Last week, after MC Hammer was arrested in a mall parking lot outside of Oakland, rapper Brother Ali opined in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the narrative of a post-racial America is real only for a few privileged individuals. "Obama (and, to a lesser but still imperative degree, entertainment figures) are invoked as evidence that America has outgrown its legacy of institutional racism," he wrote. "The actual numbers tell another tale entirely."
Brother Ali is right about that. He is also white. Whether his ethnicity should disqualify him from writing about the racial profiling of MC Hammer is an argument he's been having his whole career.
Consider his 2012 album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color. The cover features Ali using the American flag as a prayer rugan image more likely to get him in trouble with both sides of the culture war than any number of gun-and-blunt shots. Perhaps his best-known track is "Uncle Sam Goddamn," in which he raps that the U.S. government has a "billion-dollar-a-week killing brown people habit."
"Welcome to the United States," the chorus goes, "land of the thief / home of the slave." Again, Brother Ali is pretty much right. He is again not black—so how is it his business to rap about slaves?
This question mirrors a larger one that hip-hop has struggled with for the past two decades. Rap music is pop music; it is produced almost entirely by black and Latino men, but its largest consumer demographic is white males aged 14 to 25. It is the music that reclaimed the n-word, but it is also on Top 40 radio. For a generation of Americans, now horrifyingly old, The Chronic was as formative as "Wheel of Fortune" and Superfudge.
So is rap American music, or is it black music? Having raised a generation of Americans on hip-hop, are we to forbid 78 percent of them from actually making it? That seems weird.
"I was taught life and manhood by black men," Brother Ali raps on "Daylight," somewhat arrhythmically. "So I'm a product of that understanding, and / a small part of me feels I'm just like them." It's a good point—one that captures the influence hip-hop has had on so many Americans' ideas of masculinity and how this country works.
It should also be familiar to anyone whose rural cousin is way too into Eminem. Elsewhere on "Daylight," Ali raps that "race is a made-up thing; I don't believe in it," but he also acknowledges that "I benefit from something I hate." There's the rub. Brother Ali may not believe in race, but America obstinately does.
That tension—between the cultural inheritance of hip-hop and the inherited privilege of being white in the United States—is Brother Ali's great subject. To call him a conscious rapper is to describe only half of what he is so achingly conscious of. Yes, he raps about institutional prejudice and the reification of a racially unfair system. But he does so without once forgetting that, in the crudest terms, he was born onto the winning team.
That dynamic gives Brother Ali's work the thrilling quality of a highwire act. Two weeks ago, he was featured in a new video for Public Enemy's "Get Up Stand Up." It is disconcerting to watch a goateed white man rapping onstage next to Chuck D, but it is also oddly satisfying.
Chuck famously called hip-hop "the black man's CNN," but really it was the white kid's BET. I first learned about racist cops and the cultural presumption of whiteness from Fear Of a Black Planet. To see Brother Ali rapping in front of The Bomb Squad is to know that a generation of my fellow Americans did too. He does not resolve the dilemma of the white rapper so much as suggest that the problem will continue to arise until it becomes unremarkable.
His career is based on the premise that black culture is American culture, that hip-hop is part of our inheritance regardless of who our parents are. It is a controversial message, but it's one rap fans are ready to hear. If he is not the person they want to hear it from, Brother Ali doesn't much care.
Brother Ali plays Stage 112 on Fri., March 22, at 9 PM. $25/$20 in advance at seafarerentertainment.com. 18-plus.