Letters to a Hip Hop Skeptic: Brother Ali

Continued from here.

(So here’s the set up: in an attempt to win other a doubtful friend, Every week I’m going to talk about a concept as it relates to hip hop – theatre, love, politics, crime etc – and put together a playlist around the same theme. I’ll talk about a few of my favourite tracks, and let you listen to the rest. I’ll also feature an artist that I think exemplifies what I like about Hip Hop’s take on the subject, and include a few stray and off-topic classics that I think are worth hearing for their own sake.)

Featured Artist: Brother Ali

So how did I fall in love with Hip Hop? Well, it had an advantage with me that it doesn’t with you – I was pretty desperately in love with the person to introduce me to it. And while I flatter myself that you’re relatively fond of me, I think us moving in together wouldn’t fill you with that much joy. And if, a year or two from now, you were to realise that you wanted to commit to Hip Hop in a way you never thought possible, but in the interim I had decided that I only wanted to make playlists for some fucking guy from Queensland, I’m sure you’d be more gracious about it than I was (in my version of this rather strained analogy). Regardless, it was in that context that I first started to really listen to rappers.

But the first artist to make me love Hip Hop was not the first Hip Hop artist I loved. What I mean is, while I loved Lupe Fiasco and Del La Soul, I thought of them as exceptions, I thought what I liked about them was what differentiated them from most rappers. But I was wrong, and Brother Ali is the guy that made me realise.

A blind Albino and devout Muslim, Ali is equally comfortable discussing macro political theory and the everyday minutiae of life as it’s lived.  We see the former in the gentle hope of ‘Letter to My Countrymen’ and the annoyance and bewilderment of seemingly inescapable drudgery and poverty in ‘Work Everyday’ (‘follow politics? Man I ain’t got time to think…how absurd is this/why are so many poor people conservative?’). His disastrous first marriage is laid bare on ‘Walking Away’ (on which he notes with wry humour that his ex is unlikely to keep listening to his records) and most shatteringly of all ‘All you Need’ (After their young son burns himself and she fails to take him to hospital (or visit) he wearily concludes ‘That was the moment I divorced you in my head/God might forgive you for that, I never did.’) And sure, you can get politics and heartbreak anywhere. But take, say, the joyous ‘Fresh Air’, where he talks about getting the keys to his first house. I remember being struck with the fact that, despite it being a fairly universal aspiration, and a huge moment in anyone’s life, I’d never heard a single earnest singer-songwriter bother to deal with it.  It’s the joyous detail that hip hop dedicates to the unglamorous yet profound that I first heard in Ali’s mellifluous voice. It’s that focus on humanity and community that he does best –  just try to avoid goosebumps his impassioned empathy for a young closeted gay man on Tight Rope (‘There ain’t no flame that can blaze enough, to trump being hated for the way you love…it’s a cold world y’all/Shame on us’). On the gospel infused title track which closes 2008’s ‘Us’, he sums up:

I started rhyming just to be somebody
Found out that I already was
Cos can’t nobody be free, unless we’re all free
There’s no me, and no you

There’s just us.



Charlie Lewis

Charlie is a committed dilettante, inveterate hoarder and functioning alcoholic. His interests include the extremes of Pop culture (the very good and the very bad), politics, hip-hop, feminism, history and The Beatles. His writing for Lost will focus, as much as possible, on one or more of these topics until he finds a way to write about all of them at once.

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