“I Need to be Clear About how I Understand and Process Things”: An Interview with Brother Ali

Donna-Claire speaks with Brother Ali about spirituality, his new album, 'All the Beauty in this Whole Life,' and James Baldwin.
By    August 17, 2017

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Brother Ali needed five years to meditate. For the Minneapolis veteran, the music business had taken too many steps away from the traditional means of practicing culture. The corruption and manipulation Ali had seen within the industry left him uninspired. Through the guidance of his Islamic teachers, Brother Ali’s latest record, All The Beauty In This Whole Life, is also his reinvigorated return to hip-hop. Ali comes together with the prolific producer DJ Ant to make an album with sparse, funky beats and a penchant for finding light and love in all situations.

Ali’s spirituality has long since been a moniker of his music. The writing of “Own Light” follows suit, as it was finalized during a leveling day of silence on a spiritual retreat. Listening through his record evokes memories of Baldwin’s writing, which Ali holds close to his heart. The gravity of love is what allows for a heavy track like “Out Of Here” to appear on such a bright record. The writing of “Out Of Here” acts as the final step in Ali coming to terms with and processing the tragic suicides within his family. In fact, much of this album feels like a means of coping with life’s inevitable eclipses of darkness.

Brother Ali and I spoke on the phone about his time away from music, his working relationship with Ant and Sa-Roc, as well as his spirituality and how it informed the album. —Donna-Claire


You had a five year gap between your last record and the release of All The Beauty In This Whole Life, and I read that break was a result of being tired of the business side of the industry. How did you bring yourself back to making music in spite of that exhaustion?


Brother Ali: The way that the music industry is set up is different from the traditional ways of people practicing culture. In traditional culture—traditions all over the world—all of those groups had people whose job it was to sing and dance. It was understood that those people were important, and they were seen as prominent people, and they were taken care of. Their role was to remind us of who we are and why we are the way we are. They were showing us the meaning of our lives individually and collectively. Everything in the modern world has become commodified. Part of what I experienced was the outward dealing of that industry, and seeing people succeed by effectively lying and hurting those around them, or stealing ideas and stories.

I was having difficulty keeping track of what I’m saying is important, what I’m doing is important, and then thinking that I’m somehow important. I was really struggling to live a life of meaning in that reality, and I wasn’t feeling inspired. So I sought out the spiritual teachers in Islam that are links to the tradition. They told me to make more music, and also gave me the inspiration of what to say.


I also read that you had a very spiritual experience when you wrote “Own Light” in total silence. Can you break that experience down for me?


Brother Ali: I always used to write songs in my head. Pre-modern people didn’t read and write, so all the poetry they wrote, they were memorizing as they were coming up with it. I started making music like that, but when I started working with Ant at the start of my career, he told me I wouldn’t make enough music that way.

“Own Light” was a song that I had been struggling with. We were on a spiritual retreat and we had a day of silence where you don’t have any communication with anything outside of yourself. Everything is within. You don’t read or write, listen to music, or interact with other people. You don’t even really make eye contact with other people. Then the song came to me, and because I had so much space in my mind and heart, I was able to fine tune it.


Ant produced this entire album, and it really sounds like he captured your current headspace with these sparse and funky beats. How closely did you work with Ant on this record?


Brother Ali: We’re very close friends, and when he made the music for the album, we had already been working on rough sketches of things at his house. When it was time to get working on the album, we both went to Oakland together. We sat with the musician who plays all of the instruments for Ant, and his name is G Koop. He’s one of those brilliant musicians that can play anything and everything. Koop and Ant made all the beats for my album while I was there. The vibrations I was on while I was there also influenced a lot of the album’s sound.


“Out of Here” hits very close to home for me. I know it’s been several years since both of the suicides addressed in this song, yet the emotions don’t feel watered down. How much time or distance do you need on a tragedy before you can transform it into a song?


Brother Ali: It’s less about the amount of time and more about the sense of awareness I have with my own reaction and understanding. I need to be clear about how I understand and process things in order to write them. Usually writing the song puts a period at the end of metabolizing a major life event, for the time being, anyway.


Were there any other apprehensions when you sat down to write the song?


Brother Ali: I’ve learned that songs like that can be difficult for the other people involved in the story. I thought about telling my dad’s wife and my brother that it would be on the new album, but I forgot.


Sa-Roc’s feature on “We Got This” is tremendous. Can you break down the process of working with her?


Brother Ali: She’s a truly incredible MC, and she and her producer/partner Sol Messiah have become close friends. I asked her to be on the song because I knew her perspective and voice would be a great presence, but I was a bit concerned that she might go too hard. She actually adjusted her tone perfectly. It was Ant’s idea to drop the drums out of her entire verse and just let the music accompany her voice. She’s so masterfully rhythmic in her delivery that the syllables do the job of the drums.


Perhaps one of the most admirable things about the record is how you resolve to love and bring beauty into everything. Where does that resolve come from?


Brother Ali: My teachers are masters of the Islamic path of spirituality. Orientalists would call them Sufis, but they’re practitioners and teachers of the original metaphysics and beauty of the classical Islamic tradition. My teachers focus a lot on beauty and love when they talk to me and actually suggested that I make an album about beauty and love. They then proceeded to inspire me to no end with everything I witnessed from them.


You’re extremely well read, and I know Baldwin plays a big role in your music. Which of his works would you pick as a companion to this album?


Brother Ali: I listen to audiobooks, but only the most mainstream titles are readily available. My wife has read a few books to me and a dear friend and brother of mine, Baraka Blue records things for me when he knows I’d find them interesting. Most of what I’ve learned has been directly from teachers and recorded lectures. As for Baldwin, I love him dearly and a lot of his joints are available in audiobook format. There’s no one piece that goes with this entire album, but his understanding of love and its terrifying reality is extremely profound.


I always pair Baldwin’s letter to your “Dear Black Son.”


Brother Ali: I can definitely see that.


You’ve just finished your tour for the album, so I’m wondering in what ways has performing this record for fans shaped how you view the album and its impact?


Brother Ali: They respond with overwhelming love and it’s impossible not to ignore that it’s coming from my teachers. I spent years mastering this craft and always get great responses, but the joy and tears I’m met with lately are so obviously the intention and connection with my teachers.