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1:03 am
Wed September 26, 2012

Brother Ali: A Voice For The Suffering

Originally published on Wed September 26, 2012 9:36 am

Rapper and activist Brother Ali has just released his fifth studio album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, which was created during a self-imposed two-month exile. A practicing Muslim, Ali writes that he was renewed and inspired by a pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as the Occupy movements and uprisings in the Middle East.

The songs on Ali's new record combine messages of hope with no-holds-barred stories of the disenfranchised. As the title implies, it strikes a balance of mourning and dreaming, as Ali invites listeners to take action.

"We are at a time of really extreme social misery and suffering and pain," Brother Ali tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And so half of what I do on my album is focus on how bad things really are for a lot of people who are suffering silently."

While the album's cover could stir up controversy — it depicts Ali kneeling in prayer on the American flag — Ali says he intends no disrespect.

"It was meant to be a literal depiction of the album title," he says. "That the things that we believe about our country — freedom, justice, equality, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, all people being equal — that these things are on the ground, these things are suffering, and so I am kneeling and praying for it. The meaning behind kneeling in this reverent way and praying is only a problem if [people] have believed this lie that somehow being a Muslim and being an American are mutually exclusive."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The music we're hearing comes from an album whose title is a mouthful, "Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color." Dreaming in Color is significant because the artist, Brother Ali, is Albino. "Mourning In America" is significant because of how Mourning is spelled, M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTER TO MY PRESIDENT")

BROTHER ALI: (Rapping) Ah, I used to think I hated this place. Couldn't wait to tell the president straight to his face, but lately I changed. Nowadays I embrace it all. Beautiful ideals and amazing flaw. Got to care enough to give a testament about the deeply depressing mess we're in. It's home so we better make...

We are at a time of really extreme social misery and suffering and pain, and so half of what I do on my album is really focused on how bad things really are for a lot of people who are suffering silently.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTER TO MY PRESIDENT")

ALI: (Rapping) We don't really like to talk about the race thing, the whole grandparents used to own slaves thing. Pat ourselves on the back in February, looking at pictures of Abe Lincoln and the great King. But the real picture is much more embarrassing, we're still not even close to really sharing things...

INSKEEP: Brother Ali, born into a white family is Jason Newman, brings his own experience as an albino to his lyrics about race and inequality.

ALI: I've, you know, really felt like I didn't have a whole lot of hopes for living any type of happy life that I could feel good about until I was taught and loved and embraced by African-American people - by black people. And the black is beautiful movement is what gave me the space to believe that I could feel good about my presentation as an albino person.

INSKEEP: He converted to Islam at age 15 and has since changed his name. He's in his 30s now but looks older with his white beard. The cover of his latest album features the artist kneeling to pray, using an American flag as a prayer rug.

ALI: And it was meant to be a literal depiction of the album title. That the things that we believe about our country - freedom, justice, equality, life liberty, pursuit of happiness, all people being equal - that these things are on the ground, these things are suffering, and so I am kneeling and praying for it.

INSKEEP: Though he knows some people may be offended, and one favorable music article urged don't judge the album by its cover.

ALI: The meaning behind kneeling in this reverent way, and praying, is only a problem if they have believed this lie, that somehow being a Muslim and being an American are mutually exclusive.

INSKEEP: Brother Ali argues they're not, and says he relied on his faith when his father committed suicide and he lost a close friend in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP THE PRESS")

ALI: (Rapping) Just drowning in tears, probably won't get over that in all my years. I'll remember forever a day later boarded a plane to Mecca. And the next month changed my life, listening to God in the holy sites. Inklings I had all my life, suddenly presented themselves in plain sight...

INSKEEP: Brother Ali says after a month-long pilgrimage to Mecca, he returned home with a renewed sense of purpose.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BELOVED")

ALI: (Rapping) Faith in God, high thinking and simple living, work hard, deep love - no conditions, gentle heart, head...

INSKEEP: That's from the album "Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color" by Brother Ali.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BELOVED")

ALI: (Rapping) Smile through the tears. Laugh through the tragedy. All we got is each other, must love radically. Passionately peaceful, fight for it...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.