by Shawn Setaro
Something is in the air among rappers this fall. There has been a spate of releases by artists who hearken back to an approach to music-making not seen since the height of the soul era. Several recent albums form a mini-trend of artists who, like the Donnie Hathaways and Marvin Gayes of the past, create music that is politically engaged and critical, but simultaneously empathetic and loving, and has a particular concern for black culture and history. Lupe Fiasco is probably the best-known of this batch of rappers (which also includes Boots Riley of Oakland stalwarts The Coup), but close behind him is Minneapolis rhymer Brother Ali, whose new album Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color provides a superb example of how hip-hop can engage with the past while attempting to change the present. Below is a song-by-song look at Ali's vision:
"Letter to My Countrymen":
Ali wastes no time in getting to the point, sharing his politics immediately. "I wanna make this country what it says it is," he raps, both pointing out America's vast shortfalls as well as the ever-renewable promise of its ideals. This song is concerned, as the title may have you guess, with community. Ali worries about the isolation of the younger generation due to technology -- something which, as the editor-in-chief of a website, was not exactly the most comforting idea for me personally. The '70s soul music vibe of the beat goes well with the artist's attempt to hold his audience accountable for their lives and their politics, a brave tack rarely taken by public figures of any stripe.
"Only Life I Know":
One of Ali's greatest gifts as a writer is his sense of empathy. Here, he talks about the struggles of the poor and the working class, and how the pressures of life sometimes result in substance abuse. But unlike the "crack is wack" moralizing of Ali's youth, he actually talks about the reasons behind this behavior, and talks about the extremely depressing life options available even for those who, as our officeholders would have it, "work hard and play by the rules." His retort to the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps crowd is one for the ages. "[You] keep stressing morals and personal decisions," he says. "Tell me what's moral about these conditions?"
"Stop the Press":
This song hearkens back to Ali's earlier records with its autobiographical content. There is a difference, though. As he told us in a recent interview, in the past he would have gotten an album's worth of material from the various tragedies and stresses recounting on this number -- his father's suicide, the death of his friend and fellow rapper Michael "Eyedea" Larson, career struggles, and more. But Ali has larger things on his mind, so he turned all of his strife into one very funky postcard that covers the past three years of his life.
"Mourning in America":
The definition of "terrorism" is a very slippery one, and is not something that most Americans prefer to think about. Instead, most of us rest assured that our government is fighting "them," and that "terrorist" is a label applied to anyone who takes us arms against "us." Ali here interrogates that misbegotten notion, and shows the similarity between the small-scale political violence we call "terrorism" and the large-scale political violence we call "war" or, in a bitter twist, "anti-terrorism." As if that wasn't enough, the song also takes a look at violence within the U.S. and the conditions that create it.
This tune begins to move us towards a solution to the ills previously outlined, openly calling for the poor to "get organized," and using David and Goliath as a central metaphor to further the point. Never one to duck from self-examination, Ali mentions how he used to be discouraged and hopeless, but is not anymore. His work with Occupy Homes (referenced more explicitly later in the album) seems to have served as a true inspiration for the rapper.
The drudgery of a 9-to-5 is not something often mentioned in rap. Other than Cam'ron's classic "I Hate My Job," we're hard-pressed to think of a hip-hop song that deals so directly with those folks barely scraping by. Ali even questions why the Tea Party enjoys such strong working class support, for a moment turning the song into a sort of head-nodding version of Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter With Kansas?
"I Need a Knot":
To tell too much about this song would be to spoil the joke, and thus ruin a fantastic experience for a first-time listener. Suffice it to say that Ali manages to slyly send up the seemingly unending barrage of drug kingpin, street hustler and pimp poses in hip-hop.
"Won More Hit":
This is a highlight on an album not exactly lacking for good songs. Ali takes on the uncomfortable issue of racial dynamics in the music industry, while making sure to note the context of historical and institutional racism and white supremacy. He manages to take on the whole history of exploitation of black music forms and the historic tendency to put a white face on them (not for nothing was one of the 1920's most popular jazz bandleaders named Paul Whiteman.)
Ali saves some of his harshest words for other rappers. He takes on the "imaginary players" so thoroughly debunked by Jay-Z back in the '90s, but adds his own twist. Ali criticizes rap's adoption of the phrase "no homo," as a continuation of his very public wresting with questions of homophobia in rap. He also connects hip-hop to jazz and other black musics -- an idea that was also a major theme on Lupe Fiasco's recent record. But unlike on that offering, Ali keeps the sound of the record well within those traditions, as the beats are soul music-infused throughout.
As previously mentioned, Ali was involved with the group Occupy Homes, an offshoot of the Occupy movement that dealt with houses in foreclosure. This time in the movement undoubtedly influenced Ali's exhortation praise here for "he who sacrifices for the greater good" -- not a usual take on things in the status-obsessed hip-hop world. The Biblical imagery used manages to add an extra sense of depth and meaning to Ali's rhymes.
For Brother Ali (born Jason Newman, but now re-named Ali), his rap moniker has a special importance. It pays tribute to The Greatest, Muhammad Ali. This song is a tribute to the boxer's early days, before turning pro, and the rapping Ali's admiration for his, um, namesake shines through. Hopefully this song will inspire some of his younger fans to find out the real story behind that guy who shows up at the Olympics every once in a while these days.
"All You Need":
We're back to the autobiographical here, as Ali recounts a wrenching tale about his ex-wife's neglect of their son, and the dire consequences it had. But where most artists would turn their wife's accidentally hospitalizing their kid into a chance to let off stream of sexist insults that would make Dr. Dre blush, Ali, true to his empathetic nature, uses it as a teaching moment to explain to his son (and, by extension, his audience) why this woman turned out the way she did.
Ali gets his Donnie Hathaway on here, letting out not only music that hearkens back to the great singer and musician, but also talking about a vision that matches up with Hathaway's own compassionate, love-centered ideas. This tune deals in an emotional but clear-eyed way with life and death, and how to react to unexpected passings -- topics that we wish rappers, who surely have intimate familiarity with these topics, would talk about more.
"Singing This Song":
An inspirational album needs an inspirational ending, and we have that here in spades. A gospel choir-esque meld of voices starts us off, and the tune also includes an amazing list of Ali's heroes and inspirations, which ranges from MLK and Coretta to Bob Dylan to Angela Davis. It's a perfect way to end an often-challenging, but always hopeful, album.
Check out all the lyrics and explanations to the Brother Ali's Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color on Rap Genius
Brother Ali -- "All You Need" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Gather Round" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "My Beloved" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Fajr" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Letter to My Countrymen" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Mourning in America" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Namesake" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Need a Knot" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Only Life I Know" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Say Amen" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Singing This Song" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Stop the Press" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Won More Hit" Lyrics
Brother Ali -- "Work Everyday" Lyrics