by: Amin Eddebbarh
“I could sell a mil’ sayin’ nothing on the track¦” These words are from the 2007 hit song “This is why I’m hot” by M.I.M.S (ironically an acronym for Music Is My Savior). Sadly in today’s era of commercial hip hop, the records getting the most plays are almost completely void of substance. Rather than shedding light on the struggles of the oppressed or sparking thought on societal institutions, most artists fill their repetitive lyrics with elementary rhymes about their lifestyles. Despite this overall trend, the roots of hip hop as a counter hegemonic tool still survive, mainly thriving in the underground scene, occasionally sprouting up through cracks in the concrete of mainstream rap.
One such instance of this is Brother Ali, a Muslim hip-hop artist from the Twin Cities known for his crisp cadence and narratives of the struggles of the downtrodden that permeate from his songs. Ali clearly states his position on lyrical substance in his song When the beat comes in,? off his 2001 CD titled Shadows on the Sun. Lamenting popular trends in hip-hop, Ali says, “Instead of concentratin’ on strippin” the youth naked I give them the truth naked, living proof of the sacred.”
Brother Ali is part of a growing movement of independent artists and labels beginning to sway momentum away from major record labels controlling the hip-hop industry. While the “commercial” hip hop icons focus on image and sales, the Indie movement slowly gives the decision-making power back to the artists, who are less concerned about catchy hooks that might boost their sales, and instead focus on creating the music they want to make rather than tailoring it for the masses. The result of this has been a diverse array of styles and sounds grounded in the philosophy that putting words through a microphone is not a job or a hustle but a means of expressing a struggle, and that their rhymes can be a voice for the voiceless. As Brother Ali says in Shadows on the Sun, “So if y’all tryin” to talk about the horrors you see, feel free to tell your stories through me.”
Though he is signed to the Indie label Rhyme Sayers Entertainment, Brother Ali has begun to garner widespread acknowledgement behind the video from his single Uncle Sam Goddamn for its bold stances on the American government, and a level of talent that can only go unnoticed for so long. Ali is entering a very crucial part of his career as an artist, a point at which many artists let the success get to their heads and start affecting their music.
I had a chance to see Brother Ali when he came to UCLA as part of the Cultural Affairs Commission’s Hip Hop Awareness Week. While the show was everything that I expected, what surprised me is what I saw when I was walking out during Heiroglyphics’ follow up of Ali’s spot. As I left the venue, who did I see sitting at the backdoor other than Brother Ali himself, personally selling his album to fans as they left. I approached him, gave him salaams, and asked him where I could find a copy of his debut tape, Rites of Passage. He responded that they only made 1000 copies originally, and that they were selling them online for $100, after which he admitted, “but if I were you, I would just download that stuff. Look it up on Limewire or something.”
My friends laughed at the irony of his statement, but for me, the line confirmed that my favorite rapper would not put money before his message. I thanked him, grabbed a copy of his latest mixtape at the time, and as I was leaving, asked him, “So when are you gonna speak on Falasteen (Palestine)?”
Now I don’t want to be so arrogant as to claim that I motivated Ali to write a song on it, but I will say that I was proud to see the title “Philistine David” amongst the tracks listed on his mixtape The Rope A Dope, which surfaced earlier this month. Using his usual gripping narrative style, Ali relates his own inner emotions through the story of a Palestinian youth growing up in violence: “And our enemies will never be satisfied, until not even our memory survives, it feels like they got the whole planet on their side, the story of my people will never reach your eyes.”
In a time when hip hop is being used by major labels to brainwash youth and disempower people of color, at least one real hip hop artist survives, lending his voice to tell stories of the indigent, too often skipped over by a media dictated by dominant groups.