Brother Ali

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Brother Ali

Rap musician, songwriter

White, Muslim, albino indie rapper. Not words one is used to hearing when thinking about hip-hop. From the north of Wisconsin, as part of the respected Rhymesayers Entertainment crew, Brother Ali is a one-of-a-kind MC, for more than a few reasons. Signed to Rhymesayers after the label heard his demo tape, Ali made serious waves in underground and independent rap with his 2003 debut and its much anticipated and long-awaited followup, The Undisputed Truth, in 2007. Indie rap may be inspired by the same beats and styles of major label hip-hop/rap, but for a label like Rhymesayers, and for Ali, their music is almost its own genre. "What makes his flow decisively special is the commanding, effortless way he pulls the listeners into his perspective and makes them feel exactly what he's feeling as he muses on the unglamorous realities of life and the beautiful moments splattered in between," wrote Jen Boyles in URB.

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Brother Ali spent much of his childhood in Michigan, where he developed an interest in rap music and break dancing. When he was 15, his family moved to Minneapolis, where Ali started hearing mix tapes of underground MCs like Rakim, Melle Mel, and KRS-One. Ali grew up as an albino; meaning he has colorless hair, skin and eyes, along with bad vision and a sensitivity to the sun. Ali never had a close relationship with his parents, who were both white. He felt more accepted by the hip-hop community, which in his neighborhood was African American. People of color seemed to embrace him more than his parents did, and because of this, he spent many years filled with anger and resentment toward his parents and toward Caucasians in general. "I would say that I'm kind of reluctant to be pinned down," Ali said to Steve Marsh of the Web site. "This is a broad generalization—but a lot of people don't see the difference between ethnicity and race. The white category and the black category were created pretty much by the Western world, pretty much by America. America is when all European people were united under the moniker of ‘white’."

By 17 years of age, Ali had become a Muslim and was married. His love of MC-ing grew, and in 2000 he made a cassette tape of a demo he titled Rites of Passage. The Minneapolis independent rap label Rhymesayers Entertainment, co-owned by the group Atmosphere, liked what they heard, and scooped Ali into their group. In 2003 Rhymesayers released Ali's proper debut, Shadows of the Sun. The album, produced by Atmosphere's Ant, was "one of 2003's best hip-hop releases," according to URB. Producer and beat maker Ant made a fine match with Ali's angry yet emotional rhymes. "Producer Ant (Atmosphere) blends soul, blues, and jazz to create sick beats that skillfully complement Ali. … Some songs could have benefited from more changes and catchier hooks, but for the most part the music is compellingly straightforward," wrote All Music Guide's Todd Kristel.

"Soul just pours from this record as the Islamic rapper's wits and ruggedly earnest flow tackle topics from destroying MCs to domestic abuse to loving himself on the uplifting ‘Forest Whitiker’," wrote Now Magazine's Jason Richards, of Ali's debut. The artist began getting a lot of press for his album, but much of it was focused on his race, religion, or albinism and not his music.

Ali shrugged off the irritating media questions as long as he could, and toured relentlessly to promote Shadows of the Sun. Almost two years of constant touring, including one with his hero, Rakim, changed Ali's life and his music yet to come. "My entire life changed, and the way I looked at life changed," Ali told David Brusie of The A.V. Club Web site. "When music became my career, and Slug [from Atmosphere] started being so generous to me, it was giving me a lot of opportunities to get out, get exposure, and make money. I wasn't concerned so much with just surviving. I did all these things believing that I could rebuild my life." Ali pumped up his fans with 2004's Champion EP before taking some time off.

Rebuilding Ali's life would come only after he went through a lengthy divorce process following his year-long marriage, and after a drawn-out custody battle for his son, Faheem. For months he was homeless, living out of his car, not knowing what life held for him. He finally won custody of Faheem and began to ground himself by using the precepts of Islam. While others going through similar situations might have turned to drugs or drinking, Ali turned to his music. But not to an album full of anger. Ali and Ant were able to direct Ali's music in a unique way.

"We were really going for feeling first on this album, because of the topics we were dealing with," Ali told Brusie, about his upcoming sophomore record. "I was covering things like my divorce, and getting custody of my son, and kind of rebuilding my life. … I wasn't exactly sure how to approach those things. But I definitely wanted [the music] to feel the way I feel about them." Ant and Ali worked in Ant's basement studio, where all of the pre-production for his next record was made with vintage equipment. As Ant said in an interview with Max Herman of Remix, "The last five songs are about who we are as friends and how we see music and how honest and gifted [Ali] is at saying exactly how he feels." Ali added, "[Ant] pushes me to bring my realest, rawest, most honest self to my music."

For the Record …

Born in Madison, Wisconsin.

Signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2000; released debut album, Shadows of the Sun, 2003; released Champion EP, 2004; released The Undisputed Truth, 2007.

Addresses: Record company—Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2411 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55404. Web site—Brother Ali Official Web site:

In the Spring of 2007, Rhymesayers, now in a distribution deal with Warner Music's Independent Label Group, released Brother Ali's new record, The Undisputed Truth. The sometimes bluesy and funky album was his most accessible and melodic collection of songs to date. That spring Ali also remarried. In On Truth, "Ali exhibits the same thick angry baritone that rumbled through his first releases, using it to explore issues of personal identity—the twin pillars of color and creed—his divorce, custody of his young son, his old neighborhood, and even politics," wrote Marsh. One such political track was the funky, old-school track "Uncle Sam Goddamn." Ali also used unpredictable styles on such songs as "Walking Away," where the psychedelic guitar funk player Jef Lee Johnson helped Ali make his way through a song about his divorce. The track "Take Me Home" was mainstream friendly and minus the profanity. As one of Rolling Stone's "New Artists to Watch" in 2007, Ali explained why his rhymes were different from many other rappers: "We're blue-collar people. We rhyme about paying the mortgage," he told Christian Hoard in that magazine. "In the Midwest, what else is there?"

Selected discography

Shadows of the Sun, Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2003.

Champion EP, Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2004.

The Undisputed Truth, Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2007.



Now Magazine, October 14-20, 2004.

Rolling Stone, May 3-17, 2007.

URB, January 2007; March 2007.


"Brother Ali," A.V. Club, (January 30, 2008).

"Brother Ali," Rhymesayers Entertainment Official Web site, (January 30, 2008).

"Brother Ali: Shadows of the Sun," All Music Guide, (January 30, 2008).

"He's Albino But He Talks Like He's Black.," URB Magazine, (January 30, 2008).

"Q&A with Brother Ali,", (January 30, 2008).

—Shannon McCarthy