Ever since his third LP, following 2003’s Shadows on the Sun – a ground-shaking event for those who were there – Brother Ali has been pushing the social and political critique of his native America with greater outspokenness.
I’ve been to every Ali club show in Vancouver since he was promoting Shadows, before I was legally supposed to be let in the door. And with every few years or so that we get a chance to see him on this side of the border, I find myself increasingly wondering what must be going through Ali’s mind when he tells Canadians about how messed up his country is; what kind of reaction he expects out of us; and whether a bunch of drunk 20-somethings squeezed inside the Venue on a rainy Friday night really care that much.
One of the first songs Brother Ali opened with when he took the stage in Vancouver just before nine o’clock was “Work Everyday” from his latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, which includes the lines “Make you think you’re taking back your nation / Then they turn it over to a major corporation / Those companies took the jobs overseas…”
When he introduced the song, Ali lauded the virtues of a city situated between ocean and mountains, as well as the surplus of beautiful women said city boasts. “But what I really want to know is,” Ali questioned the audience, “is it hard to live out here, Vancouver?”
The awkward silence that followed the question (or at least as close to silence as a sold-out hip hop show can get), illustrates the disconnect between the relative comfort with which Canadians have passed the last decade, and the realities of the American moment which Brother Ali tries to impress on his audiences.
Throughout the tour, Ali has received musical accompaniment, not from his erstwhile and incredibly talented DJ, BK-One, but a full-piece band that features electric guitar, keyboards, drum machine, as well as a tight duo that trades lines on the trumpet and saxophone and, at various points during the performance, puts down the brass in favour of banjo and flute.
When Ali came on stage, the audience was fully warmed up (and dried off) thanks to the efforts of openers The Reminders – an intelligent and musically infectious collaboration between rapper/singer Aja Black of Queens, New York, and rapper Big Samir, originally from Brussels, Belgium – as well as the emphatic rapper from Queens, Homeboy Sandman, and his pilot on the ones and twos DJ Sosa.
Without stopping for those in the crowd who’d been chanting themselves hoarse waiting for him to step out, Brother Ali immediately launched into “Stop the Press” from his new album. The song chronicles some of the major turning points in Ali’s personal and professional life over the past few years, and was a fitting way to greet an audience that’s waited three years for Ali to be back in town.
Despite touring to promote Mourning in America, Brother Ali gave generously from his back catalogue, with all of his albums, from Mourning to Shadows on the Sun – the album that launched his career and which doesn’t contain a single misplaced syllable – equally represented.
Following “Uncle Sam Goddamn”, the controversial Nina Simone-inspired song that marked his overt political shift, Ali and crew launched into a mid-set instrumental break with the Brother manning the drum machine while his band traded solos on their respective instruments. The fact that Ali’s rhythmic instincts translated effortlessly onto a percussion instrument, as he sustained impressive drum patterns over the 4/4 beat, shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been a student of his flow over the past decade.
After the instrumental jam, with the audience’s attention never letting up, Ali dug into some of the more political content off his new album, beginning with “Mourning in America”.
The rapper often paused between songs for the expected audience banter, taking the chance to tell us how America’s becoming irredeemably corporatized, and mentioning offhand some thoughts on the upcoming election which is rocking everything south of the border, and providing such stiff competition for homemade television entertainment over here.
Brother Ali is a gifted entertainer and a deeply engaging speaker. I often feel like he doesn’t do justice to his intelligence when trying to connect with an audience that might otherwise be insensible to his application that love is the indomitable force that drives his music as well as his indefatigable dedication to his audience. But anything that’s passed over in his guileless professions of an all-uniting love is compensated by his sheer sincerity and the depth of his experience.
Towards the end, Ali dropped a stream of songs, one after the other, from Shadows on the Sun, during which the entire audience, including this reviewer, went bat-shit crazy. Ali and band then left the stage, only to return moments later for an encore after the crowd had nearly stomped a hole in the floor.
After performing an extended version of the anthemic “Truth Is” from his album The Undisputed Truth, and sharing the stage with The Reminders and Homeboy Sandman from earlier, Brother Ali left the crowd euphoric and ready to accept any truth Ali was spitting, no matter what side of the border they were on.
And whatever positions he ends up taking, from the disarmingly personal and socially conscious ethic of his earlier songs, to the prescriptive politics of his new album, Brother Ali’s connection with his listeners, dedication to his craft, and sheer technical mastery are the elements that will consistently show up on his records and on stage. In the end, these are the most important tools that an entertainer has to ensure his universal appeal.
In Ali’s case, audiences will keep packing the house, no matter what the message, if for nothing else than to witness the ever humble Ali “cast shadows on the sun with my bravado”.