“Everybody Is Going Through Some Sort Of Identity Crisis”: Brother Ali On Race, Art & Wisdom In Troubling Times

W. E. B. Dubois presciently stated that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line, the question of how far differences of race – which show themselves chiefly in the color of skin and the texture of the hair – will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization”. How far have we come? Have the problems of the 20th century bled into the following century?

Whilst it is a poorly defined and rather flimsy marker, it is evident that the ‘race concept’ has helped humans organise ‘difference’ and ‘commonality’. This organisation has instantiated among other things the binary of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’. This colouring or whitening/blackening of bodies is tangled in the social and historical dramas of European cultural mythology, colonialism and slavery.

Through the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment a peculiar form of Manichean colour symbolism framed ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ in opposition. ‘Blackness’ was negative, apish, dark, ugly and accursed, whilst ‘whiteness’ was positive, civilised, pure, beautiful and free (How much have we changed? Look to “Ape in heel” epithet flung at Michelle Obama). These designations were not innocuous but laws, or systems of abstraction, that conferred the ‘white wanderer’, the ‘anglo-saxon hero’, a positively-weighted social and ideological currency. The symbolic (and literal) positioning of ‘black’ people as both the victim and antagonist of Western civilisation by a ‘white’ elite (during the 19th and 20th centuries) has left indelible structures in modernity’s halls of power, privilege and belonging.

It is time for ‘white’ and ‘black’ people alike to question inherited dogma. How do we reconfigure our understanding of ourselves? Is a post-racial conception of humanity possible? For me, whilst praxes (activism) and theory (philosophy) undoubtedly work as instruments of criticism, it is art that will best peel back the colour, so to speak.

Below is a conversation with Brother Ali about race, art and wisdom.

Brother Ali – Only Life I Know

Music Feeds: Let’s paint a picture of you. Can you just talk to us about what you have been doing specifically as an artist? What has really impacted and steered you artistically and politically?

Brother Ali: I have made a lot of music over the past 10 to 15 years. A lot of it has been really personal and autobiographical – talking about my own struggles, the victories, the challenges, the tragedies and the celebrations in my own life. A lot of that deals with growing up, being poor and being an albino – looking really different. I am also legally blind – very close to being blind, partially sighted. So I had to figure out how to reconcile my albinism, how to live in the world. I was taught how to do that by African American people, black American people, who have spent 400 years building this country and the culture of western civilisation.

At the same time, they were being told constantly that they were not really human, that they were not beautiful or smart or worthy or valuable. Yet they remained and perdured. So I learnt from them how to get ahold of oneself and identity. In my opinion, they are the greatest teachers of human beings on the planet.

Hip hop was an integral part of that teaching of self-affirmation in the ’80s and ’90s. So I used hip hop to tell my own personal stories. I was married young, I had children young, I went through a very difficult divorce and I was homeless with a friend. And then music became a way for me to maintain my life and provide for my family. I never got to the point of being wealthy or rich with music. It was independently successful and gave us financial stability. So I was just doing what I love to do and communicating the way that I wanted to. So all of that story and experience is in the earlier music.

I had a following period where I made music that would be called more overtly political, where I talked a lot with youth, mostly white and poor, who identify with me partially because I look like them and share some commonalities. I have been able to share with them my vantage point on race and how it ties into all other forms of injustice and I have been able to share with them the way that the wealthy elite have used the white working class and poor people to do their dirty work. They convinced them to give up their particular heritage. People came from Ireland and Scotland and Poland and Germany, all these different, beautiful places with rich traditions, legacies and cultures. They sang, they painted, they wrote poetry, they danced, they had architecture, they had specific spiritual beliefs and they had unique family structures. But, they traded most of that for the idea of ‘whiteness’, which is an invention that basically says ‘you will never be rich, you will never really own anything, you will never be in control, but because we privilege you in certain ways relative to the people at the absolute bottom of the totem pole, you get to identify with power and feel like you are part of it. You get to feel like you are in on the joke, even when the joke is on you, as much as it is on everybody else.’ That is something that is very very clear to me.

When I talk about ‘whiteness’ or ‘white privilege’, it should not be received with, and I do not intend to express it with, any stigma or blameworthiness. It should not be met with guilt because these are poor people who have been manipulated over the course of centuries to believe that ‘whiteness’ is who they are. It really was a tool that was made to enslave.

