“It’s so easy to say well societies had slavery yeah but not American chattel slavery where you lost your name, you lost your religion, you lost your language, you lost your family ties you lost your culture you lost your identity as a man and as a woman and as a group you lost everything worldly all your connection to everything in the world that never happened before.”
Two years ago while America was still perched in a war called the second Vietnam mainstream hip-hop sustained a mill of narcissistic internal battles and fickle beefs.Arguments over rap’s rigor mortis, ageism on both ends of the spectrum, women as vulgar ornaments, the perpetual exaltation of material excess and weary claims of street authenticity dominated most of the content. Rappers used the internet and the last of hip-hop’s print publications to instigate a corporate influenced culture of honor assigned to finding a realness that has evaded the genre since Dr. Dre wore eyeliner during his World Class Wreckin’ Cru days. On the underground scene a snowy white rapper with albino features made a song holding the government and Americans responsible for the situation in Iraq and called it “Uncle Sam Goddamn.” The rapper’s fluorescent appearance was a shocking contrast to a moniker that immediately connotes Blackness. Brother Ali’s lifetime of kindred relationships with African-Americans humbled his potential for bigotry and made hip-hop an organic choice of expression. A nomadic life in small towns in the midwest and his eventual settlement in Minnesota were experiences lived without a traditional family foundation that only stabilized with Black people. When he heard Chuck D, who has a guest spot on Us, in the ‘80s and KRS-One his relational point with them was more politically aligned with Teena Marie than Justin Timberlake. Those feelings produced disgusted diatribes against America’s historical oppression of its people delivered with the inflection of a Baptist minister. Hip-hop was outlaw culture and being a white male rapper critiquing whiteness makes him a gadfly among gadflies a Michael Moore of rap with the abolitionist spirit of John Brown running around and through him. Us is his fifth outing with label home Rhymesayers Entertainment and his passion for an egalitarian America and upholding the standards of the Golden Era have not waned. In this interview he explains Us, his politics and why he became a Muslim.
I heard your new song “Us” for the album with the same name tell me about it?
This is like my fifth project and everything that I’ve done up till now was really autobiographical and really just about my life and stories from my life and the way that I feel about things. I’ve developed a particular style of writing songs that’s really personal and it’s kind of my own and it’s not that other people don’t write personal things or don’t write about their life. A lot of artists in hip-hop and outside hip-hop but the particular way that I do it is kind of mine. And so I wrote these really personal songs all these years and my story is kind of unique in that I don’t really belong in any particular social group whether it’s race or economic or religious or whatever but kind of equally accepted and rejected by all of ‘em. It’s kind of like get in where I fit in and so my story being embraced by people the way that it was really gave me a lot of faith, that if you just really stick to the personal side of things, the human side the emotion and the mood and the feelings that you have when you’re in these situations if you really focus on telling stories that way people hear themselves in your story even if the details are not the same.
And so I pushed that further and further and further with all these things like and say ‘OK can I make these people accept me just me being myself?’ And telling my story and just saying whatever I really feel and it turned out that for the people that listen yeah. So I said OK let me test it a little further how can I push this even further. And people that come to my shows haven’t had the same experiences where they know me in a lot of different situations. It’s a lot of kids who have had access to the mainstream part of American society whether they’re in college whatever it is that wasn’t my experience but so the question started to become for myself like can I tell the stories of the people that I love or the people around me if I do it in that same kind of personal way where I talk about the relationship I have with them. Can I connect the listeners with those people now you know what I mean try to stretch that connection a level further say well, Ok Chad you may never have known anybody that had to sell drugs to live then got murdered but my best friend was in that situation. So many of these stories might not have been close and personal and dear to your heart so you may think that they have nothing to do with you but, if I can tell these stories and talk about the pain and the fear and the frustrations and the celebration and the love and everything and the strength and the courage and all these things. Saying it in way that you see yourself in my friends maybe you don’t feel so separate from them anymore. So that’s what this album tried to do I’m not saying I did a LeBron James with it but I did the best I could do.
