When he was starting out in the rap business, Brother Ali quickly learned how much skin color matters.
"I started sitting down for interviews and journalists would say, 'Are you black or white?'" recalled Ali, who is albino. "I'd ask them, 'What do you think?'"
For the record, Ali is Caucasian. But his lack of skin color made it easier to create ambiguity and avoid the label of white rapper — a tempting proposition for a man who grew up feeling accepted by black kids and mistreated by his white classmates.
"It's not like black kids didn't make fun of me, but it was different," said Ali, 29, who was born Jason Newman. "It wasn't done in a way to exclude me. It wasn't done in a way to make me feel like not even a human being, not even a person."
It was through friendships with black people, first in Detroit and later Minneapolis, that Ali found the two outlets that have helped defuse his outsider rage — hip-hop and Islam. That, in turn, has helped him create music that's reaching an ever-widening audience: Rolling Stone magazine recently praised his "super-agile flow" and proclaimed that his new album, "The Undisputed Truth," should "go down as one of '07's best rap records."
But Ali said it's not about making hit songs. His rhymes are his release, a way to process a rough childhood and reach out to listeners who've suffered in their own ways.
"What I'm saying is real from my heart, and so if it connects for somebody else, that's a real connection we have no matter who we are," Ali said. "What I'm saying is real to me, so if it means something to you then what we have is a real thing."
Such wisdom was hard-won. The taunts started early and followed him for years.
‘I just looked strange’
"I've always been a big kid, a chubby kid," said Ali, who is also legally blind, a condition common to albinos. "I had this long white hair, and I didn't really have the greatest clothes. I just looked strange."
Ali had a somewhat turbulent home life, with his family moving often and his parents splitting up several times before ending their marriage for good when he was a teenager. With hip-hop as a convenient ice-breaker, Ali made black friends wherever he went.
It was a relief, Ali said, to have friends who understood what it was to be judged on skin color. It led him to "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which he cites as a major influence in the decision to convert to Islam at age 15.
"He was searching for somewhere that he could fit in," said Arlene El-Amin, whose son is the imam at a north Minneapolis mosque that Ali started visiting as a teenager newly transplanted to Minnesota. Ali has said it was El-Amin and other black women, all maternal figures in his life, who more than anything helped him learn to derive self-worth from within.
"He was struggling to find an identity," El-Amin recalled. "And he's found a niche where he not only can be comfortable but also reach out to others who might feel similarly lost."
Finding another niche
It was in Minneapolis where Ali finally found another niche. While for a time he wanted to become a Muslim imam himself, he also continued to rap. A few years ago, he sent an audition tape to Rhymesayers, an influential Minneapolis rap label.
Before long, Ali had a record deal. He released his first record in 2003, but found that his stormy personal life hadn't quite run its course. Ali had married at 17, and he and his wife had a young son, but by his mid-20s the marriage was falling apart.
He also continued to struggle with what he called "major identity issues," which is what prompted him to encourage confusion about his racial background. He admitted he hated the idea of being considered a "white rapper," with all the baggage that brings. "I didn't want to be confused with these teenage angst suburban middle class kids who hate their mom and dad so they start wearing baggy pants and smoking weed and wearing their hat backwards and saying the 'N' word," Ali said.
"The Undisputed Truth" is offering a chance to exorcise a lot of those demons, whether it be the scars of that marriage in "Walking Away" or his ambivalence toward racial categorizations in "Daylight": "They ask me if I'm black or white, I'm neither/ Race is a made-up thing, I don't believe in it."
Today, Ali is remarried and has custody of his 7-year-old son, Faheem. Arlene El-Amin said she's hearing a new message in his latest batch of songs.
"He's moved beyond labels," El-Amin said. "I think probably his goal, his aim in trying to get a message out to the people is that the humanness comes first. All the other labels are secondary."