The Many Faces of Brother Ali
“Best believe the Qur’an influences all of my songs”
Brother Ali, “Good Lord”
Any write up about Brother Ali inevitably mentions several things; that he’s a white, albino Muslim rapper who’s legally blind and hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota, far from the traditional hip-hop hotspots of New York and Los Angeles. Brother Ali was born Jason Newman in Madison, Wisconsin. Moving from city to city with his family as a child, he finally ended up in Minneapolis, Minnesota in his early teens, the city that he would call home for the rest of his life.
The Rapper/the Muslim
Brother Ali has acknowledged on several occasions that while he recognises that music, and hip-hop in particular, might be considered taboo among certain Muslims, it was hip-hop itself that first led him to Islam. In the late 80s – early 90s, many rap artists were recording music that revolved around themes of Afro-centricity and Black consciousness.
Ali credits noted rap group Public Enemy with first introducing him to Malcolm X, which led to him reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and learning more about his embrace of the Nation of Islam, and his conversion to Sunni orthodoxy later in his life. This led to Ali reading the Qur’an, learning more about Islam and finally converting himself at the tender age of 16.
While some might consider it an unorthodox means of conversion, this link between hip-hop and Islam exists and even noted American scholar Imam Suhaib Webb has acknowledged the role that hip-hop played in his embrace of Islam. Hip-hop appears to have a disproportionate number of prominent Muslims as compared to other forms of popular entertainment. Among the more famous Muslim MCs are Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), Lupe Fiasco, Freeway, Scarface, and Q-Tip.
Upon conversion, Ali came under the mentorship of prominent American Muslim activist Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, the son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, who steered the organisation towards orthodoxy upon his father’s death in 1975. Imam WD Mohammed even brought Brother Ali, then aged 19, to South East Asia as part of a group trip to Malaysia to learn about Islam and Multiculturalism. Ali remained close to Imam WD Mohammed throughout his life, and attended his funeral when he passed away in September of 2008.
Never one to shy away from his faith, Brother Ali has often performed at concerts organised by Muslim organisations. Ali performed together with fellow Muslim rapper Freeway at the Day of Dignity 2011, a community-outreach event organised by Islamic Relief USA together with his hometown mosque, Masjid An-Nur in North Minneapolis.
Brother Ali also participated at the 2010 Taking It to the Streets Festival organised by Chicago’s Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN) and the Finding Soul Through Sound concert in 2012, organised by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), together with Muslim rappers Baraka Blue and Omar Offendum.
The Honest Rapper
What distinguishes Brother Ali, I believe, from many other rappers is the amount of honesty that goes into his work. From addressing his albinism, whether seriously as on ‘Picket Fences’ or humourously as on ‘Forest Whitaker’, to talking about his divorce from his first wife on ‘Walking Away’ and his touching ode to his firstborn son ‘Faheem’.
He has also addressed his faith on numerous songs, including ‘Shadows on the Sun’, ‘Soul Whispers’ and ‘Good Lord’. On ‘Fresh Air’ he expresses his joy at being able to make a living doing what he loves, and his love for his wife and children. Brother Ali is not above typical rap braggadocio, but he is willing to show his vulnerable side that makes him relatable as a human being.
Brother Ali has also courted controversy for the causes he has embraced, including recently getting arrested for participating in protests in support of Occupy Homes, a movement inspired by Occupy Wall Street and centred on preventing the foreclosure of people’s homes. In the aftermath of the United States campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan,
Brother Ali released his single ‘Uncle Sam Goddamn’, which criticised the foreign policy of the United States government. This led to the Department of Homeland Security freezing the bank account of his label Rhymesayers and forcing him to register in order to track his movements when touring overseas. The same song also led to telecommunications company Verizon dropping their sponsorship of his 2007 tour.
Controversy also surrounded the cover of his latest album “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color”, which featured a depiction of Ali praying on an American flag, using the flag as a sajadah or prayer rug. Although many were supportive of this artistic decision, there were derogatory comments left on his Facebook page, ranging from comments saying he was insulting the flag by placing it on the floor to Islamophobic insults degrading the Muslim prayers.
Upon completion of his Haj in 2010, Brother Ali went on Twitter and wrote the following, deeply moving tweets about his pilgrimage, reproduced with permission:
I lived in two pieces of simple white cloth, slept in tents and on the ground, visited the most ancient symbols of spiritual oneness.
I prayed and meditated on the plane where humanity will be gathered for the Day of Atonement.
I slept in the dirt on the plane where the first man and woman descended from heaven and created humanity.
I stoned the Jamrat, the ancient symbols of the devil to commemorate my rejection of my ego, greed, lust, anger, etc.
I visited the home, mosque and grave of our beloved Prophet Muhammad in the illuminated city of Medina, established by the first Muslims.
The Hajj is extremely difficult and grueling. There were funerals at all five of our daily prayers for 3 weeks without exception. There were somewhere between 3 and 5 million pilgrims from every country performing the same rites at the same time. You literally get caught up and carried by the crowd of humanity. Terrifying, humbling and beautiful experience.
Met some of the most beautiful people of my life and some really troubled ones. Imperfect people united by a perfect system.
That’s the most reflective and naked I’ve ever been. Tears of joy, repentance and immense gratitude. To be in place with millions of people with all the commotion and hear it get dead silent for prayer and all you hear is wind and birds.
I got lost in the tent city of Mina with no phone, no cars, no guides and no one speaks English. Didn’t know if I’d ever find my group. I walked for 8 straight hours with no idea where I was going. I have blisters covering the bottoms of both feet. Still performed my rites. While living in our tents, it rained for two days in a row. Scary thing in the desert where it never rains.
I never believed that you could go to place and feel the presence of God until this. It’s tangible in the air. You can taste it. The feeling of true brotherhood is electric in the holy precincts. Even the police are bound by it.
People come from every corner of the world. Many on foot from Africa and Eastern Europe. You see people on canes and crutches. People spend months walking thousands of miles and sleep in the streets. Other pilgrims feed and look after them. Saw a family with kids and the parents were sharing a pair of shoes. Went into a store to buy some things and a stranger picked up my bill.
I’ve had some very low, dark moments in my life but it hit me on this trip that I literally have received everything I’ve ever prayed for. When Undisputed Truth came out someone asked me if there was anything else I could hope for. I said I wanted a daughter and to make Hajj.
I want all of you to know that your support is what made it possible for me to have these experiences. I love you deeply for that.
I was challenged in every imaginable way. This has been the greatest exercise in patience I could imagine. I’m so very grateful. Part of the pilgrimage is shaving your head to symbolize removing your crown, old prejudices etc. I actually let my hair grow a little so I could cut it.
After losing my father, my friend Eyedea and making this pilgrimage all in 3 months, if you don’t believe in God, let love be your god.
Please don’t assume you know Islam because of what you’ve heard. I’ve practiced Islam for 17 years and didn’t truly understand until now. Human beings have built an artificial environment around ourselves that disconnects us from nature, from our humanity and from God.
Brother Ali, despite the usage of some adult language in his raps, comes across as a down-to-earth, honest, intelligent human being and a decent Muslim. He’s a great rapper and a family man, plus he’s friends with Ustadh Usama Canon and the aforementioned Imam Suhaib Webb. Who could argue with that?
Ahmad Zhaki Abdullah
Ahmad Zhaki holds a degree in English Literature from the University of London. He is a full-time executive at a local research institute and a part-time writer.