Brother Ali Speaks to the Heart of Oberlin’s Values

Kyle Roach

Students and a handful of Oberlin residents trickled into the ’Sco to see a highly anticipated performance. As a modest yet lively crowd formed, an electricity was palpable in the air. Some mingled while bopping, grooving and swaying to the old-school hip-hop that played. Others looked anxiously between the stage and their smartphones. As the crowd thickened, its members whooped and hollered in anticipation, imploring the performer to make his entrance. Finally, Brother Ali took the stage, mic in hand.

Ali is a rapper and social activist hailing from Minneapolis. He is signed to Minneapolis-based Rhymesayers Entertainment, an independent hip-hop label responsible for the production of underground rap heavyweights Freeway and MF Doom. Currently on tour, Ali is set to perform and present at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, an event that brings together Nobel Peace Prize laureates, civic leaders, scholars and other various members of the public to create a dialogue about the causes of conflict and the promotion and realization of peace.

With rhymes like “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” a scathing critique of the United States government and society, Ali certainly does not waste his breath on frivolous music. As his official website explains, his most recent studio album Mourning In America and Dreaming In Color (2012) was inspired by an “eye-opening first trip to Mecca, the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East and the worldwide Occupy movements.”

Ali began the show with the decidedly serious disposition that is characteristic of many respected rappers. Simultaneously, he proved to be a dynamic performer, freely interacting with the mob of bespectacled Obies waving their hands and fists in the air. Expressive, charismatic and extremely present, Ali displayed his virtuosity while having a few laughs along the way.

Each song seemed to flow effortlessly into the next, and all eyes were glued to the rapper from beginning to end. Sweating bullets, he took only one break for water after a heartfelt and moving rhyme about personal hardships — including his father’s suicide and the challenges of being away from his family on tour.

During the performance, Ali paused the hip-hop hysteria to address some of the themes of his songs. One of these was the importance of art in our society. “Art is creating,” he preached. “It is dealing with the human condition, it wrestles with, ‘What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to live life?’”

Another theme, undoubtedly emphasized most of all, was privilege, prejudice and oppression in our country. Ali passionately stated, “Whether we want it or not, we walk out of the door every single day and benefit from racism if we’re part of a privileged group.”

While performing the title track of his fourth studio album, “Us,” he addressed the broader theme of solidarity amongst all groups by emphasizing the phrase, “There’s no me and no you, it’s just us.”

In light of recent incidents of hate speech on campus, Ali struck an important chord in our community. He praised Oberlin for its legacy of acceptance and inclusivity, and in doing so, he reminded us of the values that Obies have striven to uphold for more than a century. Elaborating on his message even further, he added, “Oppressing people makes it so we can no longer access a certain part of our humanity, our soul, our heart.”