Brother Ali: The day my father died
|Photo by Daniel Yang|
The reflective voice of rapper Brother Ali caught our attention this year. He's the mind behind a new album out today, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color (UPDATE: stream the album below), which blends deeply personal experiences with a broader look at society. He's inspired by Jay-Z, Chuck D, and Dr. Cornel West -- but in a different and important way by the tumult in his family.
On "Stop the Press," Ali unfolds a particularly heavy time in his recent history. Losses of professional relationships, his pal Eyedea, and then there's this passage: "Got a phone call on the 4th of July/ My dad died, he committed suicide/ Shit should've been there for him/ Had to fly home from Europe to bury him." During a recent conversation at the Rhymesayers HQ in Minneapolis -- a ton of which ended up in this week's cover story -- Ali opened up about that moment. Here's a portion of his thoughts.
Brother Ali: I'm the center of my family's solar system. When I am gone, that's gone. For better and for worse. If I am happy and I'm feeling good, then the whole family is happy and feeling good. If I'm even a little upset or displeased, then they all suffer. I struggle with that. It's a blended family, based on me. Everybody is there in that family because of me.
It's a huge responsibility that I think I have about a B+ average in managing. There's certain times that I handle things pretty wrong just because of how sensitive everybody is to how I feel. I'm very expressive. Exactly how I feel about something is never a question to anybody.
My father and I have had years where we didn't talk and there's been physical altercations between us and stuff like that. He had a really bad temper, and I do too. I think I just try to control that stuff a lot better. He was fundamentally dishonest. That was kind of really near the core of who he was. He was what he needed to be to get what he wanted. So I would say that my dedication to being honest is me pushing back against what he was doing. And that I have an A+ on -- almost to a fault a lot of times.
I knew when I was a little kid that there was something very wrong
with this man. He would say things to me that I would just
be like "Man, I don't think you're supposed to do that as a parent" I remember saying that to him when I was probably seven. He asked me "Did
you hear that fight me and your mom had? Really bad...who do you think
won?" and I'd be like "I don't think you're supposed to ask me that." That's a very
He just fought against reality. The distance in between what his life was, and what he thought
it was supposed to be was unbearable for him. It caused him to move
around a lot. It caused him to reinvent himself a lot. It caused him to
start new families a lot. It caused him to start a business, start a
job, quit, close the business, move to another city and do it again. He
was just perpetually searching, and he struggled really hard with
alcoholism his whole life.
I always thought to myself, "He's going to get old." He's been married, was it four -- I think five times. He's going to have no one there left, and me out of my sense of duty as a Muslim, to never break family ties and take care of your parents no matter what. He's going to live with me and that's going to suck. But I'm going to do it, and I'm going to try to make the best of it. I just always knew that would happen.
I was backstage at a festival in Europe, and it was the 4th of July. Because I remember saying to my DJ dude, I'm like "Man, we gotta do 'Uncle Sam Goddam' tonight, because it's 4th of July and we're in Europe."At that time, I was reading Cornel West's memoir Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud on my Kindle. He was talking about a calling in life that you have no choice over. I've been rapping since I was 7 years old and never tried to do anything else. He talked about what that means and his struggles with women in his life, and doesn't pretend to the answer to things. He talks about having wives, ex-wives and kids, and having to travel around and see everybody. As successful as he is, he never has money because his money is going in so many different directions. It just moved me so much. I was just at the part in the book where his dad died.
And when I read that, two things came across me. I was like "Man, the
situation that my dad's in now is the best he's ever done... and maybe
not. Maybe he'll grow old with this lady." She's not much older than me,
his last wife. So she's much younger than him and could take care of
him. So I'm like "Man, maybe not" but then right when I had that
thought, I got a text from my wife that said "I need you to call home
the first chance you get" and I started dialing.