By Daniel Kohn
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Indie rapper Brother Ali has his mind on his country and his country on his mind. A contemplative meditation on the promises and perils of the United States frames his latest album, Mourning In America and Dreaming in Color. "We're in a state of engineered denial. So many people are having so much pain, strife and suffering individually," the MC says of our country's hard economic times. "It's happening collectively, but that idea of collective hurt is being kept from us. We're made to feel as if we're going through these things alone."
With new songs in hand, Brother Ali will provide hope through hip-hop via a two-month tour in support of the album. However, being away from home hasn't been an entirely beneficial experience. "Cornel West said that the condition of truth is allowing suffering to speak," he says, quoting the scholarly mentor whose voice is included in the opening track.
Though most songs on Mourning In America focus on social questions, Brother Ali questions his soul on the confessional "Stop the Press," on which he rhymes about his trials and tribulations, including the July 4 phone call informing him of his father's suicide. The rapper was on the road at the time and had to cancel shows and fly home to Minneapolis for the burial. He then returned to the tour grind, with little time for personal mourning. But he was interrupted again when he received word that a close friend, rapper Eyedea, had died in his sleep from opiate toxicity.
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"I was at my lowest after having this 10-month period on the road," Brother Ali reflects. A practicing Muslim, the man born Jason Newman turned to his faith and boarded a flight to Saudi Arabia, embarking on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest city. "Making the haj was really great, absolutely necessary, and right on time," he says. "It gave me an orientation in terms of my purpose here on Earth."
Feeling affirmed in the calling of the mic, he came back rejuvenated, ready to start anew. He ended his longtime collaborative relationship with Ant, the primary producer for his label, Rhymesayers, and began working with Jake One. The creative process took Brother Ali from his home to work in Jake One's Seattle hometown. But as with the haj before it, the sojourn was a positive experience. "I think I want to do that with every album: go somewhere by myself and just post up for an extended period of time and reflect and write," he says. "That had a lot to do with the focus on the record."
The lyrics of tracks such as "Need Knot" paint intelligent, painstaking portraits of poverty in the U.S. Stories of odd-job hustling are disguised as illicit trades until the final rhymes of each verse reveal what's really going on. With songs voicing morally provocative condemnations of state violence and asking other hard questions of the nation, Brother Ali's new material is sure to challenge listeners.
The challenge extends to the new album's cover, on which the U.S. flag is on the floor with the rapper kneeling in a prayer pose over it. Some people were offended by the image.
"The reality is that people aren't upset because the flag is on the ground," he says. "People are upset because they don't like that fact that I, as a Muslim, am making the Islamic type of prayer on that flag—that's what's the real problem. If I was a blonde in a bikini with big boobs lying on the flag, nobody would be mad!"
This article appeared in print as "Good Mourning, America: Brother Ali uses personal loss and his country's pain to fuel his latest album."