Q & A with rapper Brother Ali: High school opens huge doors


ThreeSixty reporters Erika Roedl and Edwin Flowers interviewed Brother Ali by phone this fall after he made a public service announcement supporting an effort by Minneapolis public schools to persuade people who have dropped out of school to return. The rapper left high school without a diploma. This is an edited version of their conversation.

ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.

How successful do you think the “We Want You Back” campaign will be?

Brother Ali: I’m hoping that with all the negative stuff out there that we can just kind of put a little of weight in the positive side of things. … I wonder sometimes that if I had another voice when I was about to do something really stupid, somebody that I at least felt connected to said: “Hey what about this? What about trying it a different way?” Who knows, then maybe I would’ve done it.

The dropout rate for men of color is a lot higher than for girls and Caucasian kids. Do you have any theories to why that is?

Brother Ali: I most certainly do. I was talking about people having an account, almost a subconscious account, of messages that we get. I think that the messages that young people of color, particularly young men receive from society, they’re not very encouraging.

I know, where I went to school, the school system wasn’t welcoming. It wasn’t encouraging. There was a big cultural divide between the administration and the students of color. They were only hiring one staff member (of color) that they called the student advocate. Really her job was to try to smooth over relations between the school and the students of color. What we have is a system of institutional racism – where the culture within an institution isn’t inviting.

What kind of things would you change?

Brother Ali: There are cultural differences between students and teachers. I know they have programs called diversity training, but I think that there needs to be a more pointed effort at making the environment more welcoming and more encouraging for students of color.

I was one of about 30 to 40 students who were bused from Minneapolis to the suburbs, where I went to high school. So the students of color felt really outnumbered in terms of the student body, (and) the staff didn’t look like them. They looked at the staff and they didn’t see themselves.

Historically, (minority students) are so far behind, we need to make a deliberate attempt to have more diversity within the staff, to have more education and communication between the staff and the kids.

What do you think is the lead cause of high school students dropping out?

Brother Ali: I think it’s a lack of understanding on behalf of the students. Kids just don’t understand what a big difference it’s going to be if you finished high school as opposed to not.

I know that me and a lot of the kids that I knew who didn’t finish, we didn’t have immediate plans to go to college, but we did have immediate needs. When you’re 16, 17 years old, $150 a week seems like a lot of money. And every week that I’m in school, I’m losing 150 bucks was the way that I looked at it at that time.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and not realize that this is the chance for me to (finish school) for free.

I’m here, the resources are here for me, everything is all set up. All I gotta do is finish and a huge door is going to be open for me that’s going to be closed if I don’t just finish what I need to finish here. It’s lack of understanding for the value, the real-life value of having that diploma.

You know, some people would rather play X-Box. They’d rather do nothing than go to school. I don’t know what I would say to those guys.

What are some things that you’d say that are noticeably different between today’s teens and teens when you were growing up?

Brother Ali: When you’re at that stage in your life, it’s kind of universal. Struggling and wanting to be independent and feeling like you’re starting to get some of the tools to live and think and wanting to be your own person but still really needing some fundamental things to be done for you and needing guidance.

I think that we definitely had better messages coming from the music and our heroes at that time. We had a diversity of messages, and the messages that were given were a lot more constructive. I had Michael Jordan, and you guys have LeBron James. With Michael Jordan, at least his outer appearance was just always classy, always a team player, always a leader. The people that we looked up to at that time, I feel like were giving us a lot more encouragement to do something productive.

I look at some of the people now and you don’t see that balance. You look at somebody like Lil’ Wayne and you see a great work ethic, but the content (of his music) is still ego- and material- and sex-based. … You guys are exposed to so much more everything than we were. So much more music, so much more news, so many more movies, so many more videos, the whole reality TV thing.

Did rap contribute to your schooling?

Brother Ali: You know, it’s kind of a double-edged sword: It made me want to be a rebel and made me not want to conform to what school was telling me to do. But rap also made me want to be intelligent. So where I might be able to justify not wanting to participate in class and follow the curriculum, I used to cut class and go to the library and read on my own. In my mind I was skipping class for a reason. I wasn’t skipping class to go smoke weed. I was skipping class because that education isn’t the entire truth. I needed to go find it on my own.

