‘You’re a Musician and a Preacher’: The Merging Worlds of Brother Ali

The lights were dimmed except for the stage movers that shot multi-colored beams throughout the packed audience. I waited backstage, reclined on an oaken church pew with cushioned seating, when premier underground rapper Brother Ali emerged from the dressing room. He didn’t see me as he walked toward the stage. 

Ali represents a bridge between both worlds and the amplifying potential that community organizing and religious spiritualism might bring to each other.

The forty-two-year-old rapper halted just before the platform’s wooden plank steps and somberly stared down at the staircase as though it were a diving board thirty feet up and this was his last chance to back out before the plunge. After a breath, he scaled the steps and launched into his set. His baying fans gushed.

Ali opened by urging the audience to be “mirrors” for each other, thanking them for leaving the mesmeric light of their iPhones and laptop screens to be present for each other, in community. He expressed his gratitude toward them, saying  he was proud he never had to use his music to sell products. He hasn’t had a boss in twenty years because his fans have supported him, his wife, and their four kids. Currently on tour for his newest album, “Secrets & Escapes,” Ali also did old favorites from the searing “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” to the self-love anthem “Forest Whitaker.”

Ali is at home in two worlds that entwine his life—religion and community organizing, his music infused throughout. But he offers a passionate warning to both worlds not to discount one another. 

While we spoke over dinner at a deli market loft in downtown Tucson, I was reminded of aging leftist intellectuals from the Middle East who still regret dismissing religion in their youth for secularism due to the political void that their decision opened, only to be filled by fundamentalist ideologies that took state power and spawned theocratic regimes, often through U.S. support. 

Ali represents a bridge between both worlds and the amplifying potential that community organizing and religious spiritualism might bring to each other.


Q: You’re a community organizer as well as a rapper. What are some issues that touch your soul and have been a big part of your life at various periods?

Ali: That’s a good question. I think when I started objectively, intentionally, doing community organizing was 2011 or so, around the time of the Occupy Movement. In the Twin Cities, there’s a black organizer in North Minneapolis, which is a majority black neighborhood. 

They were working on housing stuff, specifically African Americans being targeted with predatory lending practices and losing their houses, being foreclosed. And it was turning over again and again with banks and HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] and public money. 

Eventually it started leading to people flipping houses. It was the beginning of gentrification that was starting to happen, trickling down to the smaller cities like Minneapolis. 

A young white guy was an organizer of the Occupy Movement who was friends with the black head of this housing movement. So, they got together and organized something called, “Occupy Homes.” 

They took the white Occupy kids that were getting arrested downtown—who knew they wanted to do something but they weren’t sure what—and the organizers brought them to these homes of black and brown—and also white—elders, working class people, veterans, too. It wasn’t just people of color but communities that were specifically being targeted. 

The kids would chain themselves to the houses and not let the authorities serve eviction notices. I was really inspired by that; I thought it was really cool. I started just becoming part of that movement. I figured out that if I could throw concerts at those houses, I could help out. I was getting to know all those people, but the press wasn’t really covering it. 

In the Twin Cities, I have a good following. I bought a little sound system, and I started announcing: “Free concert at this house tonight.” I would go and set up my system. It’s weird that if I perform at a big nightclub, I have 1,500 people that will pay twenty-five bucks to see me. 

A free concert at a house, people think it’s weird. But I’d get a hundred to show up. And before I perform, I have the homeowners speak, have the organizers speak, have the activists speak to say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on in our city.’ Then people would sign up on an email/phone list, and I would actually phone-bank them myself and be like, “Hey, we got this big demonstration coming up.” That went on for a long time.

Q: You were doing clerical work for the movement, which is most of what organizing is.

Ali: It’s mostly admin, yeah. It felt really good to use my platform for something that was really, directly, impactful. 

