Brother Ali on Obama, protest and voting in 2012

Early 2012 Brother Ali was arrested for taking part in a Occupy Homes direct action to save the home of a St. Paul woman in danger of losing her home to bank foreclosure. In the post-sub-prime mortgage wasteland, the narrative is familiar. But Brother Ali’s willingness to enter into the fray of an action that isn’t as sexy as Occupy Zuccotti Park period is anything but typical.

Brother Ali saw in the Occupy movement something that he’d long been waiting for—momentum toward resetting social and economic justice. Like many OWS protesters, Brother Ali felt a sense of abandonment at Obama’s kid glove treatment with Wall Street—that the president seemed more attuned or sensitive to the financial and investment industries’ egos than to the social and economic wellbeing of those voters who put him in office.

Ali’s openly critical assessment of Obama’s first four years seems to come from a hope that Obama can find his way back home. To be the president we all wanted him to be. It was never going to be easy for Obama, and Brother Ali understands that reality. But he wants a leader who will fight for those who are powerless. Absent that, Brother Ali will continuing fighting with his music and direct action.

Ali’s latest LP “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color” distills his social and economic passion down to its elemental core. Hip-hop has always been a social tool. But its commercialization robbed it of its greatest strengths in societal criticism. Brother Ali reanimates hip-hop’s vital social commentary on his latest album, and it’s likely that in the coming decades it will be remembered as a critical first-person historical document of the times.

I spoke to Brother Ali recently over the phone, and we talked about President Obama, the function of protest, Cornel West and if voting is still a useful tool or a relic of America’s fading democratic history.

In the spring you were involved in some direct action with homeowners trying to save their homes. Were you recording before protests, or did the protests inform the album?
Well, that particular action was after the album was already done. But I’ve been involved in this sort of work for a long time. I was involved with it for a good eight or ten months, in that particular lane of Occupy homes. Unless you’re naturally politically inclined, I think politics evolve over time. I recorded the album in the summer of 2010. That was before the Occupy movement. It was during the time of the Arab Spring. If anything I was inspired by that. This album came out of two years of me taking time off the road, making my pilgrimmage to Mecca and refocusing on and re-centering myself.

I started by getting off the road and taking up these offers to speak at schools and community centers. I did all of them. Three times a week I was going to schools to speak to kids. I was really inspired by that. And when the whole Occupy movement kicked off, I was really inspired and excited about its possibilities. Then I got involved with Occupy Homes because I felt that it was something I could really get behind and involved in.

Now were you speaking to elementary, middle or high school kids?
It was mostly high school, middle school and community groups. They’re different settings. People would put together a program, like to teach kids about hip-hop and give them the opportunity to record. You go in and talk to what they call at-risk youth, telling them about making music as a career, following your dreams and finding your voice. You tell them why finding your voice and expressing yourself is important to the world, and why people need to hear them.

Brother Ali on Obama, protest and voting in 2012

Your album’s title, “Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color”—did you come up with the title first or did it follow the album? 
I started by making an album about how bad things are, and I wanted to call it “Mourning in America.” As I was working on it and speaking with kids and community groups I started gaining a sense of hope about possibilities. I thought, I’m not going to make this depressing album, I want to make one called “Dreaming in Color” that would explore possibilities and opportunities. Then I realized that it made the most sense for the two to be connected. Things are so bad now that there are people in the fight that have never been in the fight before because they used to be part of the privileged middle class. They were between the common people and the elites. I spent half of my life in suburbs, so I know both of those worlds.

In a recent music video for the track “Mourning In America,” there is a scene of a police officer bullying a black man. I don’t want to reduce the symbolism too much, but do you think that America is sort of a playground for bullies, whether they be kids, police officers, bankers, politicians, religious leaders, etc.?
Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it. We definitely have a system where we’re encouraged to accumulate as much power as possible and then use that power to enforce our will on powerless people. And then we celebrate that. We reward that.

