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Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011

Brother Ali Lands on His Feet

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In this era of Internet users typing vicious attacks behind the curtain of their laptops and anonymous avatars, it's hard to remember that people in the offline world aren't all cynical jerks. Take Rhymesayers' Brother Ali, for example. The rapper ostensibly exhales optimism, an attitude that stems from his faith. At 15, Ali converted from Christianity to Islam, and now cites the religion's focus on humanity as a major factor in his life.

"Human beings are created to be excellent," he says. "We also have it in us to make decisions and do terrible things, but the true nature of all people is good."

Based on his inauspicious beginnings, it wouldn't sound strange if Ali's worldview skewed toward the other extreme. Divorced parents, multiple moves throughout the Midwest, fleeing home at 17—those experiences harden souls. That rage culminates in many of his early tracks. On his second album, 2003's Shadows on the Sun, Brother Ali yearned to prove his hip-hop ingenuity among the clusters of hackneyed emcees. With his ferocious yet scholarly flow and Ant's slick, soulful production, Brother Ali followed through on his aim.

In the four-year gap between that record and his follow-up, 2007's The Undisputed Truth, Brother Ali's life went to shambles. His 10-year marriage ended in divorce, leaving him without a home and fighting for custody of his son. The Undisputed Truth dealt with those biting personal problems in the artist's typical introspective manner. For example, rather than vilify his ex-wife's shortcomings, Ali composed a mournful divorce song that's wrapped in a breezy, summer-whistle jam. "Walking Away" comes off more get-well-card than get-lost. And on "Faheem," Ali praises the relationship he has with his son—he eventually won custody—despite their early hardships. "I just pray you don't remember us sleeping on the floor/ Have me cleaning mouse droppings out of your toys."

A new marriage, new daughter and new album all came two years later. It shouldn't be surprising that Us delivered a more secure Brother Ali. Seminal rapper Chuck D introduces him as a Baptist preacher on the record's opening track. The solid grounding even helps him sound like a hip-hop elder statesman. The album's single, "Fresh Air," describes an easygoing rapper, listening to Al Green records and making pancakes for his kids. It's the life he's always wanted, and he finally has it—a stable family and a successful music career.

"I'm grateful," Ali says. "I've been homeless in my life and I never tried anything other than rap. I never tried another career. I grew up basically thinking I'd never have a chance. But it was all I cared about, so I did it anyway. The fact that I can live a normal life based on my music is amazing. Even if I'm not able to live off it at some point, I'll always be grateful for the fact that I did this."

Now that his home life has been stabilized, Ali's attention has turned toward his community. He says this past year he devoted more time to helping others and organizing neighborhood-unifying events. In early October, one of his big projects came to fruition. Near Ali's mosque, a one-day get-together called Day of Dignity offered free medical services and supplies to those in need. That's not all, though. He essentially threw his neighborhood a block party by inviting a slew of emcees to perform with him onstage.

He says his involvement with his community has inspired his new album, which is slated for a February release.

"I want to do something with the voice I have rather than talk about myself all the time," he says. Spoken like a good-natured man.

Brother Ali headlines 88Nine's Halloween show at Turner Hall Ballroom on Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. with Motopony.
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