Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Earlier today I was complaining to Culture Lust blogger Angela Carone about how annoying music reviews are when they focus mainly on the sensational aspects of artists instead of the substance of their songs. So let me begin by removing my foot from my mouth and say the reason you need to hear Brother Ali's music is because he is an albino Muslim rapper from the Midwest.
But to even call Brother Ali a rapper wouldn’t be entirely accurate. He's a vocalist that confesses, protests, and tells stories to music. And as you might expect from someone named Brother Ali, his story is one worth listening to.
When I first saw Brother Ali walk out on stage with Murs and PSC of the Living Legends back in 2003 in Santa Cruz, California, I was wondering how this kid from the crowd managed to get on stage and grab a microphone. When I noticed he was an albino, I found myself listening even closer to his lyrics. It's that same shameful neuron that fires when I watch reality-freak shows like "Surreal Life" or "Wife Swap" (season one especially). But over the years, it's become a totally different, pleasurable set of neurons that fire each time I listen to Ali’s music. Six years later, as I listen to his new album, my head's still bobbing.
Beyond the tasty blues licks and sweat-drenched gospel music Ali uses, it’s his overall message that gets me hooked. Brother Ali has a knack for boiling down society's complicated prejudices to simple physical attributes, often leaving us embarrassed for even noticing superficial differences. He does this by turning self-deprecating statements into empowering rhymes, as in the song "Forest Whitaker," off of his second album: “…I’m albino man, I know I’m pink and pale, and I’m hairy as hell everywhere but fingernails...you might think I’m depressed as can be, but when I look in the mirror, I see sexy-ass me."
And even despite our differences he never hesitates to include us in his choir: “To everyone out there, who's a little different, I say damn a magazine, these are God's fingerprints, you can call me ugly but can't take nothing from me, I am what I am, Doctor you ain't gotta love me."
It reminds me of a quote from the boxing legend of the same last name: "I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want."
Despite his anthems of self-empowerment and unity, not the stuff of mainstream rap, Brother Ali has managed to appeal to the mainstream, even landing gigs on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and "The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn." But Ali is not afraid to abandon that appeal for the substance of his songs: tour sponsor Verizon pulled its support because Ali’s song ‘Uncle Sam Goddamm’ was too political.
Mainstream or not, Brother Ali's message is consistent and just as relevant today, even with a black man in the White House. Just look at the lyrics to the title track from his new album “Us":
“To me all ya'll look exactly the same;
Fear, faith, compassion, and pain,
And try as we may to mask it remains
such as your religion or your past and your race
The same color blood just pass through our veins…”
Brother Ali plays with Evidence, Toki Wright, and BK One at Canes Bar and Grill in Mission Beach this Wednesday, Oct. 21st at 8 p.m.