Brother Ali @ Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, Summerfest
June 28, 2013
Minneapolis rap powerhouse Rhymesayers Entertainment has built an impressive stable of artists since launching in 1995, but at the same time, the label’s success has often boiled down to the effort of a few perennial staples. Beyond label co-founders Atmosphere, there’s Aesop Rock, P.O.S. and, one of their strongest investments, Brother Ali, whose blend of timeless hip-hop fundamentals, fearless political rhetoric and the Twin Cities’ signature moodiness has made him one of the most talked about voices in the underground. Of course, there’s another reason he’s proven so alluring to critics and commentators, namely his albinism. It’s not hard to understand why that fact would prove so alluring to writers looking for an angle, but it often obscures the real point, namely that the dude can rap.
Coming toward the end of a lineup, which found Rhymesayers artists completely taking over the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse stage, from Blueprint and P.O.S. to Atmosphere and the Aesop Rock/Kimya Dawson collaboration The Uncluded, a sizable crowd had already assembled by the time Ali, sporting a stark white billy-goat beard, took up the mic. The set that followed was diverse but cohesive, transitioning between old-school boom-bap and soul samples, harder-edged material like “Need a Knot” from last year’s typically provocative Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color and naturally some typical Rhymesayers poetry slam vibes. The latter, like an extended a cappella freestyle about his many personal and professional struggles, probably came of the worst, not because it was bad by any means, but simply due to the environment. It’s hard to get serious at Summerfest, especially as day turns to night.
Brother Ali is an engaged, clearly passionate performer, who knows how to work a crowd, even a chaotic festival crowd, and they were plainly responding to him (respect to whoever that was waving their crutches in the air the whole show), but especially when the Madison-born MC expressed his Midwest pride. While the cameo from Atmosphere’s Slug was a welcome change of pace, between Ali’s uncompromising lyrics and raspy flow, he’s totally capable of carrying an hour just on his own, and leaving the crowd wanting more. The fact that he’s an albino has certainly had a strange and complicated effect on his career, but while it may have initially helped get his name in the papers—giving journalists an easy segue into discussions of everything from rap race relations to the universal nature of the music—it’s certainly not what’s kept it there.