I Was There: Brother Ali Preaches Truth and Love

Posted on May 15, 2013


ImageDoors are at nine, but we roll into the Blind Pig a little after ten. Though my roommate Jess has been telling us for weeks how excited she is to see her friend, opening act Homeboy Sandman, she encourages a few rounds of porch beers. Because, not only do beers taste awesome on the porch, but we were pinned to the computer screen, watching Solange’s new video on repeat.

So my regretful apologies to the first opening act, The ReMINDers. We caught their last two songs, and the upbeat duo radiated only good vibes. Imagine Mary J. and Talib Kweli made an album together. OK, now go buy that album.

We get all the way up front, stage right, for Homeboy Sandman. It seems that Jess is the only person here who knows who he is, but it takes about two verses before he has complete command of the room. After a ridiculous, break-neck freestyle, he apologizes for not having any merch (en route from Toronto, unaware of Canadian border laws concerning commerce), and much of the crowd seems genuinely bummed.

His set, a boisterous affair (due largely to his DJ immediately requesting the sound tech raise his levels), features some of the most arbitrary and hilarious name checks I’ve ever heard in rap: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Placido Palanco, Georgia O’Keefe.

He’s a fascinating guy, and he knows just how talented of an MC he is. He closes out with a song, fittingly, called “Yeah, But I Can Rhyme Though.” Yes you can, homeboy.

Before this evening, what I knew of Brother Ali was mostly what he looks like, plus a track a friend had given me, the infectious “Original King.” What I now know is this: If you ever want evidence that music has the power of bringing people of all stripes together, you go to a Brother Ali show. This is the most diverse crowd I’ve seen in Ann Arbor. Much of this is perhaps image-based logistics: Ali isn’t a white rapper, he’s an albino rapper. And, from the lengthy rants about the man’s character from his openers, Brother Ali is a man of truth and love. And who doesn’t love truth and love?

A strong, three-piece horn section, a keyboard player (who I assume is also providing pre-recorded drums, as there is no drummer) and a riff-heavy guitarist take the stage with Ali. They are tight, like P-Funk tight. We’re dancing way harder than I expected to be. The vocals are muddy at times, but much of the crowd raps along with the most popular stuff.

Brother Ali’s banter can seem preachy, and his best raps are overtly sincere, about empowerment and embracing the person you are. Still, it’s particularly powerful stuff from a man who no doubt has had to prove his worth beyond his appearance. His biggest, most inspiring moments come when the band lets down a bit, and on “Forrest Whitaker” we hear lines like “To everyone out there who’s a little different/I say damn a magazine, these are God’s fingerprints.”

When Ali invites his opening acts for a final song, an unprepared Homeboy Sandman mindlessly takes the pitcher full of popcorn he’s been sharing with my roommate. This gives the encore an intimate, spontaneous feel. Together they end the night with each act providing a verse of Ali’s “Truth Is,” with its pleading chorus demanding more truth, more love, more music. Which, when the house lights go up, is just what Brother Ali and his crew leave us wanting.

Featured in The Michigan Daily, 10/4/12

Posted in: I Was There