On The Undisputed Truth you said that you feel like a Black man, what did you mean by that?
Well that’s a line in a whole verse. What I said was not just talking about singing and dancing, ‘I was taught life and manhood by Black men so a small part of me feels like I am’ them’ and that’s just kind of what it is. I’m albino my skin is white I have albinism which means that I don’t have any color in my skin, hair and eyes. I’m legally blind and just so just kind of being an outcast when I was a kid and I grew-up in the Midwest where you don’t have a lot of diversity you have a majority of white folks and you have a small community of Black folks. If you live in New York or something like that there’s Black folks, Dominicans there’s Puerto Ricans there’s Greeks there’s Italians you have like diversity within white folks and Black folks. In the Midwest it’s Black and white basically. And so being an outsider and feeling just kind of isolated in the mainstream of that situation that I was in I was really embraced from the time I was a little child by Black folks. I’m talking like six-years old both kids and adults. Adults who I think recognized what I was going through and gave me some of the life lessons that I needed to really find pride and strength inside myself to not base or qualify my worth as a human being on what these people thought of me.
So regardless of the fact that they didn’t value me I was going to have to value myself.So that’s what I got from the elders but then you know the peer group was natural and normal. I still got jokes but they were funny where as white kids were just cruel. Evil Black kids were just like ‘You look like Phil Donahue’ ‘You got the Michael Jackson disease’ and you still don’t wanna hear it but if your jokes are equal caliber then you’re just a person. I mean I could be a human being around most Black folks where white folks did not, at least at that young age I never got the feeling that I was a human being around them. I was a freak I was something to look at, laugh at, avoid, be afraid of to be intimidated by. Around Black folks I was like a person and I experienced more and along with that my family wasn’t close so I didn’t have that experience with my family. I moved around a lot I got adopted by these families wherever I went and it was a natural thing and so as a kid I always identified with Black folks. And then I met Black albinos I was like ya’ll are Black and I had Black folks tell me ‘You’re Black you’re basically Black to us you’re Black.’ I know what they meant, ‘We don’t see you as separate from us’ but it wasn’t true and it kind of took me learning more and reading more to really realize how earnest that really was. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve learned love and I learned respect and I learned beauty and honor and I learned all of these and faith and perseverance and patience and trust. And I learned all these things and I’m extremely biased because of that but I think it’s the truth when you have a group that are stripped of everything worldly in an experiment and a confined situation like American slavery. You have a group of people that were stripped of everything worldly being left with nothing but with what’s human. What you physically can not remove that part is going to become strong you know what I mean like Stevie Wonder can’t see but he can hear amazingly well better than anybody. I just believe that as a group obviously as individuals as a group so that song was me basically saying to the people that listen to me that you need to have at least honor, respect and appreciation for where this music comes from. If you like this music you need to know where it comes from inside me who created the music genre. Being a fan of hip-hop and being a participant in hip-hop if you weren’t Black used to mean having this like coming in bowing to it and it’s not meaning that anymore it’s losing that and that’s an extremely sad thing to me. And I don’t want, not saying you don’t appreciate what I know to be creative you relate to me and that frustrates me. And what can I say I know I know I benefit from something I hate that there’s this kind of um there’s this thing that happens in music jazz and blues and every other thing that African-American people invented. And I without having any real choice in the matter become part of that and so you’re gonna at least hear me say I don’t like it like this and so with this new album I go further in that direction.
Have you experienced any white people who view you as a race traitor?
