A few months ago, a friend of mine shared a video on Facebook and turned me on to a gifted emcee by the name of Brother Ali. It was a song called “Uncle Sam Goddamn” and even though it has been released a decade ago in 2007, the themes and lyrics sounded as if they had been inspired by our current political climate. I listened and watched as a big, albino dude crafted a lyrical assault on the state of our union that took me back to the days when I first heard Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet.” It was powerful, intellectual, fierce and most of all it was music that made an impact, art in its purest form. Brother Ali took me right back there, it was real and unapologetic and for the first time in a long time, I was digging new hip hop again.
This past Sunday I was lucky enough to join my friend at The Foundry at The Fillmore in Fishtown for Brother Ali’s “The Own Light” Tour. I was expecting to leave there fired up and ready to rebel but to my pleasant surprise, there is much more to Brother Ali than just politically charged anthems, the man is a true lyricist, and more importantly, was set on creating a positive environment with lots of peaceful and loving energy. It was an amazing feeling! Remember when emcees used to be storytellers? They would weave tales that made you think or maybe made you laugh and the better they were at telling stories, the more we loved them. Slick Rick was one of my favorite rappers when it came to this style and as I stood there enjoying every second of what Ali was putting down, I realized that he embodied so much of what I loved about my favorite rappers growing up. It was pretty awesome to feel like I was transported back to my youth when I’d sit in the stairwells of my high school surrounded by people trying to outdo each other by throwing down bars that would put some of these mumble artists to shame. Hell, I heard stuff in those hallways that would put some of these so called “dope emcees” to shame.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a bit to the opening act of the night, Rhymesayers label mate, Saroc and her DJ Sol Messiah. Sol Messiah came out and flexed his skills to the perfect mix of old school hip hop. Dropping cuts from artists like the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, and Lords of the Underground, he knew how to get you in the right mood for what was about to go down. What went down was one of the illest female emcees of our time came out and spit bars that made me long for the days when females had a voice and used it to do more than just brag about their sexual prowess. She is the type of emcee that will take you down easily, should you have the courage to go toe to toe with her. I’d pay to see her slay sucka emcees in a freestyle battle any day! I’d bet all my money on her too! I clearly wasn’t alone in this thought as I looked around and saw people looking at each other with that “daaaaayum” expression across their faces and with good reason, her set was fire!
Saroc proved to be the perfect warmup for the main event. DJ Last Word graced the stage to ready us for the man of the hour. I was happy to hear some new cuts from Brother Ali and even happier to hear some of my favorites as well. One of my favorites he did was “Forest Whitaker.” In a song where he embraces his pink skin, red eyes, and round physique the hook is an empowering “you don’t have to love me.” A phrase that is generally my daily mantra. “Take Me Home” and “Work Everyday” were clearly crowd favorites as well. Where he hit me the most was a song called “Dear Black Son.” A heartfelt composition that highlights the type of conversation that too many fathers and mothers find themselves having to have. A line where he apologizes that people won’t see him as just a kid that loves his little sister but instead as a grown man, and not even a man as much as an animal, literally had me tear up as I thought about the many faces of the kids I work with every day. Kids whose smiles will light up the room, who will see you’re struggling and give you the biggest hug, little boys who are obsessed with Minecraft and pick my brain for comic book knowledge, and who love their siblings, their friends, their parents. I love these kids as if they were my own. The idea of them being treated as anything less than a human being with love in their heart saddens me and makes me want to scream. In that moment, instead of being overwhelmed by those thoughts, I was overwhelmed by the amount of positive energy in a room with the most diverse crowd I have ever seen at a hip hop show. All races, genders, sexual orientations, religions….it did not matter cause we were gathered for the purpose of art. The kind of art that inspires you to go out and put something beautiful in the world.
I’m sure there are some hardcore hip hop fans out there looking down on the scene that I’m describing. The idea of rap being fueled by love and a positive and empowering message and not a bunch of mumbling trap music is foreign to a lot of the newer generations. They missed the era of rap when it was a movement created in the heart of the Bronx by a man named Kool Herc who wanted to bring people together and keep them moving. The era when it wasn’t about material possessions and hating on each other, instead it was about empowering a people long since oppressed and giving them the confidence to not only embrace who they are, but to love themselves. Brother Ali embodies the spirit of this era, as well as Saroc. He even had her join him onstage for some freestyle action and talked about how we are witnessing the beginnings of a future heavyweight emcee. But we were witnessing much more than that. On a Sunday night in Philly, you weren’t just seeing true hip hop love on display, you were feeling it.