KillerHipHop Exclusive: Brother Ali Interview (Part 2)
Last time we talked to Brother Ali he was fresh off the release of The Bite Marked Heart EP. Now he’s getting ready to drop his much-awaited 5th studio album titled Mourning In America and Dreaming In Color.
So it was only right for us to link up again and talk about his forthcoming album, the controversy behind his album cover, Jake One producing the entire album, religion vs. hip-hop, the upcoming presidential election, and the status of his album with Freeway. Hit the jump for our exclusive interview with Brother Ali.
QuezKHH: Last March we talked about The Bite Marked Heart EP, now we’re here to talk about your new album, Mourning In America and Dreaming In Color. The album is now expected to drop on September 18th, pushed back from August 21st. What was the reasoning behind the delay?
Brother Ali: It was just logistical stuff. We’re a small independent label and manufacturing wasn’t going on the schedule like they wanted. You just want to make sure that all the CD’s are in stores where they need to be on the release date. People sometimes think that we’re bigger than we are just because Atmosphere is so successful. People are really supportive of us, but it’s a really small staff of guys that work around the clock to make sure that stuff is right. I think that they just wanted to be 100% sure that the manufacturing & shipping would be done on time. So we went with September the 18th which is wack to me because I’m going to be on my tour and I was hoping that it would come out early enough before the tour so that people would know the music before the tour. But it’s cool. I’m happy.
KHH: Dr. Cornel West is featured on the first track. How did you get that feature?
Ali: I met him through Rhymefest and Immortal Technique. I just reached out to him. It was really cool ’cause I got closer and closer through different assistants and different people getting me closer and closer until finally I reached somebody that was working for him and he ended up calling me. That’s how I reached out. He ended up calling my phone. I went to his office. He was still at Princeton. He left Princeton since then but he was at Princeton at that time and I went to his office and spent the whole day with him. I recorded him and played him the music and all that kind of stuff. It was incredible for me.
KHH: What does the feature consist of?
Ali: It’s his thoughts, like what he wanted to add to [the song]. I played it for him and then just set the mic up and let him go. He has no problem with words. He’s a masterful artist of speech and words and ideas, so I just let him go. He actually gave me way more than I could ever use. He gave me probably, 40 minutes worth of stuff. I just took the first statements. I mean, it fits with the song perfect. When you hear it, it’s like just so perfect.
KHH: What sets this album apart from your past albums?
Ali: I think the first thing is that it has different songs from back then [laughs]. No I’m joking. Jake One produced this one. Ant produced all the other ones. So it automatically gave it a different feel. I think it’s a little heavier on the drums. Ant is really big on music. Jake is really big on drums and I think that that made me approach writing differently. Also, I just went through these big changes in my life and I’ve become more socially and politically active. So the album really reflects that. I think this was my first real social and political album.
KHH: Was it difficult to work with Jake One? Not in the sense of, Jake sucks and you can’t work with this dude, but in the sense that this is your first time without Ant’s production.
Ali: Yeah it was. It definitely took some getting used to. I was on my own a lot more. Jake is a lot less hands on than Ant is. [Jake] doesn’t want to sit there when you’re writing a song. He doesn’t need to sit there when you’re recording your vocals. He just wants to hear it when it’s done and then he’ll just make comments on things that you should change or things to think about. He would listen to each song and then give me his thoughts. We did it like that. Whereas when I write with Ant, I sit there in his house and physically write the song right there with him. He’s a bigger part of [the song] in that sense.
But it was really cool working with Jake because I got to spend a lot of time in Seattle. I would go to Seattle for a weekend or a week at a time. I did that so many times that it ended up making more sense to just get an apartment out there. Altogether, I probably spent 3 months in Seattle.
KHH: What’s the meaning of the album cover?
Ali: Well it’s a little depiction of the title. So Mourning In America means that we’re mourning the social, economic, and political suffering and pain and catastrophe that we have on our hands right now. Dreaming In Color symbolizes that we have hope. People are being forced into poverty and that’s putting them in common spaces. People who never used to communicate with each other see themselves as being connected. Now they’re connected by what they’re going through. By the fact that everybody is suffering together and that’s creating new opportunities and that’s creating new movements like the Occupy Movement. So the color is literally a picture, a depiction of that. The flag is on the ground, and I’m mourning for it [because] a lot of the things that I thought [she was] supposed to be about are not reality. So I’m mourning for that but I’m also praying for the future. Not only praying, and not only sitting around hoping but actually working and making sacrifices and struggling and putting out pressure and having voices for justice and real true change.
KHH: To some people, having the U.S. flag touch the ground was a little offensive. So what was the purpose behind having the flag lay on the ground?
