Abdu Ali

Interview by Layla Mahmood
Photos by Elliott Browne Jr. in Baltimore, USA

It’s 5.30 in London when I finally manage to reach Abdu Ali. Quick to explain that he simply forgot, I cannot help but laugh when I realize this slip of mind is just part of who he is: a free spirit living in the moment. Baltimore rapper Abdu Ali is famous for his unapologetic expression of black and queer identity, refreshingly so in a rap scene dominated by homophobia and stereotypes of hyper-masculinity. During our interview he rides an Uber, greets a friend, and hops on a bus to New York City, all the while maintaining a full sense of focus. I ask how he does it, and he responds with ‘a girl’s gotta hustle’.

Our conversation alternates between profound deepness and playful banter. His 2016 album MONGO is a testament to this, with songs that explore intersectional identity and police brutality. Ali describes his music to me as ‘visceral and cathartic’. The song ‘How? Keep Fighting’, confirms this sentiment, referencing the Ferguson shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown, with Ali aggressively rapping ‘no more crying, no more, no more fucking crying, I can’t let them take me the fuck down! I’m the ghost of king Mike Brown!’

It’s not pity, nor paternalism to the suffering of African Americans that Ali’s music inspires though, but rather empathy. A sense of empathy that is accompanied with transcendence and empowerment; arguably the most potent aspect of his work. He tells me that much of his music can be viewed as a ‘mantra’ or a ‘spiritual guide’ to navigate life as an ‘Other’. His song ‘I Did That’ may seem repetitive and simplistic on the surface, but works to enforce a sense of self-esteem and pride to marginalized individuals that intersects the boundaries of race and gender.

It’s like, after all the obstacles I faced “I did that”, I walked through the valley of death and survived.

He tells me ‘it’s like, after all the obstacles I faced “I did that”, I walked through the valley of death and survived’.

While Ali’s music is deeply politicized, it shifts between the simple and the complex, sonically fusing club, Afro-pop, noise and soul. Ali reflects: ‘my music doesn’t conform to a traditional ear but at the same time I definitely keep the primitive and folk aspect of dance music, so people will understand that baseline’. He references shape-shifters Erykah Badu, Björk and Grace Jones as musical influences – relating to their refusal to be bound into singular identities or genres. His upcoming album diverges from noise and dance to the more melodious tones of soul.

But the true complexity of Ali’s music stems from his belief that his songs are part of a musical black diaspora. He believes that within this diaspora, covert messages of social protest can be spread, ensuring safety to people of colour, claiming ‘obviously we can’t be visible in large numbers, because that makes us a target’. Music for Ali is powerful and socially transformative. Representing what he describes as ‘the future of social organizing, protest, liberation or whatever you want to call it’.

The conversation with Abdu Ali ends on a visionary and idealistic note. He expresses gratitude to his family for instilling a sense ‘pride and purpose’ in him, something he hopes to extend to those existing within the margins of society and within the black diaspora at large.

Abdu Ali plays s105 (De School) on Thursday, 9 March. The show is free for members. Mongo was self-released April, 2016.