Music does not exist in a vacuum. As a tool of protest, of affection, of the myriad complexities of the human condition, music plays just an important role now as ever before in its ability to connect, inform and find grounds of empathy in a world of increased personal isolation – as “social networking” becomes a term of digital prowess rather than genuine human interaction.
Some of those responsible for delivering personal-revolution street philosophy through song often have far more to say than even the malleable, undefined borders of music will allow, as we learned with Serj Tankian last Summer. In these moments, we excitedly set the music aside to dig into the heart of what drives the artist, with unfailingly fascinating result.
This was the case in our latest interview with Brother Ali. Over the span of six remarkable albums and an archive of underground material, Brother Ali’s one-love sermonizing has relentlessly rejected posturing and self-aggrandizing lyricism, opting instead for a unifying theme that’s delivered as a survivalist mandate in a world of championed disconnect.
The Minneapolis rapper and Rhymesayers crew’s spiritual anchor has had a metamorphic year on the heels of his landmark Us album, with the loss of dear friend and label mate Michael Larsen, aka Eyedea, his pilgrimage to Mecca and a barrage of new changes, both personally and professionally. Almost two years after our last interview we caught up with the man to discuss the American perception of Islam, government seizures of music-site domains, the power of propaganda and much more.
In America, the broad-stroke perception of Islam and its practitioners is still held in a deeply unfavorable light. How does one counter the Fox News narrative with your own truth, when the other side is excitedly stoking the fires of anti-Muslim extremism?
There’s a propaganda machine that exists in our society. If you look at World War II times, the way that Japanese and German people were vilified in the media, all the way down to kids cartoons. Any group of people that were considered to be enemies of the society they would demonize, through news and movies and kids programs. Whether it’s Native Americans or Japanese, or the Russians in the ’80s, there was always a caricaturization built around an agenda. And then immediately after the Cold War, they started preparing us through the media to attack a new target. Suddenly Arnold Schwarzenegger’s onscreen going up against these terribly cold Arab Muslims who are taking hostages and all that stuff, creating this atmosphere where suddenly these are the new Hollywood bad guys. These are the new face of evil to Americans, and it’s a picture that’s deliberately painted.
Then 9/11 happened, and the line of reality and truth began to blur.
Then you have this obviously terrible, tragic event of 9/11. The unbelievable sadness to it, the loss of life and love, and there’s so much questionable stuff around it. I’m not one of these people who pretends to know what happened or didn’t happen, but there’s definitely a lot of seriously questionable circumstances around the whole thing. There’s clearly a campaign underway, that’s been going on for a while by the people in power, to negate Islam and Muslims. Usually that’s used to justify some type of injustice they’re planning, whether it be taking over Muslim countries and occupying them, taking control of their politics and their resources. That’s a really unfortunate reality in the world.
How is that negating impression countered, when the narrative’s already written and enthusiastically parroted by the biggest news outlet in the nation? Passivity rules the day…
Being good people, having a responsibility to look for and spread truth in every way, not just our own. Progressing a community by caring about truth and justice and fairness. Part of the social decline we’re facing is that we’re very, very passive about everything. It’s been by design. We’ve been bred to be very passive about the things that we eat, the things that we buy and the things that we use. It comes down to the way that we live, the information we take in. We don’t actively seek out information, we just allow whatever’s the loudest to dictate the narrative. In most major cities we’re down to one or two major newspapers, which are owned by the same conglomerates. Radio stations are all owned by the same parent companies, news stations are owned by two or three companies. It’s just really unfortunate, but that’s just one of a plethora of topics where we’re all just deeply uninformed on all of it, and it’s causing something of a subconscious bridge where we get all this information that Muslims are bad, and Islam is against us and our way of life, and Muslims hate our freedom and all that. It’s diametrically opposed to America’s values, they’re not the same kind of people we are, so on and so forth. It causes an unconscious acceptance of treating people bad, of denying people justice and due process and all these things that we say we believe in as Americans.
Now you see it on our soil too, where Muslims that are citizens of America aren’t granted the same basic rights of faith. But that’s nothing new, that’s something they did when they came and called the native people Indians and savages and did everything in their power to establish dominance. Then the slaves came over and they had ugly names for them too. Every group of people, it seems, falls into a necessary place or role when the power structure decides to prepare us mentally and spiritually to adjust to this injustice. To be okay with these things being done in our name, this oppression contracted out in the name of American values.
Given the government and media’s campaign of bullshit on the Wikileaks ordeal, it’s frightening how well that model of behavior commutes to other areas of focus. We’re in an amazing time in history, where the unification of the media seems so big and so scary, but public awareness is hitting an all-time high, and people are increasingly questioning the margin of truth in the reality being served to us. What’s your perspective on selective free speech, like the fact that Mastercard will still do business with the KKK, yet cuts ties with Wikileaks, people bringing the real light of truth to some of the most important world affairs – and lies – of our time?
Obviously I support people’s rights to speak and have access to the truth, and to promote it. There’s a really big fight going on with the net neutrality bill, and we’re facing the potential of control over the internet where everyday people don’t have the same platform on the internet as corporations. It’s interesting, with this whole thing there’s been a big sweep of websites by the Department of Homeland Security for those they consider to be criminal. With no warning, no communication, no due process. They seized their domains and shut down their sites, and it’s interesting that it happened to three major Hip-Hop blogs. It had nothing to do with anything political or anything like that, but the RIAA had them shut down because they helped artists leak materials and videos and such that’s not released yet. So the Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to protect us from terrorism, seized a website called OnSmash.com. They leaked a new 50 Cent song and the new Joel Ortiz record, but what does that have to do with homeland security? How is that terrorism? The precedent that’s set by that is really amazing, really terrifying.