Brother Ali – Mourning in America

MF: I was having a conversation similar to this that during slavery there were indentured ‘white’, caucasian slaves, and basically the oligarchic elite, the masters, constructed, fabricated even, this sense of ‘whiteness’ to make them feel like they had some kind of civil and cultural priority over the black slaves. They made them patrol their black counterparts. But, their actual material circumstances, circumstances of oppression and inequality, were not changing or shifting in any way. Just by giving them this ethnophilosophical positivity they felt that they were something. It is the lie that is told again and again and again to so many people. It is such a bait-and-switch.

There are so many things that you just said that are so interesting. In reference to your albinism – I am mixed myself, with two supposed racial opposites melded together ‘in’ and ‘on’ my body – you have this very obvious ‘white’ mark, yet you have existed with African Americans. How do those two sides work together for you? Surely your identity is a kind of ground for what is happening in the world and America right now.

BA: I think that it really highlights what has always been there. So ‘my reality’ is a reality that has always been there. We are suffering under modernity and we are trying to navigate what that means together, and it is uncharted territory. The mass of concepts and paradigms that predate modernity, that comprise most of human history, we have mostly given up these. This is the first time that people have ever lived like this, and so everybody is going through some sort of identity crisis.

The people who need to navigate it the most – it is a matter of survival for them to constantly be examining identity – are the people at the bottom of this constructed totem pole, which in America means African people, and honestly African people all over the world. It is not a coincidence to me that Africans are the first human beings, the common ancestor of us all. In this age of modernity, which is really anti-black in-and-of itself, anti-Africa specifically, it is posited that the people who came later are necessarily better than the people who came before, just by virtue of the fact that they are later in time.

That is not an African way of looking at things. It is not a traditional way of looking at things – we always think that our elders are superior to us, that we are a poor excuse for our elders and must try our best to maintain and carry what we have inherited from them. That is the traditional way of most ancient cultures around the world. You know, ‘I am a man, my grandfather was a man.’ or ‘My great-grandmother was a woman, they don’t make them like that anymore.’ This is premodern thinking, and that is a very African way – respecting and embracing wisdom, you know, seeing seniority as superiority.

So modernity is very anti this approach. In my view, African people are at the forefront of navigating what it means to hold on to meaning, humanity and purpose within this hellish modern world. We have been learning how to endure and flourish from African people the whole time, we just fail to acknowledge it. We might not realise that jazz and rock and rap is helping us cope. All of these things are helping us hold on to some sense of being human, living in a ‘body’ and being natural, even if it is just when we dance. The point is, they have been doing it.

MF: You are talking a lot about the identity of black people, and obviously there is this white working class that you were also talking about, who are very frustrated and have clung to a lot of the political speak that is being thrown around the arena. In your opinion, how can people like yourself face the rise of white nationalism, the rise of hard-right parties? What is your approach?

BA: The album that I just made is dealing a lot with love – I do not just mean ‘romantic love’, nor do I mean ‘no romantic love’. But, it deals a lot with loving, it deals a lot with beauty and deals a lot with accessing the world of meaning. There is definitely more of a spiritual element.

When I was making political music 4 years ago, it was in the middle of the Obama period, when liberals, as it were, were very comfortable. A lot of people thought, ‘Why are you making this music?’, ‘What are you talking about?’ Now, a lot of those things have emerged and people are being reawakened to the reality of white nationalism. I never forgot about it – white nationalism was never ‘under-cover’ or ‘invisible’ for me. I saw it very clearly. Now more and more people are awakening, getting involved in politics and organising.

I feel that I need to offer a new form of conversation right now – to focus on the world of meaning, spirit and truth. Beauty and truth always go together – you cannot have truth without beauty, nor beauty without truth. I am talking about rooted beauty, not that which is in the eyes of the beholder – ‘I like this’ and ‘you like that’. There is a universal feeling that humanity shares with something that is beautiful and well-proportioned. It reminds us. It evokes a nostalgia for nature and meaning and truth. The music that I will be releasing in the near future is all based and built on that.

Brother Ali – Uncle Sam Goddamn

MF: That comes to the question of aesthetics and writing, or poetics and rap. So you are writing new stuff. How do you get this universal beauty, as it were, into your art? What is the process for you both practically and philosophically?