Yeah since I was little but that was way before music. They used to be well there’s a term now where they take the N word and put a W at the beginning which that earns you a punch in the mouth cuz you’re basically saying Black folks are the N word and this is the white version of that. So not even because I feel disrespected because you’re basically saying that like that’s an established fact. But before they combined it, it used to be white N word so I heard that from time to time. But see it’s weird because like there was always a group of white kids who emulated Black culture but weren’t part of it in any way. They just emulated it they hung out all together it would be a group of white kids and there may be one Black person in their group but for the most part it was a subculture of white kids trying to emulate Black culture in society and just kind of steal it and kind of make it their new identity that they kind of create this Frankenstein monster kind of thing and that was never me. And I kind of resented that because this is something you’re just mad at your parents you don’t love this you don’t recognize this as being the most raw human real spiritual closest to god experience or not even experience but just the raw truth of it it’s the rawest human truth that ever existed. Maybe but yeah I’ve always had this kind of I’ve straight-up been called the N word by some white people that straight up called me a nigga before with er at the end. So yeah I’ve definitely kind of had all of it but the reality is that there’s something very wrong with everybody.
It’s so easy to say well societies had slavery yeah but not American chattel slavery where you lost your name, you lost your religion, you lost your language you lost your family ties, you lost your culture, you lost your identity as a man and as a woman and as a group you lost everything worldly all your connection to everything in the world that never happened before. There is no way for that to only hurt the victim and the people who perpetrate that crime. If you kill somebody I have had friends kill people and that changes you. Something is in you different when you do that and you can never get it back all you can do is examine it and try to work it out. Once you commit a crime like that there’s no going back from that and it does affect you and so I have a song called “The Travelers” which is about this crime of slavery which in my mind is the greatest crime against humanity that has ever existed that’s ever taken place and the whole thing is stop and imagine really examining what day to day was like for people who were in bondage and it’s really trying to explain it in a human way to make a person that wasn’t their reality try to get a sense of what that must have been like. Imagine that’s you don’t imagine that’s a Black person that isn’t the same as you like what if you were in that situation and look at that way but then the other verse talks about there’s a damaging effect that happens in a group of people and you could say not everybody was active in slavery. And that’s true but everybody was active in allowing it and benefitting from it encouraging it everybody was a part of it whether directly or indirectly. And everybody is still a part of the remnants of it directly or indirectly and that’s doing something to people. What switch would have to be flipped in your brain for you to rob someone of their humanity and try your best to think that that’s okay like what do you think about your own humanity? What happens to your own connection to the human family? What happens to your soul when you allow yourself to be part of that as a group? And whether they admit it or not there’s a big empty space there’s a big empty void inside the heart of white folks that they all know is there. They all know it and it comes out in jokes ‘I dance alright for a white guy’ well dancing is an expression of your soul so if you don’t feel comfortable dancing what’s wrong with your insides? There’s something broken there’s something missing and you know the idea is to say well like we’ll examine these things to be charitable we need to talk about this because it’s the right thing to do for our Black brothers and sisters do the necessary thing to heal all of us. White folks are the most sensitive group of people on earth more sensitive than Jews more sensitive than Muslims more sensitive than anybody. They point the finger like ‘Aww Black people playing the race card’ but don’t you ever ever judge them or make them feel the burden of something their group did the second you start talking about racism, slavery or white supremacy institutional racism, prejudice, discrimination they are appalled and offended that somehow something linked them to something their group did at the same time they can force everybody to live with that as a reality.
“Uncle Sam Godamn” was a significant song for you because it got you into some trouble with the corporation can you tell me about that?
I’m not part of the real music industry so I basically had just like one opportunity where I was supposed to go on tour with Gym Class Heroes a college tour. They were gonna pay me way more than I’m used to making and I was gonna get to play shows for kids who don’t know about underground rap on college campuses. And I was kind of excited about the opportunity to do that then when that video came out Verizon Wireless was the sponsor of the tour and they just had a problem with Akon he was dancing with some underage girl they pulled him off Gwen Stefani’s tour. I think they just reexamined all of the music they were sponsoring and got rid of anything that was risky so they got rid of me and I missed that one but within two days of me getting dropped from that tour I got the offer to go out with Ghostface Killah and Rakim and it was sponsored by Dodge. I happen to believe as a Muslim that anytime you lose something that’s not your fault you’ll get something better in its place nothing against Gym Class Heroes but being on tour with Rakim and Ghostface Killah was way better.
