Music News & Reviews

As Brother Ali learns more about his identity, he’s ready to showcase his artistry

Muslim rapper Brother Ali plays Cat’s Cradle Oct. 12. Earlier this year, he released “All the Beauty in This Whole Life.”
Muslim rapper Brother Ali plays Cat’s Cradle Oct. 12. Earlier this year, he released “All the Beauty in This Whole Life.” Colleen Eversman

Earlier this year, albino Muslim rapper Brother Ali released “All the Beauty in This Whole Life,” his first album since “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color” in 2012.

He was creatively tapped out, he said, explaining the lengthy break.

“I didn’t necessarily have anything that I really wanted to say,” says Ali, 40, calling from on the road. “Being an underground, independent artist, the main effort of that is freedom. And, you know, we’re able to really determine our own schedule and determine how we’d like to spend our time. And so, in between those few years, I spent a lot of time kind of like on a spiritual journey to become more complete and to really develop as a person. That was my focus during that time.”

The Wisconsin-born, Minneapolis-based singer’s real name is Jason Douglas Newman. He converted to Islam in his teens.

After his last tour, he moved to Oakland and continued to study Islam. At one point, he even took a vow of silence during a retreat at a Sufi center.

But, perhaps surprisingly, his teachers and mentors encouraged him to get back into the rap game.

“Basically, as part of my spiritual practice, my teachers really let me know that it was time for me to make an album,” he says. “And so, once I started doing that, then I started really kind of traveling through all my life and the things that I was feeling and the things that I was thinking, and I found that there really was a lot there to share.”

Coincidentally, also living in Oakland was Anthony “Ant” Davis, one-half of the hip-hop duo Atmosphere, who also produced three of Ali’s albums. (“Mourning” was produced by Jake One.)

“I kind of lost touch with Ant, who I usually do more, like personal, kind of autobiographical music with,” he says. “And we both ended up in the Bay Area in Oakland, each of us separately drawn there on our own kind of quest to become more whole and to feel. So we reconnected out there. We actually made the album out there.”

He addresses many topics on “Beauty,” coming up with tunes that are both personal and political. There are tracks where he talks about a very eventful trip to Iran (“Uncle Usi Taught Me”); his experiences as an albino (“Pray for Me”); the lessons he wants to impart to his child (“Dear Black Son”); and, in one very personal track, the suicides of his father and grandfather (“Out of Here”).

“I’ve always been able to say and talk about and really address what’s going on in my world, and I’ve always been able to access my art,” he says. “And that’s really one of the many things that I offer as an artist – and, really, what most artists offer. But, you know, the people that listen to me have grown to really depend on that and expect it. So I don’t ever feel like there’s something I can’t talk about.”

He’s thankful that he still has Rhymesayers Entertainment, the Minneapolis-based label that’s home to Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, Grieves and other indie-rap acts, as a home where he can drop whatever comes out of his head. Some of his fellow Rhymesayers artists are also included on both “Beauty” and his current tour, which will stop at the Cat’s Cradle Oct. 15.

“It’s the only outlet for me,” he says. “The outcomes of things are always in the intention. And the intention at the beginning of Rhymesayers was that they were a diverse group of friends that really believed in making genuine music. And that they believed that all the possibilities of hip-hop are worth exploring. And so, within Rhymesayers, we’ve had a really diverse array of stories and people of different backgrounds and things like that, and making different types of music. … They really, as a label, pride themselves on allowing people to just be who they are, and they try to figure out the best ways to help promote that.”


Who: Brother Ali, with Sa-Roc, Last Word and Sol Messiah

When: 9 p.m. Oct. 15

Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro

Cost: $16, $18 day of show; $65 meet & greet

Details: 919-967-9053;