Brother Ali Discusses His Michigan Roots, New Album, Live Shows, Cultural Climate & More

26 June 2017
Joshua Huver

Thursday, June 8th, Rhymesayers’ Brother Ali and special guests Sa-Roc and Last Word brought The Own Light Tour to a close at The Magic Stick in Detroit, MI. When we talked to him we should have asked if each album signified the opening or closing out of a chapter. Whichever the answer is, the latest recorded chapter in Ali’s life manifested itself earlier this year as All the Beauty in This Whole Life, marking the rapper’s sixth LP and first in five years. Read about Brother Ali’s take on the new album’s reception from the stage, growing up in Michigan, and how Detroit almost didn’t even get a show on the tour.

Hello, is this Ali?

Yes, this is Ali.

Hey man, this is Josh Huver with Sound and Silence, thanks for giving me a ring man, I’m stoked to chat. How’ve you been?

I’m doin’ really well, feelin’ really grateful, feelin’ really good.

Awesome, I’m glad to hear that. The reason I’m calling is about the tour you just wrapped up, specifically the closing date at The Magic Stick in Detroit.


Have You ever played at The Magic Stick before?

I don’t think I’ve ever played that club, I’m not 100% sure. I know I’ve done the bomb shelter and I know I’ve done St. Andrews a bunch of times … I’m trying to remember which place we played with Atmosphere a few months ago… but I’ve always loved throwing down in Detroit. I grew up in Michigan.

Yea, I saw that you were originally from Madison but spent some time in your childhood hanging out in the mitten.

So my family moved almost every year, and so I’m not 100% sure of all the cities, it depends on the year, from the time I was six or seven years old until I was maybe 14. I know I lived in Kalamazoo for a while, but in all honesty, it’s a little unclear to me and both my parents are passed away and so it’s not like I can go ask them.

Right, sorry to hear that. Do you have any favorite memories of being in Michigan?

I think the best was when I lived there in ’88 when the Pistons were winning everything, and for football, Michigan and Michigan State were kind of trading places winning the Rose Bowl, they were really dominating the Big Ten and I know I lived in East Lansing in ’88 when the Spartans won the Rose Bowl.

That must have been pretty cool, especially as a kid.

Yea, I was probably eight years old, maybe ten, but it was a big happening and it was cool, and at the same time I was really getting into hip-hop. There were the college radio stations at that time in, definitely, in the Lansing/East Lansing area and definitely in Kalamazoo. They both had college stations where after midnight on Saturday night they would play full, extended cuts, uncensored. They would just play whatever they wanted. The full dirty versions of everything.

Haha, after hours cuts.


I know over the course of your career you’ve been a major proponent of modern desegregation and bringing people together, dealing with and elaborating on themes of race, privilege, and social justice. Not even just as of late since it’s been brought into such a volatile mainstream, but all the way to the beginning of your career you were on the forefront of this message, your whole life even. What do you find encouraging among the things that you see lately? Is it the same kind of things you feel like you’ve been pushing for or is there a pushback that you didn’t expect?

I don’t know if I’m experiencing it in either one of those ways. I think that we have the situation in America where this country and this culture is, you know, built largely on people accepting certain ideas of modernity and losing touch with the past. Focusing on healing, I think, is very important, and it requires a lot of truth, it requires a lot of listening. I think in my music I try to really reflect and report what I’m experiencing and hoping that sharing that with people can create space for people to reflect and engage.

Right on. I read an interview recently that you gave that appeared on the main page of Bandcamp and you said, “It has to start from within the individual.” How do you re-inspire that spark in others and how do you manage to pass that flame on?

Well, I mean that’s not my goal at all. I’m focusing on myself, really, and the music. I reflect on my own personal journey and the music is what allows other people to hear themselves and kind of be a witness to somebody else, to witness that in me.

Is there anything that you do to guide that or encourage that, or is it just you being you and it just happens?

I think it’s very important to have elders and guides that understand and know us, and something about navigating the spiritual path and navigating life and people that can help us with that. I think it’s important to be connected to a tradition of that type of exploration.

Right on. Who would you consider an elder guide in your own life?

I’ve had a lot of them, you know, there are people in music that are my inspirations and mentors, people like Chuck D, Nemesis, those are some acts that I look to in music and that help guide me. But on the spiritual path, Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah is someone that has been very influential to me.

Awesome. Going back to your music, do you feel like your albums resonate during a live performance? I know you’ve said before that each album was kind of like its own chapter, do you feel each one individually or does it depend on your mood in the day and how you approach the setlist? What kind of common ground can someone expect at a show that is only familiar with your studio albums?

Um, well we do a mixture of all of the albums and we have a vibe, or a tone that we have, kind of a vibration for the night, and we tend to choose the songs that are going to help tell a story and really allow people to go on a journey with us. At the end it unfolds in that it’s something we all are experiencing together, and we really hope that we can you know, use different kinds of moods and stories to create an experience that everybody’s going through together; so, that by the time we get to the end of the show we really experienced something together and bonded.

Looking back on shows and experiences from the past, say ten years ago, do you recognize pieces of your recent work? Like the evolution of what you were doing ten years ago to the way things are now, from shows to recording to the creative process, or is there an intentional drop off and direction change with every new album?

I think that anybody that does any kind of work over a long period of time, you change and you evolve, you just kind of refine as a person. The reason why I’m still able to perform songs off of all of the albums is beacuse of they all, you know, those are all moments that resonate as true. Those are a part of what built me to be in a place where I am experiencing what I am and creating what I am and so it’s all part of the journey. I don’t really see any of the chapters as being totally separate from the rest; it’s all a part of the same journey.

How do you feel about performing these new songs live? It’s been a while since you’ve come out with a new disc, although you have continued performing and not fallen off the radar but the songs are new. How are they being received so far?

So far it’s going really good. A lot of times when people hear new music for the first time live, they’re more, you know if you hear a song that you know very well, you’re almost performing it with the artist.

Yea, definitely.

So a lot of times people will participate more physically when they know the song. When they don’t know the song as well, when it’s a newer song, they’re kind of receiving it. You know, you can’t really expect them to jump up and down to a new song. The vibes going to be a little bit different but it’s still really engaging, and I really like doing both so I like to spread the new music out throughout the night.

That’s awesome. I really like that perspective. That about sums up the questions that I had prepared and the time we have, is there anything else that you’d like to add as a send-off?

Well, initially when we announced the tour, Detroit wasn’t on the tour and we were going to end on the East Coast, but I really, you know, time is really precious to us because it’s Ramadan and we’d really like to be at home with our family during Ramadan. But I actually added Detroit to the end because I wanted to end in the Midwest and at a place that feels like home, and Michigan is it, you know? We started one of the legs of the Atmosphere tour in Detroit, and I just remember the vibe from that night, I wanted to make sure I could add some of that to this tour for the new album.

Very cool man, thanks again for taking the time to speak with me this afternoon, I really appreciate it and I hope you have a great summer.

Thank you brother, I appreciate it, man. Take care.