Brother Ali's battle for 'America'

CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER | Updated 10/5/2012

Minneapolis' Muslim rapper takes to the streets -- and might take a beating -- for his argumentative new album.

Seated amid the office-space denizens rushing in and out of the City Center Starbucks, Brother Ali at once looks more out of the ordinary than usual, but somehow more anonymous. The downtown Minneapolis coffee shop is a good place to not get recognized as one of Minnesota's famous rappers.

Or infamous, some might now say.

"I just got a message from a guy on Facebook who served in Afghanistan," he says, looking up from his smartphone, where he's also checking the number of YouTube views for his controversial new video (50,000 in just a few days). Solemnly, he says, "The dude said he's coming out to the Boston show to drop me on my face."

Welcome to Brother Ali's world circa 2012. His sales and page views are as strong as ever, and so are his personal convictions. He was arrested for them in June at an Occupy Homes protest. He aired them on the Huffington Post three weeks ago in a widely debated essay, "The Intersection of Hip-Hop and Homophobia."

Mostly, though, Ali poured those pesky morals all over his provocative fourth album, "Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color," which brings his tour back to town -- hopefully, with his albino-skinned face intact -- for shows Friday and Saturday at First Avenue.

Two days before he hit the road with a new live band -- and two weeks before violent anti-American protests arose in the Middle East -- Ali talked at length about how his Muslim faith and frustrations with America shaped the album, and the cover photo that prompted the Boston threat.

"This album is my prayer for America," he explained of the artwork, which shows the rapper kneeling on a U.S. flag in a Muslim prayer pose.

"Unless you are absolutely convinced that all of Islam is against you as an American, you should only see it as me treating the flag reverently."

Love it or hate it, the cover image trumpets the fact that "Mourning in America" is not like Ali's last record, "Us," a complacent-sounding effort that reflected his new marriage and newfound success. Nor is it a repeat of his 2007 breakout, "The Undisputed Truth," an autobiographical album that chronicled his trouble-fraught transformation from a social outcast and a homeless, struggling artist into a single father and Muslim.

There was plenty of recent turmoil in Ali's life that could have defined the new album. His father killed himself. His friend and fellow indie-rap star, Mikey "Eyedea" Larsen, died of an overdose. His marriage almost fell apart during a 10-month tour promoting "Us."

"A lot of crying," is how Ali summed it up.

All of those woes are covered wham-bam style in the breathlessly paced song "Stop the Press," which attempts to get Ali's personal story out of the way so he can tackle bigger issues.

"Any one of those topics probably could've made up an entire song on their own," Ali said, "but then the record would have wound up being 'The Undisputed Truth, Part 2.' My fans might've liked that, but I didn't want that."

'I'm challenging myself'

If there's anything in hip-hop that "Mourning in America" mimics, it's the fiery sociopolitical tone of such groups as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. While Jay-Z and Kanye West spent last year's "Watch the Throne" album bragging about how rich and famous they are, Ali revives those '80s rappers' defense of America's lower-class citizens. He even based his album title on President Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election slogan.

"Get the wolves off the sheep," he growls in "Fajr," one of his most ferocious tracks ever. In the cooler-headed, soulful gem "Work Everyday" he portrays the woes of the unemployed ("Greed could never leave well enough alone / They keep on squeezing till we bleed from every bone"). And in "Only Life I Know" -- one of the songs spiked with Impressions-style horns from Ali's new band -- he takes on health care politics and government spending priorities: