Brother Ali knows that times are tough. He’s been spending most of this young century wrestling with that reality—not only as a musician, but as an activist. The five years since his previous album, 2012’s Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, have brought no shortage of new topics for him to tackle: the rising profile of Minneapolis representative and fellow Muslim Keith Ellison, to the killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile in his Twin Cities home.
This sort of environment might herald a new Brother Ali album as a potential call to action for what might feel like trying times. But All The Beauty in This Whole Life has a different dimension to it. Ali doesn’t shy away from politics, of course: “Dear Black Son” is a father-to-child conversation about racism; on “Uncle Usi Taught Me,” he contrasts the respect he received while lecturing in Iran to the TSA’s dehumanizing treatment of him on the return trip; “Before They Called You White” examines the ways European-Americans have become pawns of white supremacy. But as we spoke with Ali, he returned, again and again, to the idea of balance—of listening to fans as much as he speaks to them, and of acknowledging not only the world’s problems, but the moments of beauty and divinity that exist, and that we all need to fight for.
You’ve always been a bit attentive to the things going on socially and politically in the world. How do you feel the world has changed since your last album dropped, and how has that informed your work?
There are two questions there; they’re connected but they’re not exactly the same. One of them is, ‘What’s happening in the world outside of me?’ and the other one is, ‘What’s happening in the world inside me, the world of my head and heart and reality?’ I’ve always been a person who cared a lot about both. During the Obama period, I was still an activist, I was still a community and political organizer. In that experience, I realized something that a lot of people realize when you spend a lot of years doing that work: If we’re not careful, we can lose our heart, and we can lose our sense of genuine awareness about what’s going on in our heart by focusing too much on what’s going on externally. It’s really easy to focus on the evil that’s in the world, especially when the people in the charge are so outwardly evil—when they’re unabashedly communicating and doing their best to act on a really loveless agenda of dehumanizing people, seizing power, abusing power, and trying to set the stage for power abuse on even greater levels. It’s easy to focus on that evil, because it’s so naked.
But the danger in a time like [this] is that we can focus on that evil and what we should be doing about it, but we lose touch with our own inner state and inner reality. And that’s something I have a lot of experience with, and I think anybody that’s done that type of work for a long time knows and has experienced that. We all constantly struggle with maintaining the world inside and the world outside. Both of them require a response, and both of them require healing, and both of them require a fight. There’s a genuine fight inside me to make sure my ego is disciplined. I have to discipline my ego like a child: ‘You can’t do that; I know you want this but you can’t have it.’ I know it might feel good to judge other people, but you can’t do that. You’re not allowed to be jealous of people, you’re not allowed to hate people, and you’re not allowed to make blanket statements about other people. You can’t do that. Those are things that happen inside me, and there has to be a healing and a fight.
So we take that out to the external world and say, ‘We’re not going to let you castigate this whole group of people, to cast this wide net and blame all of our economic problems on people from Mexico. We’re not going to let you tell us that the biggest danger to the world is Islam and Muslims, and that Muslims are dangerous so we’re not going to let them in. We’re not going to close the borders after the majority of people living on these shores came from other places. We’re not going to let you take away freedoms that people have, we’re not going to let you abuse the environment.’ It’s a long list.
But what I’ve personally experienced from doing this work is that the only way for me to really be effective is to start from within. And that way, my fighting for justice will be something that emanates, hopefully, from within. So this album, like all of my albums, is me reporting on what that’s like for me.
And then building from that experience is like extending an empathy outwards?
Yeah, the way that I view art is that I have these experiences, and then report on what those experiences are like. What I don’t want to do is make it appear as if I think that I’ve arrived at something, or that I have the answers. I’ve made a lot of protest music, a lot of music that is condemning evil in the world in no uncertain terms. And I stand by that, 100%. I’ll perform those songs forever. But at this time, what I want to do is offer beauty and love and connections and compassion, and extend warmth. Because that’s what’s missing. Nobody’s missing a critique of what’s wrong with this administration. There’s no shortage of that. There are people who are much better than me at critiquing that. It’s really in the forefront, the level of lovelessness in our world. I feel like, ‘What can I offer to the world at this moment?’ And to me, the most genuine, authentic experience, is offering beauty, love, connection, truth, and warmth.
One of the things I’ve noticed with the rise in social media is that, even if you connect with people, eventually it’ll start feeling like, ‘Oh, we’re all complaining about the same things.’ Even if we feel like we have good reason to complain, because they’re things affecting us and our friends and the basic fabric of society right now. It starts to feel more like a release valve for frustration than a conduit for figuring out how we’re going to cope, and to help each other cope.