In a way, that’s sort of what is happening with the 2012 election. In place of cooperation there is bullying. Turning back to Occupy Homes momentarily—which precipitated your arrest earlier this year—can you set the scene for those direct actions, and then talk about your arrest?
Sure. To take you back to the beginning of these efforts, the idea with Occupy Homes was that there were some organizers who had been working with families facing foreclosure for a long time. Basically they found a woman, Monique White, who had the perfect story that exemplified the crisis that had been going on. She had been paying for her house for ten years. The first person in her family to own a home. She had a job working with at-risk youth. The program lost its funding and she lost her job. After two months of looking for another full-time job, she realized she couldn’t find one, so she got two part-time jobs. She missed two months of payments on her home. When she got the two part-time jobs she started sending the payments in, but the bank wouldn’t accept her payments and told her she was in foreclosure. They wouldn’t meet with her. They wouldn’t renegotiate with her. They sold her house from underneath her and had the police come in and evicted her.

So she went to Occupy Minnesota and asked them to help with her home. People came in to occupy her house. We started putting pressure on the original bank that owned the mortgage to negotiate with her—calling, letter writing, emailing, and protesting outside branch locations and outside the bank president’s home.

And what was the result?
Our focus shifted to asking the authorities not to evict her. And if they sent the police in we’d go in and defend her home. The bank ultimately renegotiated with her and she won. And there were several other cases like that. After six or seven victories in the Twin Cities alone, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae started this policy that they don’t negotiate with Occupy Homes people. They were seeing a trend that they were not able to foreclose on homes when we were involved. They are dead set now that families are not going to get their homes back.

Over the course of three different actions and three different raids at the Cruz family home, 37 people were arrested. I was one of them. When the authorities raided the home—I wasn’t there for that one because I was in New York—the activists were sitting on the ground with locked arms. The police were able to step over them to walk into the house, but the police chief decided to step on one of the main organizers. They charged him with rioting and hung jail time and $7,000 in fines over his head. The other 36 of us said, Until you drop those charges we’re all going to trial independently, so you’re going to have 37 judges, 37 juries and 37 prosecutors. They eventually dropped those charges.

(The Cruz family is still trying to buy their home back.)

Brother Ali on Obama, protest and voting in 2012

How did you get Cornel West on the album?
Well, he’s a music aficionado and I ended up getting in touch with him. I told him that many of the ideas on the album were inspired by him. I wanted him to at least give his blessing that it was good, and then asked if I could record his voice. I said, I’ll come wherever you are with my portable recording set-up. We talked for three hours before I even set up the recording device. Anything he could reschedule or cancel, he did. We ended up hanging out from 10 in the morning to midnight. I keep getting reports of him walking into classes and schools he’s speaking at and making an announcement about the album, and that people should go and get it.

Recently you did a video for VIBE about President Obama and voting. Can you recall what you were thinking at the time of the interview and what you might be thinking now with the election being nigh?
With voting, I think that we should do it even if it’s only a symbolic thing at this point. What Obama proved to me was that we could put the brightest leader who understands real suffering, who understands the systematic and institutional problems that cause that suffering, into the most powerful position in America, and he still wasn’t able to move things in the direction that we wanted them to go in.

Dr. Cornel West is very, very critical of Obama, and I can’t disagree with any of his critiques. There are people who said that the reason that happened is because the racism that Obama faces is so profound, and the system is so corrupt, that he wasn’t able to do what he wanted to do. The reality is that the right wing is so mobilized, organized and on message. They use the fear and distrust that goes along with the racial situations. Also, Obama brought the big money people into his administration and they influence him.

All the things that I thought he would address and move in the right direction haven’t happened. And so I’ll be voting, but I know that voting doesn’t do it. If there were a very powerful and organized social movement putting pressure on him, would he be more bold? I think so. I think that he would have to. I think that the current liberal class aren’t going to do it. We need a social movement. We have to put our hands on things in a non-violent way.

Activists have been very effective in my home state and in Oakland. We need to keep going in that direction. We need people involved. There is a culture of activism that keeps the space open but they alone are not going to be able to do it. People that get up every day and work need to get active. I’ve seen some of that. When I went to jail because of the Cruz action, it was me, young activists from the hood and white middle class, middle-aged school teachers. There were Marines who just came back from Afghanistan. It was a variety of people.

And that is what it is going to take.