I realized that some of the stuff I wanted to start reading and learning is really difficult for me to do on my own cause I just don’t have the tools for it. Once I got to the point where I want to read Socrates, and I want to read Karl Marx and I want to read some of these great literary giants – I don’t have the tools cause I don’t know about the four books I was supposed to read before I get to this point. Had I been in college, somebody would have told me that 
So now I have to go back and finish high school so that I can go to college and get some help with the learning I want to do.

What are some ways that you have used rap to talk to students and tell them that schooling is important?

Brother Ali: I would hope that people would listen to my music sense that I believe in trying to lead a productive life, in working hard, in being determined, in thinking critically. I think people who listen to my music can probably hear that I value knowledge.

But public service announcement is the most specific thing that I’ve done to say – “Hey, you should finish school. I wish I would have finished school.”

What does education mean to you as a Muslim?

Brother Ali: Islam really, really, really encourages learning. If you have a healthy Muslim society, education is something that’s really promoted. In America, the majority of Muslim families that I know have education accounts that everybody in the family contributes to. There are high school kids that work at a weekend job or a night job and they put money in the account for their education but also for their brothers and sisters to go to school.

What do you know now at 33 that you wish you knew at 16?

Brother Ali: It’s important to think critically. It’s important to think for yourself. That’s something that I’m really glad I learned early on. It’s been more valuable than anything else – thinking for myself and being able to appreciate something and criticize it at the same time – to critique everything, including myself.

But the thing I didn’t realize is that it only matters if you participate. If you remove yourself from society, then you remove yourself from the discussion. You kind of take your hat out of the ring. You lose any ability to have any say over the things that happen.

When I was younger, I wish that I would’ve been in school. I wish that I would’ve went to college. I wish that I would’ve thought a little bit more about the role (of school) rather than disregarding it completely and going off on my own. Thank God, it has worked out pretty well.

Because of the work ethic I had, I just got up every day and worked at it, relentlessly, every day for 15 years before anything came of it. I really feel like had I not quit school, I could be a lot further than I am right now.

You didn’t intentionally drop out, right?

Brother Ali: I basically got D’s all the way through high school. I didn’t really participate in anything very much … And then when I got to the end, I was gonna walk away and they said: “You can walk during graduation and take these last two classes in summer school afterward.”

So I walked during graduation and took one of the classes and then the last class -the last assignment was to write a paper, and I had always been good at papers. So I turned in my paper and it never came back. I knew I was supposed to go back and follow through.

It probably was about two, three years later that I went back and I was trying to get my diploma and they told me, “You didn’t finish that class, so you didn’t graduate.”

I can’t say that I was shocked. I didn’t know necessarily that I had or hadn’t graduated.

When you found out that you hadn’t gotten your diploma after all, how did you feel?

Brother Ali: To be honest, I felt kind of low. When you’re poor, there’s this kind of feeling you have of being not good enough. There’s this kind of embarrassed feeling about being in the kind of situation you’re in. I hadn’t feel that feeling in a long time – this kind of shame you feel. When I found that out, I was kind of overwhelmed by that feeling again.

Are you working on your GED?

Brother Ali: Since the public service announcement came out, a school for the arts contacted me and told me that they would help me figure out how to get an actual high school diploma. I’m about to head out of town but when I get back I’ll get started next semester. I’m going to meet with them and we’ll figure out a way for me to actually finish.

But before that I did get the study guides for the GED and I was studying and I felt like I probably was getting near to be able to take the test.

The math was particularly hard. English – I feel like I could do that one in my sleep just cause I write so much and I read so much. Math is gonna be the trickiest part.

That’s another thing that I just realized – with learning, when you don’t practice things – how much ground you actually lose and how important it is to keep learning. (I didn’t realize) how helpful the institutions can be if you know how to engage them and how to use them to your advantage.

Check out Brother Ali’s public service announcement.

And here’s another video he made for the We Want You Back campaign in which he talks about why school became less important for him at 17, and how he understands now that education helps you understand the bigger picture when it comes to life.