And that’s got to be a major part of it. One step is rejecting evil—to witness evil, acknowledge it for being what it is, and saying ‘I don’t like this, I’m against it, I want to do what I can to denounce this. If I could put a stop to this, I would. If I could be part of a movement that aims at hindering evil in the world, I want to be part of that.’ I’m fully bought into that. I’ve been to jail for that, been profiled by the government, had money taken from me. But then you’ve got to start thinking about, ‘What am I going to offer in response? What’s the alternative?’ I’m approaching 40, and I’ve only lived in this modern world that’s dominated by greed, and white supremacy, and men abusing women, and people with money abusing people without it. I’ve lived in this system of abuse all my life. I started to realize that, not to take away from the other stuff, but what I wanted to invest more time in was figuring out what it means to be a human being.
If the problem with these people is that they’re loveless and they don’t believe in community, then what’s my community living like? How am I in that community? Do I really share my heart and my life and my space with people? Or do I only meet with people in these little neat managed compartments? Do I just have dinner parties with people, or do I really share my life with them? Do I only make perfectly crafted text messages with the perfect emoji to send people, or am I really with people when things are messy? Do I only like my friends when they’re saying things I agree with, or can we have differing opinions about certain things that we can work through together? Am I only with people when I’m on my best behavior, or am I really going to allow people to see all the things about me that aren’t as honorable as I’d like?
We’re all dealing with beliefs when we talk about this. There’s a certain belief system that’s in power right now that says if I have power, I’m supposed to be trying my best to push my own agenda and my team. And that means I have to hurt other people. They basically believe that there’s not enough to go around, so in order for me to have what I need, I’ve got to take from you.
But there’s another worldview that says there’s abundance, there’s more than we could ever possibly need, and I can’t succeed without you succeeding. If you’re hurting, I can’t be healthy. My healing is connected to your healing, my suffering’s connected to your suffering. This is another worldview. So I personally have been wanting to spend more time focusing on that. I’ve been realizing that a lot of my activist work was really just making demands of people. Really, we can become the tyrant without power versus the tyrant who has it. A lot of the things I was involved in, we were trying to out-tyrant the tyrants, out-devil the devil, out-dictate the dictator. Wanting to win a fight, our team vs. their team, and our team isn’t based on any set of higher principles or virtues. It’s just I’m on this team, and that’s what makes it right, ’cause I’m me.
The principles that drive human existence are universal. I’m a Muslim, and I really love the Sufis. I love the Muslims that are about the heart and the spiritual path, and those are the people that I learned from. I also love law and the moral codes, but I really love the people’s spirituality. The more I kick it with them, the more I hear the same truth in the Buddhists and the First Nation/Native American elders, and the more I hear that in all of these different traditions. The video [we did for “Own Light (What Hearts Are For)”] is kind of what I’m offering. These virtues and principles are the same, they’re universal.
A lot of the subject matter and emotion on the album feels like the sort of thing a lot of artists try to keep concealed — your personal history and your family history. What inspired you to be this open with your experiences? I’m thinking of “Out of Here,” and the way it examines suicide on your father’s side of the family. It feels like an open call for dialogue and a connection.
I’ve always put my most personal things in my music, because I thought that’s how you make good music. I grew up listening to the blues and folk and soul music, so the songs about the most personal, emotionally-charged realities in life—that’s how you make good music. But over time, I started to realize—and this is what the fans teach me—that I don’t write those songs while I’m going through that pain. I write those songs after I’ve gone through it, had some healing, and processed it. Then I write a song about the pain and the healing.The only difference with the way I wrote “Out of Here” is that I didn’t talk about my specific details until the very end. The first two verses of that song are what you go through, and what I went through, when I lost people to suicide. The whole thing of denying it, blaming myself, being angry with the person, thinking, ‘Well, maybe there’s a chance they didn’t really mean to kill themselves,’ and then eventually just having to accept it and heal from it. Right at the very end, I say that my father and grandfather, the men in my family, have died from suicide. And so what am I supposed to do? I wanted to put the specific details of my life in there, but I also wanted people to hear the song and just be able to experience it on their terms. The fans taught me that over time.
There are other things, too, [on the album] that are about the things that happen when we’re not experiencing love and connection and real beauty and real joy. “Special Effects” is about how we’re only connecting with our loved ones online. “The Bitten Apple” is about porn addiction. It’s important for us to be connected, and to experience love and do the gritty part of life together, not just the sanitized [version]. None of this is anything new. It’s just my take on it. I really appreciate the opportunity to process it with the listeners—they do as much for me as I do for them. I really believe it’s the Creator doing it for all of us. But it helps me a lot.