Now, I realize in that organizing community that a lot of those people feel high and mighty about the fact that they’re secular, and that they’re better than religion and things like that. But they have all the same issues that religious communities have: in-fighting, men abusing women, people pushing each other out, similar discriminatory things. 

Know what I mean? The same extremism, the same thing that draws people to religion and then allows people to abuse each other because of that magnetic pool toward a spiritual consciousness and experience—the exact same thing happens in the organizing world. But the thing about the organizing world is this: There’s a concept of heart-work and a kind of broad spirituality thing. But both of those are functions of the ego. A human being is a spirit or a soul or an intellect or a mind—and an ego. 

Modern religion has lost a lot of the heart-work to deal with the ego. In the Jewish tradition, you do have the Kabala. That’s the Sufism of Judaism that deals with the ego and deals with getting the heart right. That’s the part of Judaism that says, ‘It’s not enough to just follow the religious laws; you have to do the right things, but you also have to be the right way in terms of your inner state.’

And in Islam, it’s the same thing. It’s called Sufism. Modern Islam has almost erased Sufism because the colonial powers elected and put people in power that had an expression of Islam that took the spirituality out of it. 

For example, there’s a really modernist movement that’s connected to Saudi power called the Wahhabis. They basically were put in place by the British and the Americans. That’s a very anti-Sufi movement and that then established nation states. They were put in place to help fight the Ottoman Turks, which were a real Islamic empire, but it was really spiritual and outwardly Sufi. That’s where you have Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes. You have a really lively spiritual tradition.

So that same thing that’s happening in the religious world is also happening in the community organizing world. So, for me, I really appreciate both of them. But neither one of them is magic. They’re still both made up of people, the organizing world and the religious world. I still believe in both of them completely, and I still practice them. 

Q: Talk about the organization you started with your wife.

Ali: My wife and I have an organization called the Gemali project, which means “beauty” in Arabic. She’s a licensed therapist. A lot of times in religious communities, there’s this aversion to therapy. And I’ve spent the last ten years intentionally studying Islamic theology, law, and spirituality. So together we created this small organization—a community project in Minneapolis—that brings people together, helping people benefit from that tradition in ways that you might not be able to do in a mosque. 

There’s people who really love Islam but haven’t converted. And there’s no expectation or pressure to convert. We just don’t even keep track of it like that. Or there’s Muslims who haven’t been practicing, and so they feel embarrassed. Or there’s GLBT Muslims.

Q: Do you consider the Gemali Project to be bridge work between your two worlds—the organizing world and the religious world?

Ali: No, it feels the same as underground rap. I’ve had this experience in hip-hop. I seem to be good at it. I know it’s beautiful. So I practice it for the reasons that I love it. And the people that want to participate in that, do. It’s off the beaten path. 

The same with the Islamic tradition. I really learned a lot from my music career on how to do things in a way that’s genuine to you. You don’t have to be at a mosque. And the people that feel a similar way will benefit.

Elijah Mohammad’s son, Wallace Mohammad [who broke from his father’s Nation of Islam conventions after taking over the organization when his father died in 1975], studied traditional orthodox Islam and actually encouraged Malcolm X, ‘If you’re going to leave the Nation of Islam, you have to go to orthodox Islam.’ There’s really not another way to do it. So Malcolm did.

Q: Is that when Malcolm went overseas?

Ali: Yeah. That’s when he went on the Hajj and things like that. Wallace was my teacher when I became Muslim when I was fifteen until he died in 2008. Half a million people converted to orthodox Islam under him. He was the first Muslim to do prayer in the U.S. Congress. He was the most important Islamic leader of our time, and people don’t even know who he is. I think he was on Larry King once. He did his work for forty years.

Q: You got to have some studies with him before he died.

Ali: He’s the one that told me, “You’re a musician, and you’re also a preacher—you’re both.”

Q: That’s the theme that I’ve been getting in our conversation about you: music, community organizing, religion. 

Ali: Yeah, they’re not different to me. I see them as being a similar thing.

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