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Brother Ali's "Uncle Sam Goddamn" 

Ali on suburbs, inner cities & the difficulties of American dreaming

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The key track off of The Undisputed Truth, the fourth album for Rhymesayers from Minneapolis rapper Brother Ali, "Uncle Sam Goddamn" includes this federal philippic: "Shit the government's an addict/ With a billion-dollar-a-week, kill-brown-people habit." Spit in Ali's hard, thirsty, addled voice, the line sounds like a motto for insurrection on a song that sounds like an anthem for as much.

It's somewhat surprising, then, when Ali says, "I wasn't trying to make this a heavy, harsh condemnation of America." There's nothing polite about this song, especially lyrically: Ali requests that "the fucker" near the throne be shot, and his hook consistently refers to the U.S.A. as the "United Snakes." There's no hope on the any side.

Musically, though, his back-pedaling assertion makes a bit more sense: "Uncle Sam Goddamn" has a slinky, almost sexy blues guitar line bouncing within a skipping bassline and a harmonica sample. Turntables cut lightly between verses, and a gospel blues moan hums beneath Ali's own voice. It offers a touch of redemption.

So what's the verdict: A metaphor for social misery alleviated by good music? Or the quintessentially large-audience-ready "underground hip-hop" track, where the lyrics quicken your pulse and the music makes your foot bounce, allowing the mind and ass to move separately and with different instincts? Ire without action; sex without guilt, you know? Sadly, we'll guess the this-is-the-single stance.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You just pulled into New Mexico, right? How's the road been treating you this tour?

BROTHER ALI: It's been great. When we normally tour the country, we do two or two and a half months. We had to make it a little bit shorter because we had some other things at home to get to. We're doing 30 shows in 30 days, or 30 shows in a month. Not much time off.

Traveling around America on tour, do you see symptoms of what you discuss in "Uncle Sam Goddamn"—the complacency, ignorance, addictions?

I would say yes and no. When we tour, we don't get to really do that much in the city because we drive all day and go straight to the club or the hotel. We get cleaned, we load in, we do our show, go back to the hotel, go to bed, get up in the morning. and do it again. But I really get to see both sides of America, and that was the main point of that song, was just to say we're always told so much about the bright side of our country. I'm not in any way anti-America, and I don't… I'm an American, but there's another side of it all. We're always told land of the free, home of the brave, but that song is just speaking on the realities that there are two Americas. There's another large group within America that's historically always been there that doesn't get to experience that American dream. The one group experiences it because of the suffering of the other group.

Lots of obvious answers to this, but—for you—what's at the core of those disparate American visions?

The main thing is money and power, but money and power are spread out in many different ways. There are many people who don't have access to it for a lot of different reasons. If you look at statistics, you take two kids—one whose parents have money and one whose parents don't, but with the same IQ—the kid with money, for a big variety of reasons, not just the fact that they have the money, they go to a better school, they get a better education, and they end up making two to three times what the kid that comes from nothing will make. It's very easy to point to the top one or five percent of every group and say they're going to excel no matter what, and it's easy to take a look and say there's a black middle class now that's doing really well. And that's true, but that's the top five or ten percent of the population, whereas not even the top five or ten percent could achieve that 30 years ago. Now they're able to. But still the masses of a group of people—and race has a lot to do with it with the way that things are divided in this country, if you look at the numbers—it's staggering.

Which side have you lived your life on?

It's interesting because I've lived in both halves. I've lived half of my life on both sides. I've lived half my life in the inner city or the ghetto or the hood or whatever, and later on, I've lived half of my life I would say in the suburbs. I've seen the people who have access to the resources of America and take it for granted. I've seen people who have no access to it, and I've seen amazing people who have no access to it. The things that are available to you when you come from certain neighborhoods—even if there are opportunities that are there—mentally and psychologically and spiritually, that environment doesn't prepare you or give the resources or the knowledge to take advantage of a lot of the stuff that's available. So you see these people who are geniuses and have excellent business wit—they're naturally built to be business people but they don't feel as if they have any access to the mainstream economy. You see them end up in this drug economy or sex economy, these alternative, underground economies that are run in our country. So I've seen both sides of it. That's why I had to speak on it that way.

How did you get from one to the other, from the inner-city to the suburbs?

It's interesting because my family was together part of the time and not together part of the time. We moved around a lot and were in different living situations a lot of the time. There were times when my family had to start over. Me as an adult, I was completely cut off from that.

Do you make a track like this to get something off your chest or as some sort of rallying call or both?

I mainly do it just to speak on what I'm going through and what I feel. I am aware that a lot of the people that listen to my music have a lot of the same background I have, so if I'm able to show them life through somebody else's eyes, then that's a positive side effect. But that's not why I make my music. I make it to express my own self.

The beat on "Uncle Sam Goddamn" is sort of peppy, but the lyrics certainly aren't. Why the juxtaposition, instead of something harsh like the lyrics?

I wasn't trying to make this a heavy, harsh condemnation of America, which the song gets portrayed as being a lot. It's really not. It's really just saying this is a reality that a lot of people live with. There are people that have lived with this reality. It's been in the background of their lives their whole life. It's not this cataclysmic event that just happened. It's something that's always been around.

Brother Ali plays Cat's Cradle Monday, March 24, at 8:30 p.m. with Abstract Rude, Toki Wright and BK-One. Tickets are $10-$12.

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