For our readers who are still sleeping on Brother Ali, I’ll keep the introduction short for the sake of those who are already familiar.
Brother Ali is an albino, Muslim rapper and Imam from Minneapolis. He is also one of the fiercest emcees I’ve ever heard on a microphone and is a seemingly infinite well of love and kindness—two descriptors that are important both for understanding his place in hip-hop and the overseas predicament he found himself in two years ago.
During a recent appearance on The Combat Jack Show, Brother Ali spoke on his recent travels to Iran, a story that’s covered on his upcoming album All the Beauty in This Whole Life, and for lack of better phrasing, it’s a fucking insane.
The podcast runs 90 minutes, but the story of Brother Ali's Hollywood-esque international saga begins around the one-hour marker.
Now, given that this is a pretty in-depth telling of a story with a fair amount of derailments, I’ll do my best to break down Ali’s saga succinctly whilst retaining its absolute insanity.
The story goes like this:
Ali was invited to Iran to speak at a conference about the concept of Black Lives Matter. As a longstanding ally to the movement and a storied activist, this makes perfect sense. Hip-hop, it should be noted, is illegal in Iran, so this was also a big deal. Hip-hop represents the Americanized “global monoculture” that many governments, for example, like Cuba’s, have done their best to combat.
Unbeknownst to Ali, however, he was dubiously being tapped to represent hip-hop in the face of a disapproving government to convey the culture’s merit and value (he was under the impression he was there speaking just as an activist and an ally). Ali references Harry Belafonte having brokered a similar arrangement with Fidel Castro in 1999, essentially allowing hip-hop culture to be accepted in Cuba.
So, in the midst of this conference, Brother Ali is asked to perform his song “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” a fierce indictment of America’s corporate-driven hypocrisy. Ali agrees after the performance is approved by Shiite clerics in attendance. Immediately after his performance, he’s rushed to another room for an interview, and Ali starts to realize that something is amiss.
Ali is told that there are five TV stations in Iran, all ran by the government, and his performance was currently being broadcasted on all of them. The performance is aired multiple times over the next few days, leading to Ali being recognized by some Iranian rappers. Mind you, anyone making hip-hop in Iran must do so in secret because it’s illegal, and many aspiring artists have had to leave their homes and families behind to pursue their dreams in neighboring countries.
Needless to say, these people are not pleased with seeing an American emcee rapping freely on a television program broadcast by what has historically been an artistically-oppressive government. As a direct result, one of Ali’s Instagram posts from the hotel he was staying at became a hotbed for vulgar insults and death threats, a serious situation considering his whereabouts were public knowledge.
At the same time, photos of Ali with leaders of the Nation of Islam began circulating on alt-right websites, accusing the rapper of aligning with ISIS (which Ali explains is an enemy to Iran, not a supporter of). So Ali was simultaneously being threatened by local Iranians and being implicated in terrorist activities by those on his own home soil. Damn.
The death threats coupled with an extremely lax security situation at the hotel (organizers and staff were coming in and out of his room with no credentials, etc.) understandably led Ali to want to cut his trip short, so he decided to make a break for the airport, which is where shit gets even crazier.
Upon his arrival at the airport, Ali learns that his credit cards won’t work, his phone service has been cut off and there’s no internet. To make matters even worse, in Iran your flight can only be changed by the person who purchased the ticket. In this case, it was the event organizers whom Ali no longer trusted, and so he sat stranded in the airport for three days without money or food. Three days.
After tearfully pleading with someone at the airport and finally getting ahold of friend and poet Ali Suliman’s brother, he was told that the organizers have been looking for him and if he doesn’t go back to them, they’ll essentially issue an APB and the Iranian police will be looking for him. Ali reluctantly goes back to the organizers and begs them to change his ticket, which they do, but the shitstorm doesn’t end there.
Upon arrival back in the US, a customs agent was waiting for Ali and knew him by name. Ali was essentially told he was good to go and that he didn’t need to go through the normal customs procedure. It wasn’t until his return from a subsequent trip to Spain, however, that Ali learned he had been placed on an SSSS list.
Secondary Security Screening Selection, or SSSS, is a post-9/11 heightened airport security measure which has been widely criticized for its profiling tendencies. Ali and his wife were searched heavily and interrogated like terrorist suspects. This process was repeated for months every time Ali flew anywhere, even within the United States.
Luckily, this story has a happy ending. Ali reached out to “someone I consider a saint,” as well as a lawyer, and eventually had his status cleared, an act he attributes more to the work of the saint than the lawyer. I don’t know who this saint was or what they did, but as with much of Ali’s life and career, it certainly seems someone was looking out for him.
So, there you have it. A tale of one righteous man’s attempts to do good met with adversity at every turn. And through it all, as longtime fans like myself have come to expect, Ali handled himself with grace and civility.