You could use any number of adjectives to describe the past 14 months in the world of Minneapolis-based rapper Brother Ali.
Trying. Transitional. An emotional roller coaster.
Ali, who'll perform Sunday in Bend as part of “How The Grouch Stole Christmas Tour” (see “If you go”), calls this stretch of his life “transformative.”
In September of 2009, Ali — real name Ali Newman, 33, one of the biggest shots on bigshot hip-hop label Rhymesayers — released his third album “Us,” a bold, booming pack of stories focused on trials and triumphs, but mostly trials.
Since, Ali has been on tour almost constantly, but without the comfort of his longtime DJ BK-ONE (who retired from the business) and longtime tour manager (who has been busy with other things). For Ali, that's a big deal.
“When you live your life on tour, for me, my DJ and my tour manager are the two most important people in my life,” he said Monday in a telephone interview from a tour stop in Boulder, Colo.
Those professional uncertainties were amplified by two tragedies at home; in recent months, both Ali's father and his “great friend,” Rhymesayers rapper Micheal “Eyedea” Larsen, died.
So in early November, as Ali — a practicing Muslim for 17 years — boarded a plane to make his first pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Islam, he wondered if he was in the right state of mind for such a powerful experience.
“I was a little disheartened or concerned because I had such a crazy year. I've had a few times in my life that have just been nonstop changes that made me question the foundation of who I am and what I'm doing, and this has been one of those years,” he said in his measured, raspy tone. “I kind of was wondering, ‘Am I ready for this? Am I in the right place spiritually, emotionally, mentally, even physically?' I was just really beat up.”
Still, Ali boarded that plane, unwilling to miss out on something he has dreamed about since he was 15. And it paid off.
“I realized that it was the exact time that I needed it to happen,” he said. “This crazy, transformative year, the exclamation point was this life-changing event of the pilgrimage. It was actually perfect.”
Upon returning to the U.S., Ali had just a few days before he was back at it, joining the tour that will bring him to Bend. Life on the road, “in the real world,” Ali said, is a surprisingly productive environment for working through the lessons and experiences he brought home from Mecca.
“If I was at home processing these things, I don't know if I would see them as concretely as I am now, where I'm immediately back ... out in the world,” he said. “The pilgrimage is something that hits you really hard when you're there, but then as you sit with it for longer periods of time, the seeds that are planted there start to hatch.”
That said, he looks forward to having the chance to write again. Ali is known for his storytelling skills; he's a highly skilled rapper with a strong, steady flow who is not afraid to address heavy topics in his songs, from race and religion to politics to his own vulnerability. Standard hip-hop boasting is few and far between on “Us,” unless you count the life-is-good lyrics of “Fresh Air,” which Ali wrote to show others who are struggling that there is light at the end of the tunnel:
“Just got married last year. Treated so good that it ain't even fair.
Already got a boy now the baby girl's here. Bought us a house like the Berenstain Bears.
Not two years ago I was homeless, I mean crashin' on the couch of my homies.
Now I'm crashin' on the couch with Conan. Signed a mortgage and bought my home.”
It's a far cry from Ali's first two albums, which dealt directly with his own insecurity and instability. On “Us,” though, it was time to shine a light on “the stories about one side of the tracks,” he said.
“Now that I'm in a situation where (I'm doing fine), that really made me focus on the people that I grew up around and the people that I love and the people who made me what I am, and wanting them to have that, too,” Ali said. “People heard me make a change to rebuild my life, and I wanted them to know that ... it worked (and that) you can take your life apart and rebuild and make it better.
“I'm all set up. I'm good. Don't worry about me,” he said. “But people around me are still going through it, so my focus is on them now. I'm trying to be a service now.”
As for what's next, Brother Ali isn't sure. He hasn't had the chance to write since returning from his pilgrimage, so he has no idea how he'll deal with the emotional highs and lows of the past year on a professional level.
“I'm not really sure how to go back and write now. What do I write now?” he said. “Part of me just wants to have fun rapping and not do anything with any of it. And then part of me wants to try to write these songs about what I'm going through. The writing is kind of the final frontier.”
He doesn't even know when he's going to get a chance to work it all out. Like many musicians, Ali's income is dependent on touring, not on album sales, so it's not exactly viable to take a long break to put pen to paper.
“I would love to take six months off and write an album, and learn some more Arabic, and coach my son's basketball team,” he said. “I'd love to just be a guy that lives in a house for a while.”