Brother Ali: I Self Devine helped me love my reality

Categories: Brother Ali
Photo by Daniel Yang
Brother Ali's mentor and friend, I Self Devine.
Note: Brother Ali is a Minneapolis rapper signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment and is one of our 20 Best Minnesota Musicians. Here, he speaks about his longtime mentor and labelmate I Self Devine, who celebrates the release of The Sound of Low Class Amerika at the 7th St. Entry tonight. The album is officially out May 8.

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Brother Ali: I Self Devine is an entire community in one person. He's a big brother and an elder statesman in the Twin Cities hip-hop community. I don't just mean for rappers, but the overall culture of hip-hop: Spoken word, emceeing, rapping, producers, DJs, graffiti artists, breakdancers, activists -- all of these things come together in this one person.

I've seen people come into the hip-hop community here, and it's almost as if he's keeping track of everything. If he gives you that nod of approval, then you're a part of it. It's not an official thing, like "If I Self doesn't co-sign you, then you're not part of the scene," but his voice means something.

I Self was someone who was putting out really important records at a time when Rhymesayers was starting. He'd always been that figure that represents what hip-hop is about with supreme focus on the actual craft of writing songs and performing. The music that he makes has always been really creative, and really avant-garde. If you listen to Micranots' Obelisk Movements, it's really artistic and interesting. The way he was writing at that time, we'd always compare him to Thelonius Monk because the timing was so strange, but beautiful. As an emcee, his language and use of words is his own. He almost speaks his own language. Very flavorful, and individual. The people who are his fans, his music is life-changing to them. Extremely impactful for the people who get it. It's huge.

Micranots - "Illegal Busyness"

I don't have a cookie-cutter, traditional American identity in terms of race: European ancestry, born in a white family being albino, and then trained, raised, and mentored in the black community. Now, there's a new hip-hop audience culturally trained to embrace people who look like them. That was a really strange thing for me at first, because I didn't want to be embraced for being white in a black art form. I didn't want to be that cultural vulture appropriating and stealing culture to sell it to people who look like me who don't know any better. I didn't know how to address it, and I didn't find a place to be comfortable in it yet.

People would ask me, "You're black, right?" I wouldn't answer them, because I got a sense that they were trying to write the story "here's this white person saying these things." I didn't want to give them that ammunition to write that story, because I didn't trust the way that they'd handle it. I wasn't even sure about how I felt about it yet. I'd say "Flip a coin, and put that in there." That was my way of saying, "I'm not going to address this with you."

I Self and I had conversations where he helped me realize that it's a really beautiful thing that I was trained and raised with the experiences that I had, and also being able to speak to people who may not have had that benefit or opportunity to see life as I see it. I didn't have a choice but to see things the way that I see them. The contradiction that I had as a child: Growing up among black people and developing this deep, intense love for black people, but then also having this closeness and membership in the dominant group.

Going back and forth between these two realities was strange, and it forced me to always size things up and always try to keep track of hope and really celebrate humanity. That grew into a universal love of oppressed people in every scenario. To have that experience to see life in a way that society doesn't encourage us to see, we're encouraged to pick teams. We're encouraged to see it through the lens they've given us, which is first class citizens and then others. It wasn't that defined for me.

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