Recently, the American Muslim rapper known as “Brother Ali” (born Jason Douglas Newman) sat down with The Islamic Monthly senior editor Arsalan Iftikhar to discuss the trajectory of his underground hip-hop career, the role of Islam in his work and naming his “Top 5” favorite rappers of all time.
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (The Islamic Monthly): Most people do not know that you first started rapping at the tender age of 8 years old and actually completed your first recording at age 13. How did you know that you wanted to be a hip-hop artist from such an early age?
BROTHER ALI: “As an albino child of European-American parents growing up in the Midwest, I faced a very peculiar type of rejection and ridicule from the people with whom I lived growing up. Very early in my life, I had come to terms with the idea that I would probably be living relatively alone. In second grade, I was mentored by older Black friends at school and then eventually, all of my friends, teachers and most intimate companions were black. So naturally, this made art forms like hip-hop become a natural extension of my greater community. It was the soundtrack and language of what I was experiencing as a young man. I soon found that my personal practice making music became a role that I could play in that community as an MC [aka “rapper”]. I felt that I could offer something valuable to my community which in turn made me feel more valuable as an individual. My relationships and greater community were deepened and strengthened by that musical art.”
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (The Islamic Monthly): It is my understanding that you converted to Islam at age 15. Can you please tell our readers a little about your journey towards becoming a Muslim?
BROTHER ALI: “When I was 13 years old, my favorite artist in the world was KRS-ONE. I once went to a lecture he gave at Michigan State University where he awakened a fascination in me for learning and education. That evening, he made me see that the best tool to achieve salvation and freedom is through knowledge.
He made history, science, religion and philosophy not only matter to me, but seem like an irresistible force. In that lecture, KRS-ONE kept returning to Malcolm X and referencing his autobiography throughout his speech. When I read the book, I immediately fell in love with Malcolm. At the end of his life, when Malcolm stated that Islam was the only system that could heal Black folks of their inferiority complex as well as heal white people of their superiority complex, I knew that I had to become a Muslim. There was no question.
So I began mixing amongst some distinctly American expressions of Islam- like the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the 5% Nation. At the time, I also had some interactions with more predominantly immigrant Sunni Muslim communities and I was trying to synthesize all of these ideas in my early teenage years. At the time, my mom was really concerned for me because my thoughts and ideas were so scattered all over the place. So she looked around and found a small mosque near our house in North Minneapolis, Minnesota which was a part of the Association of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed. At the time, there was no better community for me.
It has been my personal experience that Imam Warith Deen Mohammed and his community were American Muslim trailblazers in the work of building alliances between the Muslim community and western institutions. Beginning in the mid-1970’s, Imam Mohammed’s association was constantly engaged in interfaith work, civil activities and general outreach to government institutions. There were the first Muslim Americans to deliver prayers in Congress, give advice to The White House and more. In my opinion, that community’s most important contribution was creating spaces where one’s American Islamic identity was completely and organically harmonized with their ethnic and national identity. People in that community never had a sense that their Islam was somehow opposed to their blackness, their American-ness or their age generation.”
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (The Islamic Monthly): Who have been some influential hip-hop artists who have influenced your work in one way or another?
BROTHER ALI: “As I mentioned, KRS-ONE is the one who lead me to Malcolm X and eventually to Islam. Public Enemy was instrumental in shaping my understanding of culture in general and hip-hop in particular as vehicles for living and being in the world. Rakim is one of the best lyricists of all time and made me fall in love with the power of rap as poetry. Ice Cube has become known in the mainstream media as a movie maker, but in the early 1990’s, he pioneered what the media called “Gangsta Rap” and then moved seamlessly into more political messages. That model is extremely important. Interestingly enough, all of these towering legends have included and honored Islam in their music and messaging in some way or another.”
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (The Islamic Monthly): Can you explain a little bit about how your Muslim identity has helped to play a role in your professional musical life as a recording artist?
BROTHER ALI: “Islam made me believe that all human beings are created with an intrinsic goodness and desire to connect with greater world. When you start there, the possibilities are endless. If the core of who I am is rooted in the same divine reality as everyone else’s basic reality, then the more I am able to penetrate and express my innermost feelings, the more that I’ll be able to connect with everyone else.”
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (The Islamic Monthly): Like many political rappers in the game today, there was some controversy over one of your songs called “Uncle Sam Goddamn” which ultimately led to a major American corporation removing their sponsorship a few years back. In today’s corporate media climate, do you find it difficult to maintain your artistic integrity writing about uncomfortable sociopolitical truths because some random concert promoter or major corporation might be uncomfortable?
BROTHER ALI: “It is a never-ending struggle and the hardest part is not navigating the external [corporate] reality, but my own internal journey [as an artist]. Art and culture in a traditional sense are acts of self-expression and doing them in community should be considered a public service. They remind and inform us about whom we are as people. In the modern world of hyper-capitalism, everything and everyone are turned into sellable commodities and music is sadly no exception. My biggest struggle is to make art and culture for myself and my community and to be able to make a living doing what I have mastered; I have to turn those things into tangible products for the entertainment industry.”
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (The Islamic Monthly): In December 2014, we had dinner at my parent’s house in Chicago where we discussed politics, media and the Chris Rock movie “Top Five”. Would you mind telling our readers your “Top 5” hip-hop artists of all time?
BROTHER ALI: “Man… Dinner at your childhood home in Chicago was such a blessing…Your parents are both so incredibly beautiful in their own ways and your sister is a dear family friend and incredible artist as well. I also really enjoyed talking music, media and politics with you as well- especially after seeing you regularly defend our religion and community on TV. Your family is a solar system. Okay, back to my favorite rappers. I rate them by relevance, longevity, consistency and versatility.
My “Top 5” hip-hop artists of all time include:
4) Ice Cube
5) Mos Def
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (The Islamic Monthly): What can your fans expect from Brother Ali in the year 2015 and beyond?
BROTHER ALI: “Well, I just started writing and recording new music this year. Although we probably will not have a full-album release this year, we do anticipate releasing songs here and there throughout the year. Since we are always traveling and performing around the world, our fans can follow us online at www.BrotherAli.com to keep up-to-date with our latest adventures.”