Crowds at hip-hop concerts are notoriously unenergetic. Oftentimes regardless of an artist’s onstage energy, the crowd will simply bob their heads, carefully avoiding any hip motions or movements that could be perceived as “dancing.” This lack of energy could inherently stem from the genre itself: Rappers often focus on exuding a hard image, presenting themselves as alpha males who disregard females and acquire currency on a daily basis. Because of this, it was refreshing to see the crowd at Brother Ali’s Thursday performance at the Barrymore Theater actually moving around a bit. Not only were these people enjoying themselves, they were dancing.
But then again, Brother Ali has never been a rapper to exhibit the stereotypical gangsta rap image. Ali is the kind of person who’d be good to drink tea and philosophize with in the mountains of Tibet – or perhaps in Mecca, where the Muslim rapper travelled in 2011. This eye-opening pilgrimage inspired lyrics on his newest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, which was perhaps his most overtly political album (a description he doesn’t like to use).
Despite the political messages that frame Ali’s songs, he made no attempt to preach explicit political ideology on Thursday night. Instead, he spoke of what binds us as a community. “That’s what connects us all – love,” explained the humble Ali towards the end of his set. “We need to learn to love ourselves.”
What emphasized these ponderings – reflections Ali has spent his whole career formulating in his lyrics – was the funky musical backbone the band injected into songs that sound considerably less funky on the album versions. Supported by a trombone, cornet, trumpet, keyboards, a drum machine and an electric guitar, the songs gained an infectiously groovy vibe. As I listened to these sounds, mental images of New York City in the 1970s began to hit me, and I developed a strange desire to watch some 1970s Blaxploitation movies – arguably the funkiest film genre in existence.
This sudden craving escalated as the evening wore on. Throughout his entire performance, Brother Ali blurred the line between hip-hop and funk and invited the listeners to experience what hip-hop might sound like if it had been prevalent in the early ’70s. This has always been what makes Brother Ali special. Dissect his songs, and you discover decades of musical influences lurking in every bit of instrumentation. Ali is truly a musical connoisseur in this sense, the supremely knowledgeable “wise old sage” of independent hip-hop.
Ali’s importance in the hip-hop world was supported by statements from the two opening acts – Colorado-based duo The ReMINDers and Queens-based Homeboy Sandman – who expressed genuine appreciation to Ali for allowing them to share in his tour. This infectious gratitude was prevalent throughout The ReMINDer’s short set. Members Big Samir and Aja Black, a married couple, energized the crowd with a burst of positivity as Samir laid down slick lyrics in a style comparable to Mos Def and Black sang soulful vocals that blended the inflections of Lauryn Hill and Rihanna. The duo graciously thanked the audience several times throughout the set, bringing smiles to those faces they were thanking.
Unfortunately, these positive vibes were extinguished with the entrance of Homeboy Sandman. The perpetually out-of-breath MC brought with him an arrogance that was too pervasive to allow any enjoyment of the music. “I do my own stuff because I’m crazy ill,” explained the rapper after performing a song that consisted of loud grunting noises during the chorus. The crowd was obviously put off by this presence; I by his existence. Kanye West can be arrogant because he’s a skilled musician. This guy can’t because he sucks. Thankfully, Brother Ali’s positive performance helped me forget this guy was ever on stage in the first place.
At the end of the night, Ali had left the stage, but the crowd was
hungry for more. After an enthusiastic chant of “ALI! ALI! ALI!,” the
man and the band walked back onstage. Ali then graciously extended an
invitation to The Reminders and Homeboy Sandman to join him onstage.
With everyone in place, the posse jumped into the reggae-tinged “Truth
Is,” each artist contributing a verse. “I want more / Give me more / We
want more / Goddamn it, I’m back to demand we get more,” exclaimed Ali.
While the audience wanted more after the 90-minute set, Ali obviously
did, too. As for why he does what he does, Ali gave a simple, fitting
explanation, the perfect thesis of the night: “Love and joy.”