What was it about Islam that attracted you?
Initially it was Malcolm X saying that Islam was the only thing that could cure the American white man of racism. And so I was like alright all of my heroes was like I’m from the ‘80s and so I wasn’t around during Malcolm the Black Panthers I wasn’t around during any of that my heroes were Chuck D, KRS-One and Rakim and all of them they were all saying their heroes were Malcolm and so I studied him and over the years and the more I go through my life the deeper my admiration of him gets.But he was initially the one that made me say okay if Malcolm X believes that something can cure white folks I have to know everything I can about that so the more I studied it the more I realized that I didn’t know first of all I thought I knew a lot about it there were things I thought about it that turned out not to be real. I thought it was really strict I thought it was really driven I thought it was a really angry religion. And what it made me realize that everybody has the same soul and that somewhere along the line we as human beings just reconnecting with your real core your real essence real truth as a world can bring it back from that. I love it I don’t agree with everything Muslims do or say but I really and I don’t agree with every book that’s ever been written about Islam. But in terms of the Qur’an the first thing I did when I became a Muslim was learn to read Arabic so that I can read it for myself. I don’t agree with most translations of the Qur’an but from what I’ve read over these fifteen or whatever years what I’ve studied I love it to death.
What do you think of President Barack Obama and the state of the country right now in general?
Of him personally I really believe him. I really trust him I really think that he’s genuine you heard the phrase real recognize real, he means it he is not faking it he’s not trying to deceive anybody. He’s in there because he believes that he can make this a better life and he already has I think that a lot of people don’t appreciate the symbolic meaning of a lot of the things he’s done maybe because they didn’t need it. Not everybody has been in a situation where they only saw themselves on TV as athletes or rappers or criminals. They didn’t need their kids to have a president to look up to but my son looks like Barack Obama so for me that’s a huge thing. It’s not just the fact that he’s mixed or Black or whatever but his message not just his looks but the unifying message he has and the change in tone of the leadership of this country and the new transparency the honesty and the new communicating with the American people and communicating with the world a lot of things that he does I don’t think we really are focusing hard enough or giving them their just due. Like the way that this man has reached out to the Muslim and Arab world and really kind of redefined it. These aren’t terrorists these are human beings these are people of faith these are people that believe in god and just creating an open dialogue that’s based on respect. I think a lot of people are so arrogant they have hubris that they don’t even realize that the arrogance is detrimental to us and so for him to do that is amazing. And for him to you know they officially ended the war on terror it’s all of these things. There are things that he can do right away that are just based on him he can control right now today and those tend to be a lot more symbolic and there are things that exist in his heart and mind that depend on other people. He is a new model of politic in America and so the things that he can do symbolically he’s doing already talking about race when they threw race stuff at him they threw Jeremiah Wright at him he turned it into the first time that America had a real race conversation since Dr. King a real legitimate conversation about what’s really going on. He did that you know at the beginning of Ramadan reaching out to the Muslim world going to Cairo and making a speech all of these things symbolically that he can do right now having a week at the White House where they recognize that jazz is the greatest artistic contribution America’s made to the world. These are huge things that get overlooked things like health care he can’t do right now it depends on too many people who are still in the old model of politics. All and all I support him wholeheartedly and people blind man conspiracy whatever I’m not blind he’s not a revolutionary he’s not gonna do everything I wanna do I’m a revolutionary he’s not he’s a democrat but as a man he’s done more for this country than I would say anybody in my generation.
Is there anything you want to add?
I’m doing a tour throughout the US in two months we’re doing fifty shows it’s called the Fresh Air tour it’s myself and Evidence from Dilated Peoples he just recently signed with Rhymesayers so he’s going on tour with us and also a cat who used to be my hypeman and he’s grown to be his own artist his name is Tokay Wright all that stuff and the dates are on Brotherali.com.