Monday, April 2, 2012

Brother Ali and Race

So our last class really got me thinking about how Eminem had appropriated rap and hip hop in order to make it safe for white and other non-African American audiences to listen to. After listening to the pieces by Brother Ali, I attempted to analyze a little bit more on the black retaliation of white supremacy, and specifically, how Ali racialize’s himself in the black community.

Ali uses the reflection on his own life (or at least the construction of his “life”), by truncating it into sections of infancy, childhood, and his adult life, to racialize his black identity. First he disconnects himself from his family; uproots himself from his background; there is an obvious relationship that he has with his family but he makes it elusive by saying that he is “talked about at family reunions but never seen,” and that he “announced himself” into the world- drawing on his own independence. This perceived independence is a deliberate move to isolate Ali as the narrator of his memoir, and to gain the audience's affection. 

 By going back to the beginning of his infancy, he makes it clear that this was the only time “before black and white supremacy heightened my innocence/ I was living out life behind the picket fence”. The reference to the picket fence acts as a metaphor for innocence and/or ignorance of racial boundaries (racial boundaries are something that children often lack, and the picket fence could also be symbolic of protection from the racist attitudes of the outside world). During his childhood, Ali notify’s his audience that his life behind the picket fence eventually comes to an abrupt halt, and no longer shields him from racism as he is tormented as a child for being black: “But then came the laughter, and outside I'm battered/Picket fence shattered.”

Interestingly enough, Ali makes the main criticizer in his childhood memoir, himself. In his piece, acting as narrator he tears himself to pieces in his self-hatred phase of his former youth. This is something that maybe some white children can relate to, but he distinguishes this hatred of other children by the reference to whites in the line: “children of slave masters who passed it on.” The narrator genuinely feels enslaved by not only the white kids who torment him, but furthermore also lets their hatred for him get inside his own head as he begins to doubt himself because of his race. This feeling also comes back as he continues to resent his family as an adult (when his first child is born) and feels alone even in terms of his own family. Each time he finds himself in self-doubt, various women in his life assure him that this life is a “test” and that he his special and has value.

I think that this memoir that Ali has created, reaffirms his black identity and gives his music back to the black community by sending a message that yes, life is going to get really hard sometimes. And that when one feels self-hatred, to remind them that they are “special” and that no matter how much they are told that they don't matter, they do. However, to prove that this song is a product of appropriated hip hop, I can listen to this song (even though I’m white) and I think that even though this song is speaking to not only racism, it also speaks to family issues, which can be applied across races. 
The fact that I can listen to this, even though Ali explicitly is retaliating against the oppressors (mostly white, aside from the people in his family) in his life, shows two things: 1. that I can face the fact that I'm part of a race who enslaved African Americans for centuries, and 2. that this music has been appropriated for people like me, white people, to listen to. 

I think that also, on a similar note, that the reason why I had never thought about this hierarchy of white industry vs. black rebellion before, is because even though I am not a racist myself, I forget sometimes that I am still part of a race who continues to define racial boundaries through many, but specifically in this case, the hip hop industry. 


  1. First off, thanks for the great recap and insight into the songs Abigail lol It definitely shed light to a few things.

    On to my comment, though: I agree with you in that these songs by Ali must be speaking to whites as well as blacks when he delivers this track to his audience. Though the enslavement topic might detach one race from another, the family issues definitely speak to many races. Thus, Brother Ali is implicitly calling to all people when rapping this track, speaking not only to blacks, but to anyone else that may have these experiences as well. For example, what difference would it make for the blacks if only the blacks heard about this "laughter"? True resolution of the topic would never be reached if the subject was not posed for everyone to hear. On the multi-race subjects, such as lack of love from family members, again, Brother Ali would only be affecting a little audience in rapping his lyrics if blacks were the only people meant for his audience. Everyone of this tragic circumstance should hear his words to find strength to move on despite the struggles they face.

    As far as your conclusion that the white race defines racial boundaries in the hip hop industry, I would have to disagree. The mainstream rappers at the moment (predominantly black I conclude)deliver the words that the audience hears and the white race (one could say, predominantly) owns the venues in which such music is sold. However, the lyrics are what make the impact, I believe, and are what establish these racial boundaries. Who would know even the slightest taste of what had went on in Ali's tormented early life if he were not to deliver the song himself? Yes, we can say that he creates a persona, which construes the truth; but Brother Ali creating the persona himself seems as the closest way in which we shall gain any fragment of understanding on this black rebellion on white industry. The white race (for the most part) are not the ones defining these barriers in the hip hop industry; the rappers are creating the stories and personas in which the audience may conclude such.

    Thus, I believe we are left to conclude that either: 1) The black hip-hop artists in the mainstream are creating these racial boundaries to tell some of their struggles (even though these stories might be secluded to the artists themselves); or 2) this is just how things continue to be, but are unbeknownst to the majority of the public. The black hip-hop artists in the mainstream are just using the vessel of hip-hop music to shed some light on the subject to the world (even though it will never be the truth, for one must experience such circumstances on their own to gain such knowledge).

  2. Although Brother Ali does discuss race and white supremacy in this song, I agree that there are also many other themes present such as bullying, family relationships, self-empowerment, and religion. These various themes open up the song to a much wider audience so that people of various races can relate to Brother Ali’s lyrics. For example, Ali frequently mentions his family issues, disconnecting himself from his family by saying that at “family reunions, I’m talked about but never seen” and explaining that “it’s been a year since I’ve seen a living relative.” He also discusses his childhood struggles with bullying when he says, “I saw myself as bastard tagalong, harassed and spat upon.” These struggles clearly affected his self-image as well, which we can see in the lines: “If I seem timid, it’s only because every mirror that I saw back then had the Earth’s ugliest human being in it/ And with that said, they would kick me till they got tired or I act dead.” These self-esteem problems and the family and bullying issues that Ali faced are universal struggles that many people have to deal with to some extent at one point or another in their lives. This is why I agree that this song can appeal to a diverse group of people who can all appreciate and learn from the underlying message in this song. In the chorus of the song, Ali explains how he found support from different people in his life who told him that the pain he had been put through was a test from God. They told him to use this pain and these struggles to his advantage and to make him a stronger person, and this message empowered Ali. I think the main purpose of this song is to spread this message to other people struggling around the world. Therefore, I don’t think this song was written for a specific audience or a specific race; I think Brother Ali wrote this song to support the people around the world struggling with problems like his and to give them hope by sharing his own experiences with them.

  3. After reading into this post, I decided to look into some of Brother Ali's lyrics. He definitely bring race to the forefront of his songs, but I think his main focus is continually his alienation. He continually sings about his problems and short-comings, however, he doesn't have that same sense of self-loathing that so many people in the world carry today. For example, in the lyric "Forest Whitaker" he says the following lines:

    I'm albino man, I know I'm pink and pale
    And I'm hairy as hell, everywhere but fingernails

    You might think I'm depressed as can be
    But when I look in the mirror I see sexy ass me

    You can call me ugly but can't take nothing from me
    I am what I am doctor you ain't gotta love me

    The issue is clearly not self-esteem. He is self-aware enough to recognize his problems, yet he doesn't let those problems affect his sense of worth. This highlights a unique sense of confidence in that he can openly discuss his short-comings without being self-conscious. His lyrics extend beyond the bounds of establishing a racial identity as he builds a persona unhindered by superficial flaws. Yes, he may be pale and have squinty eyes, but "you gotta love him."

    This is where I tend to disagree with the arguement that Brother Ali and Eminem place a strong influence on white supremacy. It seems to me that the more prevalent themes in the song are alienation and self-empowerment.


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