San Diego-bred, NYC-based Brett Uddenberg is a music journalist with over 100 published album and concert reviews to date. He writes for sites and publications including URB Magazine, DailySpots and San Diego Reader and has interviewed artists such as WHY?, Buck 65, Pigeon John and Dessa of Doomtree. Brett also works in freelance PR, crafting bios and one-sheets for a variety of independent musicians across the nation.
For over a decade, Minnesota’s Brother Ali has been bringing together disparate indie rap audiences with his messages of compassion and love. I recall a show back in 2004 at the now extinct The Scene in San Diego when Ali was opening for Atmosphere and debuted the song “Rain Water” off of his then forthcoming Champion EP. The track chronicled Ali’s grandfather leaving the world by his own hands and his mother’s death from cancer, both of which occurred in the same year, and the need to press on despite the tragedies that inevitably present themselves in this life. Gazing around the warehouse-like venue, tears were flooding down dozens of cheeks by the song’s close.
This knack for capturing a crowd’s emotions and making each individual fully present in the moment is part of the reason Brother Ali is still selling out venues like the Bowery Ballroom in 2012. Following a charismatic opening set from Queens native Homeboy Sandman, Ali opened the night with “Stop The Press”, the first single from his just released Mourning In America And Dreaming In Color. The song, a journal entry on the past three or so years of the rapper’s life, mirrors the dismal history of “Rain Water” in its reference to Ali’s father’s suicide and the untimely passing of brilliant Minnesota lyricist Eyedea, with whom Ali was close friends. Ali’s salvation from sorrow came in the form of a trip to Mecca, where he connected with others of his faith, got a foothold on peace of mind, and returned to the States with a renewed purpose in the vocal booth.
These brief glimpses into the abyss via the aforementioned tracks are far from emblematic of the artist’s canon. They show that his larger message of unity and positivity is not some vague and corny mantra, but a tangible choice in worldview in the wake of events that may lead others towards fierce degrees of hopelessness. His encore of “Letter To My Countrymen”, which features a Cornel West speech on the album version, embodied this succinctly.
“All of this struggling gotta amount to something,” Ali relayed over the track’s soothing keys.
The white-bearded emcee’s gradual progression from personal to political realms has neared its peak on the new record, which was produced entirely by Seattle beatsmith Jake One. Art imitates life for Ali, who was arrested over the summer during a rally in solidarity with the Occupy Homes movement. The commanding drums of “Mourning In America” found him tackling the prison industrial complex and examining warfare as “terrorism of the rich”. It’s difficult to broach such topics without coming across as preachy or sacrificing nuance; few do these days, other than Ali, Sole, B. Dolan and Sage Francis. Immortal Technique, another heavily political rapper who caught on with college crowds around the same time as Ali, made a surprise appearance and spit a few bars acapella.
Blank Tape Beloved supplied the energetic backdrop re-imagining a decade’s worth of Ant beats for Ali to tear to shreds with his distinct and powerful flow. The quintet incorporated guitar, keyboard, banjo, trombone, French horn, and saxophone over the course of a lengthy set. A few hundred fans singing along to the self-affirming “Forest Whitaker” refrain of “You ain’t gotta love me” brought the evening full circle and showed just how long many of the faces in the audience had been following Brother Ali’s career. Songs such as “Dorian” from 2003’s Shadows On The Sun and “Fresh Air” off of his penultimate release Us were met with equal fervor by the downtown Manhattan capacity crowd.