For many at Princeton University, Muslim underground rapper Brother Ali’s talk on Islam and social justice was to be a moderately engaging break from fall term’s cycle of schoolwork, corporate interviews, and debauchery.
“Whatever it is, it’s probably interesting,” remarked one student. She had a nose ring and spoke with an upward inflection.
“I think the lens of talking about activism through music and art is really interesting,” offered her companion. “I don’t know any of the specifics of his message, though I would guess I agree with it pretty strongly.” He paused to regroup. “I would guess I would agree with it. I can’t say I agree with it without knowing what it is…”
He was saved by Imam Sohaib Sultan, the University Muslim Life Coordinator, who stepped out onstage to introduce Brother Ali and the discussion moderators. Ali is albino and completely bald with a square white beard. He wore gold, wire-rimmed glasses and a dark suit.
“In the name of God the most merciful,” Ali intoned in Arabic before rapping his introduction.
“…I know that telling the truth is costly, no one alive can stop me
I rolled a flag out on the ground and prostrated my body
This is more than music to me,
this is ancestors speaking through me at the tomb of Rumi…”
The “ancestors” part rang a bit strange. Ali hails from Minneapolis and is of Polish descent, though he has developed strong connections to the American black and Muslim communities. He later mentioned that people are often taken aback when they watch his videos and see what he actually looks like.
He took his seat onstage and began describing at length his views on race, religion, and the modern condition. “The only way to hold on to the pieces of our humanity that the modern world is stripping from us is, in my mind, through the black American wisdom tradition,” he opened. “The modern system seeks to remove from us and steal from us all of the things that the religion of Islam is here to preserve.” The audience murmured its assent.
Ali went on to describe how as a child he had been ostracized within the white community because of his albinism. In his first elementary school, an “eight-year-old expert” determined that Ali had white hair because he had AIDS. The disease became his nickname. When he was older, his classmates would tell him that he was albino because his parents were siblings.
“Some people will write, ‘he was accepted and embraced by the black community,’” Ali explained. “I don’t know about that. I just got to be a person.”
Speaking on his conversion to Islam, Ali described reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X when he was fifteen. “Malcolm said ‘perhaps if the men and women in America who call themselves white would study Islam, it would give them a way to re-enter the human family,’ and so I closed the book and said, ‘I’m Muslim.’”
After the talk, attendees grouped together in excited knots.
“I’m taken aback at the sheer wisdom flowing forth,” remarked Khaled Mowad, his eyes wide. “I feel like he’s getting at a lot of the insecurities of people living in a modern age, and then what we need to do to fix ourselves and fix our condition.”
Indeed, Ali’s aura had been difficult to resist. He spoke with the diction of a rapper and the sincerity of an imam, elaborating on his vision of an afflicted America. “If we’re understanding that our sickness is a side effect of modernity and has really limited our understanding of life, then we as modern people can’t necessarily construct all of our remedy from our limited perspective. We have to have these links to something that is pre-modern,” he explained impassionedly. “People today are curating brands of themselves online. This is weird—it’s not normal.”
Carter Flaig stood alone near the stage as attendees filed out. He wore a beige kurta embroidered with cherry blossoms. “I really admire the man, just his presence,” he said. Flaig is a member of the Princeton lacrosse team and a recent convert to Islam. He said that Ali’s words reaffirmed his faith. “We might not feel spirituality on campus that often, but I truly believe it’s something we crave…We keep looking, turning for something else that’s not an ‘A’ or a job, something to believe in.”
Onstage, students and visitors were lined up, waiting to exchange salaams with Brother Ali or ask him to sign the albums they brought. Others, however, had apparently been less impressed by his spiritual prescriptions. The girl with the nose ring and her credulous friend left before the end of the talk, standing noisily and shuffling out of the auditorium.