BA: That is the whole key. Even as we address all the political and racial issues. If white people, or in fact the people who are called ‘white’, awaken further and accept ‘whiteness’ as an invented thing, the question will then become ‘What do I be?’ and said differently ‘How do I be?’ Nobody knows what they were before they were white. That primaeval state is completely gone.

How do we access something that is premodern? For me, we access such history through elders and wisdom tradition. I, specifically, am a Muslim. I believe in the totality of Islam, which includes Sufism and spirituality. I have Sufi sheikhs who I am connected with, and elders and sages. I travel and I sit with them. I ‘be’ with them, learn from their existence.

By being connected to them you participate in a language that people-of-meaning speak universally. African people can usually understand other African people. A person from Gambia can usually understand a person from Jamaica. Even though their slang is different, they can still understand each other, there is something deeper than the surface reality of spoken language. The same is true for spiritual people, people-of-wisdom and people-of-meaning, especially the elders. If I sit with my elders they will speak about things in the same ways that the elders in Gambia do, and the First Nation’s elders in America do, and ancient Tibetan elders do.

These people are really important. A lot of the time we ignore and disregard our grandparents, our great-grandparents, even our parents. We just assume that we are better than them. We assume that we are better than them because we know how to use our phone and they do not. We know how to access porn and they do not. So we think that we are superior. But, we really need to ask them: What was it like for you? What are you concerned about? What did I miss by growing up in the time that I grew up? What do you wish that I could have? What are the things that you know how to do that I do not know how to do? What were you taught? What is growing and making your own food do for you? What does slaughtering an animal feel like? What did sewing your own clothes do for you?

I mean, people these built their own homes, raised their own vegetables and slaughtered their own food, and we think that we are better than them. Most of the time we do not thoroughly examine this thought pattern. We are victims to the idea that everything evolves as a law of nature – we assume that evolution, biological and cultural, is necessarily positive and productive. That is not really the case.

MF: There is a growing fear of Islam in America, and Australia as well. This fear is being characterised as rational, with people arguing that Islam is a political ideology not a spirituality. What would you say to those people? The people that have these thoughts and validate them. You are not what Islamophobes would imagine, you are sophisticated, smooth, witty and alive. What would you say to those who represent this paradigm?

BA: I would invite them to examine what it is that they believe in. We begin learning about other people by really knowing ourselves. I am a westerner, and I am labelled ‘white’ by the labelling system and society. I was born and raised by parents of a German background. I would say to understand and interact with other people, modern and western people really need to know themselves better.

What do we say we are, as westerners? We say that we are plural, we say that we are tolerant, we say that we are multicultural, we say that we are for freedom, we say that we are for justice, we say that we have freedom of religion, we say that we are an open society. That is what we say. But it cannot just be for people like ourselves.

The problem that we are having is a problem of identity, a crisis of the liberal democratic identity. If we believe ourselves to be people that are concerned with freedom and justice, and all these ‘ideals’, then the only way that you test them is with the people that you are least likely to easily interact and live with – the people who are outwardly ‘the different’, ’the least’, ‘the lowly’ and ‘the broken’. Like when Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40). That is how you know. That is your ‘workshop’. When you are with the ‘least’, you are not wading through rubbish at the tip, you are at the ‘workshop’. You do not prove a belief in freedom by conferring freedom to people that are just like you, you prove it with the people that you need to work and struggle with to acknowledge.

The other thing that I would like westerners to know, is that Islam has always been a part of western civilisation going all the way back to Europe and even Ancient Greece with Islamic philosophers, mathematicians, doctors, artists and scientists. The Muslims are not the people that have the beef with science. Muslims are the people who added to science and participated in the grand empirical project of experimental science. We are not told this. These facts are hidden from us. This is another case where our good countryman are being tricked to focus on somebody that is not their actual enemy.

Greed is your enemy. Muslims are not your enemy. The Muslims are not destroying the environment. The Muslims did not destroy western economies. The Muslims did not make our politicians corrupt. The Muslims did not break our families up. The Muslims did not destroy our education system. We did that. Human greed did that. The greedy people though – they have to point at something else.

Brother Ali returns to Australia this year to tour with fellow artist Atmosphere. Dates and details here.

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