Anybody who caught Jacqui Lambie and Yassmin Abdel-Magjied on Q&A recently would be well aware of the vitriolic xenophobia which permeates our society and politics. Australia isn’t alone in our Islamophobia, as the Trump Administration’s short-lived but poisonous travel ban executive order in the USA confirms. In this environment of discrimination the zeitgeist sees the left accusing the right of hate-mongering and totalitarianism, while the right accuses the left of out of touch idealism and hyper-sensitivity.
During this turmoil it serves well to throw Brother Ali on repeat. The Rhymesayers Entertainment emcee hailing from Wisconsin converted to Islam at age 15 and, during his stalwart career has become one of modern hip-hop’s most socially-conscious and significant public figures, spreading a message of unity and solidarity and upending preconceived notions of society, culture and religion.
Listen to a Brother Ali record, or catch him when he tours Australia with underground pioneers Atmosphere from next week, and you won’t find a passive and gentle voice; you will be confronted with an unapologetic mission statement.
“My name is Ali and I’m here to be a brother to people,” the artist, activist and speaker says while scrubbing dishes. “I go to bed being Brother Ali. I wake up being Brother Ali. I don’t put one hat on to be an emcee and another hat on to be a spiritual seeker and student and content provider, and then I don’t put a different one on to be a community organiser or speaker. The only thing that changes is the language.”
Inside the language of hip-hop, Brother Ali is fierce and animated and, while the same tone doesn’t deliver his spiritual teachings or speaking engagements, the message remains unwavering. “The only thing that’s required to be a teacher, content provider, communicator, story teller, you have to love what you’re talking about and you have to love who you’re talking to. As long as you’ve got those two things then you can’t help but do some type of good because the whole affair is animated by love.”
Detractors have argued that Brother Ali’s message is delivered with angry or antagonistic imagery. “I’m not talking to people in power,” he replies. “I’ve never aimed my speech at them. I’m part of a very particular school of thought both in organising and in my spiritual path. We’re for common people. I’m a common person.”
The people are taught to identify with power even though they don’t have power…
Why is there this demand for civil disobedience to be peaceful and passive? “The people are taught to identify with power even though they don’t have power. That’s usually done by giving people relative privilege. A rich person, for example, they own a private prison. There are two lower classes of people. There are abject poverty people who are gonna end up being inmates in the prison. And then there are working class poor people who are going to be prison guards in the prison. Both of them are making money for the people up the top. Prison is day to day life for everybody involved. But if you get to put a uniform on, and you’re told that this is a privilege for you, you identify with the people in power, even though you don’t have any power.”
Yet privilege as a concept is still dismissed by some. “Because most of us are privileged in some ways and not in others. The whole concept of privilege is that it’s an unfair reality that some of us have to deal with because we suffer from it and those of us that don’t suffer from it don’t have to deal with it.
“Say for example, a white person is economically struggling and have never been given a fair chance and they see people who are not more capable, moral, hard-working or smart than them, have more than them. So they register that this isn’t fair. But it’s not because they’re white. A poor or black or First Nations person is dealing with the same thing but they’re also dealing with the fact that for 400 years they’ve been told that they’re not beautiful or fully human or moral or smart or capable or worth what everyone else is worth.
“Then you have the police targeting them and they have a prison system targeting them and the school system isn’t set up to help them. So they have this extra stuff. So perhaps privilege isn’t the right word. It’s not working. And I’ve been guilty of talking about it with these terms. The whole concept of privilege doesn’t resonate with a poor white person.”
In the case of Jacqui Lambie, Pauline Hanson, Corey Bernardi and George Brandis who don’t have to deal with suffering from privilege, when they voice their reservations against Sharia Law or same-sex marriage or defend automated debt recovery, are they just simply exercising freedom of speech?
When the people who are in power feel completely unashamed of targeting and scapegoating people who don’t have power, that’s not freedom of speech; that’s called bullying.
“Freedom of speech is most important when the people who are powerless have the ability to speak their truth. When the people who are in power feel completely unashamed of targeting and scapegoating people who don’t have power, that’s not freedom of speech; that’s called bullying. There is a concept of hate-speech for a reason. Of course freedom of speech is to be able to expose truth without being hurt by people in power.
“The people that created and talk about the idea of freedom of speech, what they meant or what they’re identifying is people who are oppressed, who are minorities, who are marginalised, who are weak in that situation, having a right to tell their truth without being intimidated for it or without being brutalised for it or without being targeted for it. That’s what freedom of speech is for.
In regards to the Western world’s rampant Islamaphobia, especially in the case of calling for immigration bans and suspended visas based on religion and culture, it’s not only anti-liberty and anti-freedom, but also naive and ignorant.
“The European people and the descendants of Europe have always had a relationship with Islam. The Muslims have developed science and art and culture and poetry and beauty and all sorts of things. I’m saying this as a European-descent Westerner. If you were to remove everything from Islam from our lives and say we’re going to live without them, we wouldn’t have Algebra, we wouldn’t have the algorithms that allow our computers to work, we wouldn’t have the surgical techniques we have, we wouldn’t have the mathematics that we have, we wouldn’t have any hip-hop music. We wouldn’t have jazz music. We wouldn’t have rock music. We wouldn’t have blues music.
…we don’t think about the fact that Dave Chappelle is Muslim, we don’t think about that A Tribe Called Quest is Muslim…
“The fact that the propaganda hasn’t shown us is that we think about Muslims as being Al-Qaeda or Il’Shabab or Isis; we don’t think about the fact that Dave Chappelle is Muslim, we don’t think about that A Tribe Called Quest is Muslim. We don’t think about the fact that your doctor is Muslim. You don’t think about the fact that your clothes are made by Muslims. We don’t think about that as Islam. It’s just more propaganda to scapegoat a community of people that aren’t the threat. Human greed is a threat. Human lovelessness is a threat. That’s the threat. And that’s in all of our hearts.”
Yet Jacqui Lambie’s unashamed rhetoric lumping in religion and culture as one in the same and Pauline Hanson’s demands for assimilation into Australian culture continue to paint everyday people as a direct threat to freedom. “You don’t gauge it by who looks like you, who shares your immediate outcomes, who grew up exactly the same as you. That’s not freedom, that’s nationalism – that’s racism and bigotry. That’s cultural chauvinism.
“If somebody is a straight, white Christian or secular woman from the middle upper class, we’ll see what she thinks about freedom when she’s talking about poor immigrants from Bangladesh. That’s when she shows what she thinks a human being is. That’s when she shows what freedom is. To bully people and call hate speech ‘freedom of speech’ is a world of propaganda that turns things completely upside down and then roots against it.”
Brother Ali is about to kick off an Australia/NZ tour with fellow underground icons Atmosphere, starting up in Auckland tomorrow before hitting Oz on Monday the 27th – dates below.
Atmosphere/Brother Ali Tour
Ticket and info here
Saturday 25th February – Auckland – Powerstation
Monday 27th February – Adelaide – The Gov
Wednesday 1 March – Brisbane – The Tivoli
Thursday 2nd March – Sydney – Metro Theatre
Friday 3rd March – Melbourne – 170 Russell
Saturday 4th March – Perth – Metro City