Quiet moments aren't easy to come by when you're a rapper on tour. That's a bothersome reality for Brother Ali, legally blind since birth and particularly attuned to noise and the absence of it.
"Not being able to see, I really focus on sounds," he says. "That's the way I convey meaning — by the way things sound. ... Once you prepare for an album and a tour and all that, there's not a lot of silence. You have to be in the constant noise of promoting. It becomes this non-stop thing and it's difficult to find space for quiet and aloneness."
The Minneapolis-based MC's creativity has been tied to periods of reflection throughout his career. Early on, he spent a lot of time walking and taking the bus, and he stayed silent in the crowd, a ghost. He envisioned most of the songs for 2003's Shadows in the Sun while ruminating in public spaces. More recently, Brother Ali revisited that process with All the Beauty in This Whole Life, his first album in five years, released earlier this month. During periods of silence he observed as a practicing Muslim, absent the mind's usual inputs — speaking, listening to music, looking at screens — the words came to him.
"Whatever messages you are getting is your heart talking," he says.
Brother Ali, born Jason Newman, spoke to Riverfront Times over the phone ahead of his show at the Firebird on May 22. His voice has the sort of rhythmic, lyrical quality reserved for rappers and reverends, and that's part of what makes him something of curiosity to music journalists. Soulful though Brother Ali may be, he is as white as they come: He was born with albinism, or the lack of pigment in his skin, hair and eyes, and is extremely sensitive to light.
Brother Ali acknowledges that looking different and not seeing what everybody else does is isolating, but it lends to introspection and self-reflection. And that suits him. For instance, his long hiatus from recording was spent rediscovering his spiritual path, he says.
"I was spending time with people who really have their hearts right, people who are in line and good proportion," he says. "Human beings are really amazing creatures when their heart is together. When the heart is out of whack — and the culture we live in and these times really encourage the heart being out of alignment — things like the ego become too much of the center, too much in control."
Egotism is a theme Ali explores on All the Beauty in This Whole Life. The song "It Ain't Easy" is a bouncy stroll in the park set to clean, major-key piano chords over which he raps: "I don't need to say everything I think I must/My ego's trying to ruin everything I touch/What I mean though or what my point is/That you're much more important than my point is."
He explains, "For somebody like me who's an activist and community organizer, thinking that my own opinions are so important and thinking I'm right all the time can make it difficult to connect with the people who I love."
Indeed, another theme is disconnection in friendships, romantic relationships and modern society as a whole. It's fitting, then, that creating the album itself was a process of reconnection. It was produced entirely by Ant — a.k.a. Anthony Davis — one half of the hip-hop duo Atmosphere, a fellow member of vaunted underground label Rhymesayers and Brother Ali's oldest collaborator. By chance, they found each other in the San Francisco Bay Area around the same time and under similar life circumstances.
"Ant was on a path of exploration of his own that led him to Berkeley," Brother Ali recalls. "We kind of reconnected there, just talking about what's going on, getting a feel for where both of us are. Everybody has a lot going on in their lives, but it's like, 'What am I going to focus on when I'm making music?' There are so many choices and so many different directions it could go. Usually, for us, it's whatever we're both going through at the time. Whatever is really allowing us to relate to each other is what we end up doing with the music.
"I was in the room when he made the music, and he was in the room when I wrote the songs. Everything about it is a partnering."
The product is crisp, fresh and uplifting. There is no overt political messaging like that of Brother Ali's 2007 single "Uncle Sam Goddamn," partly because so many voices in hip-hop are adding meaningfully to that conversation right now — Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, A Tribe Called Quest. But he argues that the very concept of society identifying and connecting with castigated groups such as Muslims, Mexicans, refugees, immigrants and impoverished people is political.
"Connecting on the human level is a revolutionary act," he says. "I don't want to be the one telling people what they should be thinking politically, because everybody is already thinking about that. It's at the forefront of a lot of people's minds."
He goes silent, perhaps to reflect, and then completes his thought.
"It's not enough to diagnose darkness," he says softly. "You have to prescribe light."