That’s terrorism in its own right.
Right. I had to file with the Department of Homeland Security when I went to Australia on tour. Our Australian show promoter wire transferred money for our shows to our bank accounts in Minneapolis, and the Department of Homeland Security froze that bank account and stopped the transfer. I had to register with them, give them my information, who I am & what I was doing, everybody that worked for me, my schedule, social security numbers, addresses, bank accounts, more things than you could believe. The froze everything up.
They told me that it was random. That the words Brother and Ali were red flag words, but I was made aware at the end of the whole ordeal that they were aware of the Uncle Sam Goddamn video.
Right around the time that video hit a million views, after I performed it on TV, that’s when that happened. I got kicked off a tour for that song, because it was sponsored by a big company. Got a lot of hate mail from guys named Chad, writing private MySpace messages back in the day. Guys with no shirts on and white baseball hats on backwards telling me “I’m gonna come to your show tonight and beat your ass.” I got a lot of that for probably about a year. And at my shows I’m always at the merch table… no ass kickings ever happened.
The thing is, nothing I say is really even that dangerous. I’m not even saying shit compared to like…
Zach De La Rocha, Immortal Technique…
Yeah, not to mention Dead Prez, people who have bigger platforms and say a lot more than I do. I don’t consider myself a political artist, I haven’t made that my mission. I just have a few songs where I stated some things.
Speaking of statements, Cornel West made a comment that I’d like to expand on: “To embark on a quest for wisdom, one has to be open to the voice, viewpoint, and vision of others.” In a world geared more than ever to the me me me society, how does one not only lean against that tide, but radiate that to others?
It’s interesting, that’s something that’s actually been on my mind a lot lately. One of the people that Eyedea put me up on was this this philosopher Krishnamurti, who really dealt a lot with putting the ego aside to truly experience things. When you listen through the lens of your ego you’re not really listening, you’re not really experiencing. And that’s huge to me… it ties in well with Cornell West’s quote. I love Cornell West. I think with what I’m doing, I just try to communicate that way and listen that way, especially on the Us album. That was the first album that really wasn’t about me, it was more about the people that I know, and trying to tell their stories.
Religious individualism and the art of people truly listening to each other is dying.
A major problem, as you pointed out, is that we are not actively participating in solutions.
Everything is passive in our society. For the majority of people, there’s a few activist, but even the majority of them may not be as informed or as pure in direction as they would have us believe. Like the Tea Party scene. It appears to be a group of activists, but there’s two brothers that essentially own that movement…
The Koch brothers…
Yeah. They’re funding the movement, and these Tea Party activists are just sheepishly repeating this narrative that somebody’s given them, talking points meant to mislead and start fires of anger. Not very much is active in our society – we’re very passive, very inactive. I definitely agree with what you’re saying, in social media being a platform for people to narcissistically splatter out whatever feelings they have in that moment, and really feel like something’s being done with a Facebook update or a tweet.
That’s the problem with clicktivism – it creates a dangerous false sense of contribution, a momentum based on parroting points for social status rather than planting a real flag of truth and living the truth you’re seeking. That stifles progress on all meaningful fronts.
We’ve been programmed that way over the last few generations. That’s not a mistake and that’s not a coincidence. It’s not something that’s happened on its own. It was a very deliberate effort on behalf of those who really control things. And it’s undoubtedly an intimidating factor when you can watch the sponsorship money and general attention will shift away, go elsewhere when there’s any sign of going against that tide.
You tweeted about the Best MCs argument, saying “Best For who? Best for the people is Chuck D.” That’s one musical revolutionary who’s paved the way for bands like Rage Against The Machine, helped set the groundwork for people like you and Immortal Technique. In a very real way, he’s passed the torch on to you on record by doing the introduction track on Us. Do you see the direct lineage between Public Enemy’s activist mentality and your own?
Definitely. Being fortunate enough to become friends with him gave me confirmation of that. I got to hear him say “You’re doing what you can to continue what we were doing.” Those men are the ones that made me serious about this music and made me realize what the possibilities it held were. Not that I went into this thinking that I was going to be a part of some social movement, but I know that they affected the way that I thought, the way I wanted to live, my aspirations and what kind of person I am.
I remember being a kid in a 99% white Michigan suburb, getting absolutely floored by Public Enemy’s Can’t Truss It song. That one track blew the doors open for me in terms of what it means to tell a truly powerful, incendiary story through song and apply it to real social issues. The way Chuck draws a direct line between the injustice and oppressed rage of slaves from long ago and the racial struggles that still exist today was an inspiring and humbling eye-opener about the real power of music.
That’s what it’s about, connecting just like that and giving people new eyes on something they might only have a certain familiarity with at the moment. Chuck, KRS-One, even people I look back on as an adult, these other guys who were on something really deep and special back when I was 14. Back then it was just kind of a bunch of cool words. But those words hit me, they made me want to know what they were talking about. It made me read, it made me research, it inspired me to dig deeper. That stuff showed me the real power of what this culture can be and what this art form can be.