Brother Ali - Biography
Brother Ali has found his niche in the underground rap world not by gravitating toward similar artists, but rather by embracing his exclusivity as a champion of the underdog and a political voice with no concept of barriers.
Brother Ali was born Jason Newman in Madison, Wisconsin in 1977. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Michigan and then North Minneapolis, Minnesota, which he still calls home. Born with Albinism — a condition that leaves those affected with no pigment in their skin, eyes, or hair — Ali was often ridiculed by his classmates. Turning this social roadblock into a stepping stone, he dove into both Islam and rap as a means of coping and finding his place in the world. Ali is Caucasian, but has been quoted as saying that his most painful interactions as a youngster were with other white kids who were not accepting of his physical differences. Instead he found a more welcoming community within the Minneapolis African American population.
Race has always been at the forefront of Ali’s personal story and as his career as an artist took off, he was often asked about his ethnicity. As a man with Albinism, a Muslim name, and a rap career, he was hard to classify. After he repeatedly refused to answer questions about his ethnicity, journalists and the public assumed he was of African American descent. More recently, Ali has spoken out about the misplaced ethnicity. He now says that he wishes he had not remained silent about his race, simply because he does not want to imply that he is anything other than who he really is.
Ali’s career as a rapper in the underground began in 2000 with his self-produced demo tape, Rites of Passage (Rhymesayers Entertainment). A collection of poems, rhymes, and passages merged with live set material, Rites of Passage made it into the hands of the Rhymesayers crew and they asked Ali to join them at Scribble Jam in Cincinnati, Ohio. At Scribble Jam, Brother Ali proved his lyrical prowess when he went up against fellow Rhymesayers crew member Eyedea. Though Ali did not win the overall title, he fared well as a finalist. He returned to the Twin Cities to record his official debut album, Shadows on the Sun (2000 Rhymesayers Entertainment).
Released in 2003, Shadows on the Sun was produced by ANT of Atmosphere, who is credited with having written all of the music behind Ali’s rhymes. Shadows on the Sun had no major national distribution, yet it became a must-have album among underground Hip-Hop connoisseurs and got considerable press in independent music publications. Shadows on the Sun is most notable for its raw energy and its truthfulness about the pain and exclusion Ali felt growing up. The track “Win Some Lose Some” relays the story of Ali being attacked as a teen by a group of classmates who did not want to accept his differences. “Forest Whitaker” is an uplifting ode to finding happiness in being oneself and embracing the differences that make us unique. “Dorian” tells a more somber tale of confronting a man who has beaten his wife.
In 2004, Ali released an EP called The Champion (Rhymesayers Entertainment), which functions as an extension of Shadows on the Sun. The Champion once again employed the talent of ANT alongside Ali to create a nine track powerhouse that deftly moves from classic rap bravado on “Bad Ma Fucka” to social commentary on “Chain Link.” The heartfelt tribute “Rain Water” addresses the deaths of both his mother and grandfather.
2007 saw the release of The Undisputed Truth (Rhymesayers Entertainment). Once again, ANT proved instrumental in the making of the album. The Undisputed Truth is regarded as a highly personal album, as it takes on the strife encountered by Ali and his family as he goes through a divorce and tries to remain a positive influence on his young son, Faheem. The album gained distribution from Warner Brothers Music and found its way to number 69 on the Billboard 200. Brother Ali attracted more attention as he made television appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. The album’s controversial track “Uncle Sam Goddamn” also brought the public eye Ali’s way. “Uncle Sam Goddamn” takes the US Government to task, but it is the song’s thinly veiled reference to cell phone provider Verizon Wireless that proved more threatening to his career. Verizon Wireless, a sponsor for Ali’s tour, was so angered by the reference that they dropped out of the tour and then his tour had to be cancelled. Cell phone providers aside, the primary focus of the track is the US’s former involvement in the slave and drug trades, and its shortcoming in providing for the poor.
In March of 2009, Ali released an EP/DVD package called The Truth is Here (Rhymesayers Entertainment). The EP features nine tracks, one of which is a collaboration with Altmosphere’s Slug. The Truth is Here is meant to bridge the gap between The Undisputed Truth and Brother Ali’s fourth full-length album, Us (Rhymesayers Entertainment/Warner), released in September of 2009. The aptly named Us is another collaboration with Ant, and debuted at number 56 on the Billboard 200.