embrace it all
Beautiful ideals and amazing flaws
Gotta care enough to give a testament about the deeply depressing mess we're in…
It's home, so we better make the best of it
I wanna make this country what it says it is"
The way he lays it out in his first track, you could call this new album a junction - where the politics of his 2007 release The Undisputed Truth blends seamlessly with the humanism of his 2009 follow-up Us - merging the personal with the political to take Ali's maturation as both artist and activist to a new level his fans have been waiting to experience. "This old, crooked world won't be saved by the passive type," he states. With themes ranging from acceptance to spirituality, love, terrorism and homophobia, one message is abundantly clear this time around from Ali: the complexity of America is not one easily shuffled away in tidy little boxes - rather, what strengthens and weakens us in interconnected, interdependent, and the only way to attack our problems is holistically, in both context and relationship to imagined and practical solutions.
To drive the point home, Ali ends the track with a testament, featuring none other but provocative scholar and public intellectual Dr. Cornel West: "You don't wanna be just well-adjusted and well-adapted to indifference," he reminds Ali, "You wanna be a person with integrity who leaves a mark on the world."
From there, Ali methodically, track by track, lays cultural weaknesses and how some have personally afflicted him. The diatribe begins with "Only Life I Know," where he addresses issues such as institutional poverty, health care politics, government spending priorities - arguing that young people are deliberately kept in poverty through the various ways that it demoralizes and destroys their potential: "Who decides you don't have enough to teach children? / The state is spending millions on stadiums and prisons."
Watch the video here
In "Stop the Press," Ali opens himself up raw, looking at his albinism, his father's and best friend's deaths, the challenges he's overcome in his journey through hip hop, the struggle between vulnerability and willpower and his never-ending fight for balance in life. The inspiration for the song was 2010, a paradoxical year when Ali's career took off and he thrived financially better than ever before, but personally, his world turned upside down as he watched those close to him leave: his father committed suicide; his best friend, rapper Michael "Eyedea" Larsen died; and his intense tour schedule kept him away from his family and ultimately almost broke up his marriage. His salvation, he sings, came from his 2011 pilgrimage to Mecca during the wake of the Arab Spring:
Any doubts I had about the mic
And whether or not what I write is right
Fell out of sight like the tears on the floor
Now I'm going harder than I ever did before
As if like foreshadow, Ali does, with his ferocious and controversial track "Mourning in America," a damnation and critique of American violence both domestically and abroad, told through interwoven narratives about war, police brutality, shooting sprees and bullying towards youth, vets and the poor:
Terrorism is the war of the poor
Hold up a mirror so the script get flipped
Cause when it's in reverse it ain't wrong no more
Warfare's the terrorism of the rich
Who the true guerilla
When the bomb on your body killing innocent civilians
But a life is a life and a killer is a killer…
When innocent people perish
It's a very thin line between a soldier and a terrorist
"This song is an observation and a critique of our culture of death and murder. From actual war zones around the world to our own inner cities where this summer's death rates rival war zones," Ali explains. "I also address our national hypocrisy regarding violence. We have a zero tolerance policy of violence committed against us, but we're a lot more lenient and patient when it comes to the violence we commit." Perhaps more buzzed about than the track itself is its accompanying music video, which features strong imagery evoking violence and shootings as well as words from the chorus as it's sung: "Murder murder / kill kill kill / Death and destruction and a cap get peeled / Arm or heal, destroy or build / Shots still ring out and blood still spills." Forceful and haunting in both sound and imagery, the video racked up over 100,000 views within several days of its launch a month ago; that number has since more than doubled.
Watch the video here
What follows through the end of the album are a series of songs that are deceptively just as forthright and straightforward - "Gather Round," featuring spoken word artist Amir Sulaiman, is a call for civic action and a plea for listeners to take an interest in fixing societal problems: "Couple years ago I made a statement: 'Can't figure a single goddamn way to change it / As of late I made adjustments to my language / Numbers are the only thing that people gain strength in." Like the album's second track, "Work Everyday" is a lament on poverty, unemployment and job insecurity and hyper-consumerism. "Greed can never leave well enough alone / They keep on squeezing till we bleed from every bone," Ali raps. "You're staring at the skies with the dollar signs for eyes / The blinded right won a bird that can't fly / Just a peacock with a poked-out guy / Who too fat to fly so his ass just strut."
