Words: Mina Suder
Main image: Colleen Eversman
Thumbnail: Cory Dewald
Brother Ali’s Shadows on the Sun turned 15 last year. With its heartfelt lyrics, spoken through a profoundly personal and honest voice, Ali showcased his lyrical skills on the album over beats entirely produced by long time friend and collaborator, Atmosphere’s producer Ant.
It continues to touch listeners as it did upon its release in 2003. Revisiting the album, complimented by the excellent track by track breakdown from Ali’s label Rhymesayers Entertainment (RSE) with journalist Andres Tardio, reveals that its messages remain relevant today, and that it still has the same emotional evocation as it did 15 years ago.
With much weight and legacy being placed upon Shadows in the past 15 years, one would think it would be an easy, or even a natural, decision to tour the album to mark and celebrate its anniversary, particularly in the current trend of rap anniversary tours celebrating 15, 20 and even 30 years of seminal albums – but this was not the case for Ali. Initially reluctant when the idea was first presented to him by his booking agent and management, it was only through revisiting the album himself, and falling in love with it again, that he was swayed.
“…there’s a purity to [Shadows On The Sun] I wasn’t able to ever really get back, because I didn’t know if anybody would ever hear it.”
“I just sat with this album for a while, thinking what it would be like to perform it. And what I realise is that that there’s been different periods of my career where I’ve explored different parts of myself. So there’s some periods where I’m really telling the stories of my life and it’s autobiographical, there are some points when I get more political, sometimes where I’m really talking about the spiritual path… and when I listen to Shadows on the Sun, I realise that all of those things are in that album, in their infancy stage, kind of as like the seedlings of all of those things were planted in that album. I really fell in love with it again. And also there’s a way that I’m rapping on that album and the way that I’m presenting myself – I realised that there’s a purity to it that I wasn’t able to ever really get back, because I didn’t know if anybody would ever hear it.”
Many people did hear and come to love it through the years. Alongside his RSE label mates (including co-founders Slug and Ant as Atmosphere, Musab, and Siddiq), Ali and Shadows propelled independent hip hop to new heights during the early 2000s. In the period where major record labels were capitalising on the rise of hip hop in the mainstream, independent labels such as RSE, Definitive Jux and Stones Throw were doing things differently, marking out their own lane in the industry, and pushing for artists that did not necessarily fit into the often stereotypical imageries of hip hop.
“In 2003, when I put my first album out, hip hop record labels, or rappers on record labels, were still the normal way to do things – that was the dominant model for how to have a career in music, in rap music, in hip hop. At that time, the people that were really doing it that way, just really from scratch, were people that wouldn’t be accepted by those labels. Those labels would look at an artist like me and say, ‘There’s not an audience for you’. Because, you know, they were spending half a million to several million dollars promoting these artists, so if they would look at someone like me, and say, ‘No, the image isn’t right, it’s not going to work, people aren’t going to accept this,’ or ‘We’re not going to gamble a million dollars on it’.
“When you went to our shows back then, and still to a certain degree now, the listeners weren’t from the hip hop stream.”
“So this independent underground was full of artists that wouldn’t have made it, or wouldn’t have had a chance with a record label. And so it just opened the floodgates for a lot of people, this whole movement of people, ‘We’ve never seen anyone that looks like you, or heard anyone that sounds like you, this is some kind of weird, avant-garde circle, that’s not really part of hip hop necessarily’. Then the fan base that responded was the same way. So when you went to our shows back then, and still to a certain degree now, the listeners weren’t from the hip hop stream. Because of that thing at the inception, the narrative of us was that we weren’t a part of hip hop really.”
On an industry level, the model of independent hip hop was proving to be fruitful, with healthy album sales and a vigorous tour schedule for its artists. But on a cultural level, there were frustrations of being excluded from conversations about hip hop. Ali touches upon this on his breakdown of Pay Them Back from Shadows, noting the element of race as a basis for this division too, but also on his latest single Sensitive, where he recounts an experience where he was at a major publication when things got awkward after he posed the question, “How come you don’t place us in the hip hop conversation?”, despite being told how much his music meant to those that worked there. This boundary between the mainstream and the underground is slowly breaking down, as Ali acknowledges when discussing Pay Them Back, including through RSE’s annual hip hop festival, which has artists like Lil’ Wayne and G-Eazy play alongside Atmosphere and Black Star.
In the years following Shadows, Ali found a more overtly political voice through The Undisputed Truth and Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, which brought him wider attention, but also attracted some controversy for its critique of U.S. politics. In his second single from The Undisputed Truth, Uncle Sam Goddam, he criticises the American political system, and the country’s legacy of slavery and racism.
Ali was also vocal about the problematic media portrayal of Trayvon Martin, even having to address some of his own fans, questioning their love for the hip hop culture but lack of love for the people that it came from. Was the misalignment of some of his fans’ politics to his own an issue? “There’s not like there’s audiences of albino Muslims just waiting for…[laughs] to have the concert to unite us all, you know. I just realised that the connection that I have with anybody, with people, and with people that listen to my music, is based on the ‘why’. So as long as I stay on that, I realise whenever I’m talking about the ‘why’, like what does it really feel like, if that’s what the driving force, what’s the sentiment, what’s the emotion, what’s the virtue, what’s the idea, what’s the human experience. I feel like, whenever I stick to that, there are always people that are willing to listen, and to consider, and you know, speak on a heart level.”
Ali’s latest album, 2017’s All The Beauty In This Whole Life, still retains much of the social awareness which has been present from day one, but the presentation this time around is underpinned more by a spiritual rather than political tone. On the song Dear Black Son, Ali speaks to the wave of violence towards black boys and men in America, without necessarily referring to any particular incident or the Black Lives Matter movement. On Uncle Usi Taught Me, he recounts his own personal experience of dealings with Homeland Security.
Ali is clear that this doesn’t mean there aren’t structural injustices which require activism, but recognises his own gift and has chosen to channel this through his music. “There’s an idea of spiritual bypassing where somebody comes to the preacher, or the guru, or the imam, or the sheik, and says, ‘My family is falling apart and I’m about to lose my house,’ and so on, and they say, ‘Just pray more’ – that’s not what I mean. There are political realities, there are logistical things, there are things I think we should do, and I still do work on political things from time to time. But my gift is to talk to people on a heart level about the ‘why’ of it all. So I realised in all things, when I stick to that, they’ll accept anything from me, and they actually embrace it. Because on a heart level, honestly that’s more meaningful to me anyway.”
Brother Ali is on tour in March. Check the dates below.