In the annals of great hip-hop album art, where gangster poets rock crucifixion poses and cops find themselves in crosshairs, agitprop juxtaposition reigns supreme. You want to raise some ire? Easy. Step 1: Appropriate an icon of unquestionable good. Step 2: Repurpose it with gleeful defiance. Step 3: Revel in your brick-through-window subversion. Amazing how rebellion can be at its most satisfying when it’s brainless.
So we were surprised, halted, and ultimately delighted when Brother Ali’s latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, debuted this past September in a record sleeve that shook hip-hop’s pat graphic messaging formulas to their cores. Is it subversive? Damn hard question to answer. The photo illustration features Ali himself, a white dude rendered even more blanche by albinism, kneeling in prayer on an Islamic prayer mat that just happens to be…the American flag. Privileged ethnicity. Minority religion. Posture of profound respect. The political mind does a stutter step.
But should it? There’s nothing prankish here. If anything, it’s radically earnest—a complaint/commendation often made of the rapper’s verses themselves. Ali’s a Muslim. He’s also an American. And, as he has demonstrated in countless media appearances, political rallies, and live shows, he seems to think deeply and compassionately about both demographics. He may feature Cornell West on the lead-off track “Letter to My Countrymen.” But he communicates his ambivalences and allegiances in preacher-power plain-speak: “I used to think I hate this place/Couldn’t wait to tell the President straight to his face/But lately I changed, nowadays I embrace it all/Beautiful ideas and amazing flaws.”
Cheesy? Maybe. Until, again, you realize the line’s coming from the albino Muslim dude kneeling on an American flag to pray to Allah. (Later on the album he’ll argue that “warfare” is just “the terrorism of the rich.”)
For at least a decade now, Brother Ali has managed to address a hornet’s nest of unspeakable politics—race and otherwise—with a rap pose that is as inclusive and well meaning as it is defiant and poundingly confrontational. He’s simultaneously one of our city’s most challenging and accessible personages. Which, perhaps, is subversion unto itself.
We don’t hold degrees advanced enough to expound on Brother Ali’s professional rise vis-à-vis the “post-racial” narrative of the Obama ere. But that’s cool; he probably wouldn’t want us to anyway.
You should go see this guy rock a crowd tomorrow. Did we mention he’s playing a $5 show?
Brother Ali, featuring Plain Ol’ Bill
Wednesday, December 18, 9 p.m.
Triple Rock Social Club, 629 Cedar Ave., Mpls.