Ali: Well the idea was that the flag was on the ground, not that I put the flag on the ground. The idea was that the flag was on the ground and I’m praying for it. I think there’s a lot there. There’s a whole lot out there in terms of meaning. I did my research on this and I saw what are the codes for how to handle the flag. That same code that says that a flag shouldn’t touch the ground also says that any flag that is outside, as soon as sundown comes, you’re supposed to bring it in and fold it properly and then rehang it the next morning at dawn. [That] same code that we technically broke, that same code exists for all these people that hang flags outside their houses or office and never take them down. If it rains, you’re supposed to take it down. If the flags are at half-mast for a tragedy, all the flags are supposed to be at half-mast. A flag isn’t supposed to hang over anything and touch whatever is beneath it. So if there’s a shelf or a house or something like that and the flag is touching it, that’s the same as the flag being on the ground. A flag shouldn’t be on anybody’s apparel, like on your clothes there shouldn’t be a flag. It’s illegal to use the flag for any kind of advertising and those things are broken every day all day. So the question is: what’s so sensitive about this? I’m clearly kneeling and praying on it in a really loving, respectful, caring, nurturing, and sensitive way. I’m not dissing the flag. I’m not walking on it, got my Jordans on just walking on it like fuck this flag. The meaning of it is that I’m praying for it.
What’s so challenging to people in truth, is that I’m a Muslim, and I’m an American. So I have my flag there and I’m making my prayer. People are settled on this idea that America and Islam are somehow enemies which is untrue. So we have these identities that we’re told to buy into. Then they’re kind of forced upon us. These identities are what they use to separate us and that’s why we’re in the crisis that we’re in. The people, whose power should be in our togetherness, has been sold on the idea that we’re separate based on one part of who we are. Well, you’re a Muslim. Well, yeah I’m a Muslim and I’m also an American. I’m also a dad. I’m also in hip-hop. I’m also a husband. I’m also all these other things. But if we’re going to really make a serious change and we’re really going to move forward, we have to break down these ideas that our identities define us, that our identities make us enemies. It was important to make that statement as well, along with just showing the literal depiction of the title.
KHH: Religion seems to fear hip-hop. Do you think that’s true? If so, what do you think of that?
Ali: No. These divisions are unnatural. They’re not created by people. They’re created by elite powerful people who want to divide masses of people. So they create categories so they can choose one. The reality is that hip-hop is a culture, and inside that culture are cultures made up of people. People are spiritual. There’s nobody that lives without a spiritual reality, even an atheist. Just taking a stand about what they think exists or doesn’t exist in a spiritual sense. Everybody lives with a spiritual reality. The 5% Nation of Islam was really really instrumental in the building of the hip-hop culture. There’s been a whole lot of Christianity in there. There’s been a whole lot of Rastafarian in there. There’s been a whole lot of Islam in there. There’s been a whole lot of ancestral stuff. I mean, it’s not true. Art in general is dealing with the human condition. How do we live? What’s it like? What does it feel like? What does it sound like? What does it look like? What does it mean to be a human being? That encompasses all parts of who we are. For people to say, well music and politics shouldn’t mix, those are not poor power-less oppressed people that came up with that idea. That’s elite powerful people that want to keep us separated. They know that our power is in our entertainment so they don’t want our entertainment to include politics. They don’t want our entertainment to include spirituality. But I reject all of those ideas.
KHH: What are your thoughts on the upcoming presidential election?
Ali: I think it’s important to be informed. I think it’s important to vote. I’m not publicly supporting anybody in this running. I don’t think anybody really looks to anybody else to tell them who to vote for. If I’m offering any voice at all, it’s in support of activism, support of people gathering around causes that mean something to them. That’s what I would encourage. Voting is good though. I don’t think that’s bad and we should definitely keep that alive. There’s a lot of voter suppression going on. People demanding they should have an ID because they know that that’s going to mean that a lot of poor people or people of color who normally are progressive won’t be able to vote. So they would be excluded from voting. All of this stuff is important to keep track of. But I’m not riding for any particular candidate this time. I don’t feel like that’s valuable for me to do that.
KHH: How’s your project with Freeway coming along? Is that still happening?
Ali: Yeah it will. We just need to sit down together. He’s touring or performing and so am I. We need to just lock up a month on our calendars and just go somewhere and make it [happen].
KHH: Do you guys have a title?
Ali: No. I think we have 3 songs. Yeah he stayed at my house for a week last year and we made 3 songs along with other stuff. We did shows together but we made those 3 and it was really fresh. Like I said, we don’t have a lot of time on our schedules. But in order for us to do that it’s like, okay let’s finish this album, and then Freeway gets all kind of offers to do shows. I get all kind of offers to do shows. It’s so hard to say, oh I’m going to turn down that money and I’m just going to record this. It’s how we feed our families man. We’re working rappers. I don’t think either one of us has a huge stash somewhere. Our families depend on us doing these shows. So it’s hard for us to find time to do [the album].