Through rapping about a series of odd jobs he uses as analogies for illegal hustles, Ali goes back to his days of drug dealing for "Need a Knot," to address the both the inner city drug problem and mainstream hip hop's fetish for drug use and illegal pimping in its music. "Won More Hit" continues Ali's disillusionment as he compares the mainstream music industry's exploitation of black artists with the slave trade and calls out white America's love for hip hop in comparison to the cultural history that nurtured rap as a voice of resistance against white-driven racism and marginalization. In "Say Amen," Ali separates himself from other MC stereotypes in mainstream rap, stating, "I ain't bitter or backpacker or conscious / I just want yawl to fuck out my ear with that nonsense."
Beginning with "Fajr" (dawn in Arabic), things start to get a bit more uplifting. Alongside his critique of spiritual discontent in America and the failed purpose many religious institutions today have in helping to "get the wolves off the sheep" is another narrative, that is, a revisit to Ali's 2011 pilgrimage to Mecca and the reawakening he undergoes after feeling asleep for so long to hope, optimism and proactive change. In "Namesake" Ali tells a little-known story about fellow Muslim convert Muhammed Ali, whom Brother Ali looked to when he adopted Islam as a faith nearly 20 years ago. "All You Need" is Ali's tender and brave account to his son about his neglectful ex-wife as he grapples to tell a young boy why his mother isn't around without placing blame directly on her: "I know you wonder why your mother does the things that she do / Well, it's not 'cause she doesn't love you / It's because she grew up in something they call 'foster care'" After singing about a past love in "My Beloved," Ali closes the album with "Singing This Song," his closing note on redemption, accentuated with a sample from a public address he age during a demonstration demanding justice for the murder of Trayvon Martin.
The musical influence of Ali's first collaboration with Seattle-based producer Jake One is nothing short of evident in just about every track and the risks he takes in expanding Ali's already established upbeat-funky style into complementary genres not explored in his previous three albums. Horn stabs and bouncing snares in "Need a Knot," keyboards simulating a video game dungeon in "Won More Hit," electric guitar riffs over bongos in "Say Amen," teaming those riffs and bongos with a synth and mini choir in "Fajr," with soul samples layered throughout - it's clear that this album not only marks the beginning of a new chapter for Ali as a rapper, but also the embarkment of a whole sound as a music artist.
"This is not just a new album, but a new chapter," Ali stresses. "There's a kind of democratic reawakening at this point in time. I was really looking to take these topics and really hit them hard. To try to open ears and hearts and invite people to take some action and feel empowered. To be engaged and take some agency and responsibility for what's going on in the world."
Though presented in two parts, the album itself is actually a full circle, taking you through a journey that leaves you perhaps more haunted by its beginning and the unanswered questions left unresolved:
What does it mean to be an American?
I thinking the struggle to be free is our inheritance
And if we say how it really is, we know our lily skin still give us privilege
Advantages given to the few that are built into the roots of our biggest institutions…
Do I fight in the movement, or do I think I'm entitled to it?
And after laying it bare in the rawness of his own words, it's not his convictions but that open space of personal ambiguity he creates in the face of such hard-lining social ills in terms of looking into ourselves to figure out what we each need to do to reach the clarity and comfort that we have become so accustomed to not embracing for fear of how progress would shake up, dare I say, even improve the status quo. This is Brother Ali's greatest strength in this album - 14 tracks later, the question he starts with is so personal and complex, perhaps he pays his greatest respect by leaving it unanswered for the rest of us to respond.By Safa Samiezade’-Yazd, Aslan Media Arts, Culture and Music Editor