As someone who lived in Minneapolis-St. Paul for a year in my infancy, I’ve always felt a strong tie with the Rhymesayers crew, and none more than Brother Ali — the fierce, albino, Muslim, soulful “bad muf*cker.”
And from the moment I arrived at SLO Brew, 10 minutes before the doors opened, I knew the show would be a serious competitor for the coveted “Best Show I Have Ever Attended” award.
For one, the guy behind me in line was saying, “The keyboard player is from Heiruspecs. You gotta check them out,” to his date.
For another, I’d come alone. None of my friends could join me, but I’m just that dedicated to rap. Even by myself, though, I immediately made some friends who passionately debated the virtues of old Atmosphere versus new Atmosphere with me.
At 9:15-ish (it’s a concert; being on time is optional) Homeboy Sandman, an emcee from Queens, N.Y., came on stage to open.
As soon as he started spitting, I was kicking myself for not knowing who he was. His lyrics were sharp, witty and well chosen, and his freestyles (of which there were several) had me wondering if he hadn’t written them beforehand.
Best of all, Sandman decided to invite a member of the audience up on stage to freestyle with him, and hot damn if San Luis Obispo doesn’t have some talented rappers!
The crowd went wild. I went wild, and thought briefly about screaming a little less and saving my voice for the main attraction.
I screamed anyway.
But y’all aren’t reading this to hear about Homeboy Sandman (though if you haven’t googled him yet, SHAME ON YOU). You’re reading to find out what Brother Ali is like.
In brief: Brother Ali is down-to-earth and ferociously passionate.
Put more wordily, Brother Ali spent 20 minutes meeting with fans before the show.
If that wasn’t enough, he made his set more than just a series of everyone’s favorite songs. Yes, he performed “Tight Rope” and “Forest Whitaker” backed by a kick-ass live band. People screamed and rapped along as if reciting a mantra.
But Brother Ali also opened up to the audience, inviting those at SLO Brew into his world: intimate, painful, but full of hope.
For the first time ever, he performed “Babygirl,” a song about a woman who struggles to recover from the abuse she endured in her childhood, then explained to the crowd that the song was hard for him to perform because it felt wrong for people to clap at the very real pain that so many women wrestle with.
I teared up. I’ll admit it.
But he used the pain of the woman in “Babygirl” to talk about his message: one of love and care for humanity.
“Love is not something you do or don’t do,” Brother Ali said, exuding the street preacher aura he’s known for. “It’s not something you fall into or out of. Love is a state of being.”
Never before have I attended a concert so thoroughly focused on tackling issues such as racism, sexism, violence and poverty. In his music, and especially live, Brother Ali talks about all of these, drawing on his own experience growing up in Minneapolis as an outsider because of the color of his skin.
In introducing the controversial “Mourning in America,” the first track off of his newest album “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color,” Ali shared his experience with the Occupy Homes movement, where he went to jail for trying to prevent a bank from taking a family’s Minnesota house.
In that jail cell, Brother Ali found himself with teenagers and elders, from all races and walks of life. Their actions, coming together to help a single family in need, gave Brother Ali hope for America’s future, he told the crowd.
And at SLO Brew, Brother Ali continued to draw people together through his rhymes, poignantly written, often painfully close to home.
In a room full of strangers, I found commonality in our common taste in music. I may have come as a loner, but I left as part of a group of people inspired and united by Brother Ali’s message.