Rapper Brother Ali on Privilege, Hope, and Other People’s Stories

In this exclusive interview, hip-hop artist Brother Ali talks to YES! about the personal transformations that have shaped his life and lyrics.

Photo courtesy Rhymesayers Entertainment.

Photo courtesy of Rhymesayers Entertainment.

Brother Ali is a politically outspoken hip-hop artist from Minnesota whose latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, rocks between despair and acceptance, anger and hope. His clear lyrics often beat a slow, sauntering rhythm, and his sharp critiques of American society are warmed by strains of soul, funk, and sampled historical recordings.

Legally blind and shuffled from city to city as a child, Brother Ali started rapping at age eight and used his gift to fit in and make a name for himself when he arrived at a new school. He started recording his music at 13, converted to Islam at 15, and got married at 17.

As he grew older he became increasingly political. His single “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” released in 2007 during the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, was a bitter critique of what he called a “billion-dollar-a-week kill-brown-people habit.” As the video went viral, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security froze a money transfer to his record label, and Ali says mobile network operator Verizon removed him from a scheduled tour they were sponsoring. In 2012, he was one of 37 protestors arrested while occupying a Minneapolis family’s home to fight against its foreclosure.

Now 35 and the father of two, Brother Ali uses his music and celebrity as platforms to speak frankly about class and racial privilege, and about finding the courage to confront injustice.

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The “People’s Bailout” Was Just the Beginning: What’s Next for Strike Debt?

Thomas Gokey helped create Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee, which is preparing to purchase and cancel $9 million of ordinary people’s medical debt. Here, he speaks about the project’s origins, methods, and future.

Thomas Gokey executes a jump kick in a gallery, in front of three panels from his art piece, “Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper.” Photo courtesy of Thomas Gokey.

Thomas Gokey executes a jump kick in a gallery, in front of three panels from his art piece, “Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper.” Photo courtesy of Thomas Gokey.

Syracuse University art professor Thomas Gokey earned his Master of Fine Arts degree five years ago, but remains chained to his alma mater by $49,983 of debt. Soon after he graduated, the grim prospect of indefinite payments inspired its own art piece.  Gokey put his debt up for sale in reconstituted squares of shredded money from the Federal Reserve, which he called “Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper.”

The project got good press but the debt remained, and Gokey continued to think about how debt controls people’s lives.  This year, together with the activist group Strike Debt, he helped organize a bold “People’s Bailout” called the Rolling Jubilee, which has raised over $465,000 in donations.  Bringing that money to the marketplace where collections companies buy and sell debt for pennies on the dollar, Strike Debt intends to purchase about $9 million of Americans’ medical and educational debt—and then cancel it.

Strike Debt, which grew out of Occupy Wall Street, wants to foment conversation about the debt we rack up in pursuit of basic needs, and the industries that profit from that debt. Gokey is currently on a year-long unpaid leave from teaching to help organize the Rolling Jubilee and upcoming Strike Debt projects.

Fabien Tepper: How did you come to be interested in debt, and how did you decide to talk about it through your artwork?

Thomas Gokey: Well, I tend to make work about what I’m thinking about. And debt really controls my life—it’s just this massive burden. I came up with that particular project in 2007 to ’08, after I graduated from art school.

I was thinking, my diploma is just a piece of paper, and it costs all this money. And our money is just pieces of paper that are more or less worthless, but we treat them as valuable because they are “legal tender for all debts public and private.” So we’re basically passing around these pieces of paper with IOUs on them. And a lot of artwork is just worthless material, like a piece of paper with some charcoal marks on it. So part of what I got really interested in was, how do we put value on these priceless things?

Continue reading the full story in YES! Magazine »