MINNEAPOLIS — Jason Newman raps under the moniker Brother Ali, and he has always modeled his music and life after the great boxing champion Muhammad Ali. The similarities are stark; both are Muslim converts with legendary gifts of gab. Both men also risked their careers taking a stand for the world’s poor. The contrasts are equally stark. Ali was born albino; his shaved head and long beard give the rapper more the appearance of an Imam than emcee compared to Muhammad Ali’s pop star prettiness. While Muhammad Ali was known for his vision in the ring, Brother Ali was born legally blind. It was through adversity and spirituality that the Minnesota-based rapper developed a uniquely positive and socially conscious voice that led to him becoming one of hip hop’s biggest alternative artists.
Brother Ali’s passion for justice is intensely personal and he’s written about his own homelessness and experiences with poverty. In “Faheem,” a song written as a letter to his son, he raps, “I just pray you don’t remember us sleeping on the floor or me picking mouse droppings out of your toys.” He also highlighted the experiences of immigrants. In “Tight Rope,” Ali raps about a Somali girl’s story in the U.S. He details her experience being forced to flee from her home in Somalia but unable to culturally fit into her new neighborhood. Brother Ali proudly admits his music is influenced by greats like Chuck D (from Public Enemy) and John Lennon. Both used music as a tool for justice and social change.
Brother Ali is a vocal activist in his personal life for anti-poverty issues. He was even arrested for his peaceful participation in the Occupy Homes movement of Minneapolis for trying to stop forced evictions. He was also the central figure to organize the Day of Dignity, a music festival that aims to provide services such as haircuts, meals, resume writing: in general, giving homeless people the dignified treatment of interacting with them like human beings. This became an annual event that continues to grow every year. This year Brother Ali helped put together a new festival called “TriFaith Fourth of July” trying to connect the faiths together and help build bridges between faiths. This is a particularly important issue in Minneapolis, which hosts more Somali refugees than anywhere else in America.
Despite losing a contract with Verizon over his political views, on Brother Ali’s first album in five years, “All the Beauty in this Whole Life,” he continues to unabashedly attack topics like racism and poverty. While Brother Ali continues to mix artistry and activism, with age he came to the understanding that changing the world is primarily about changing yourself. In Ali’s words, “the most important battlefield for fighting for justice is our heart.” Ali’s ambassador-like status in hip hop led him to Nobel Laureate conferences and Stanford University discussions about Islam and hip hop. In Ali’s words, hip hop “teaches the world to be human” by showing them the genius and humanity of another culture. As his role model and namesake would put it, “the man who has no imagination, has no wings.”
– Jared Gilbert