Local Current Blog

Pissed Off Stef and the Street Preacher: Rhymesayers heavyweights dissect the politics on their new albums

Credit: Nate Ryan/MPR

An audio version of this story originally aired on 89.3 The Current on Sunday, October 14, as a Current Presents. You can stream that 45-minute special here:

Fall is often a busy time for album releases, especially here in the Twin Cities. But it’s hard to remember another time when two Minnesota artists of this level of prominence released their albums in such a short period of time. In the span of just a month, Minnesota’s largest record label, Rhymesayers Entertainment, is releasing studio albums by both P.O.S., whose We Don’t Even Live Here drops October 22, and Brother Ali’s Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, which is out now.

On a surface level, these two artists couldn’t be more different. P.O.S. identifies as an atheist, while Ali is a practicing Muslim and a prominent figure at his mosque. P.O.S. makes unapologetically aggressive music that blends punk, rap, noise, and dance, while Ali draws from classic soul and gospel influences. And P.O.S. encourages destruction and hostility, while Ali preaches the importance of community and togetherness.

And yet while listening to We Don’t Even Live Here alongside Mourning in America, I couldn’t help but pick out a few surprising commonalities in their themes, imagery, and tone. These are two emotionally charged and divisive albums that speak to the current political climate, and while listening, I couldn’t help but wonder what each artist thought about having their record released in close proximity with the other’s newest work.

P.O.S. (known off stage as Stef Alexander) and Brother Ali proved to be gracious interview subjects, and they patiently addressed many of the questions I had about their lyrics, themes, and ideologies. Through talking to them about their own art, I also learned a lot about their feelings about each other — they both expressed great admiration for the other and consider themselves friends — as well as their feelings about each other’s outlooks and art.
Disillusionment with the System

For the election season-weary, fear not: Most of the political themes present on Brother Ali and P.O.S.’s albums are much broader than the buzzy issues that are being driven into the ground by politicians this fall. It’s a distinction P.O.S. is quick to make when discussing his personal politics and how they relate to his new album.

“All the issues of the day are distractions from what’s really going on,” he notes.

P.O.S. at The Current; photo by Nate Ryan/MPR

On his new “Wanted/Wasted,” a track that also features a guest appearance from Astronautalis, P.O.S. doesn’t mince words when expressing his thoughts on the State of the Union. “Black president, hooray for history! This sh*t’s still totally pretend,” he raps over a staccato beat, ending the line with a scoff.

When pressed to explain that line further, he says, “All of us worked really hard to get this dude elected. All of us wanted to see that happen, all of us wanted to see something happen. And I feel like, more than ever in my life, I’m disheartened with the entire system. It’s clearly a joke. It’s clearly a group of people laughing at everybody else and pretending that these little surface issues are what you’re actually paying attention to.”

In that respect, P.O.S.’s outlook aligns very closely with that of Brother Ali’s, especially as Ali lays down the premise of his new album in its title track, “Letter to My Countrymen,” which he presents with relaxed, upbeat candor: “This is a letter to my countrymen / Not from a Democrat or a Republican / But one among you that’s why you call me brother / Ain’t scared to tell you we’re in trouble, ’cause I love you.”

Ali goes on to highlight his concerns about racial disparity, white privilege, and the isolation caused by our increasingly digitalized and distracted society. At a fundamental level, both Ali and P.O.S. agree that the “system” — the combined effect of our government and our overarching cultural mindset — disenfranchises a significant portion of our population.

Ali agrees that the main similarity between his and P.O.S.’s work is that they are disappointed “about the realities we live in now. I think that’s what ties the the two views together: seeing greed and violence and lovelessness and all of those things be the ruling themes of the day,” he says.

Once Ali and P.O.S. move into describing what to do about this dissatisfaction is where they start to dramatically distance themselves from one another. But before we get too deep into their ideological differences, I want to underline another significant similarity between their two approaches: Both musically and through their cadences, Ali and P.O.S. seem to consciously balance their use of anger and hope.
Pissed Off Stef and the Street Preacher

“I don’t think that there’s ever a time where I’m just going to be not super angry,” reflects P.O.S. “If you look at things, if you pay attention — for a dude like me, I don’t know if this is right, but for me — I know that if I’m going to read the newspaper or if I’m going to pay attention to political anything, if I’m going to pay attention to the way people treat each other, there’s going to be a part of me that’s really angry. That’s just what it is.”

P.O.S. traces this aggressive, spitfire anger back to his youth, and it’s a narrative that he tells especially vividly in the track “Lockpicks, Knives, Bricks and Bats”:

I was born like this, pissed with a twist 
Raised in the Midwest, where they hate with a grin 
Came of age thick of skin, no contest Bigger smile on my f***off
Didn’t get in to win, ‘cause I don’t respect the game 
I got up with all my friends and picked a repellent name  
I constantly recommend a little bit of disdain, a little bit of resistance

For Brother Ali, using anger as a device is something he’s changed his mind on over the years. Prior to Mourning in America’s release, Ali’s most visceral political came in the form of the scathing Bush-era takedown “Uncle Sam Goddamn” (a song with the hook “Welcome to the United Snakes / Land of the thief, home of the slave”); on his new album, he rethinks the way he presented that message through the song “Gather Round.”

Couple years ago I made a statement
Can’t figure out a single Goddamn way to change it
As of late I made adjustments to my language
Numbers are the only thing the people gain strength in

“‘Uncle Sam Goddamn’ was about the entire legacy of our country,” Ali says. “Yes, we’ve done some great things here. Yes, we’ve got some great language. Yes, we’ve had some great ideas. But that promise has never been true for everybody. And there have always been people who have suffered so that the American dream could be possible for other people. And we need to be mature enough to look at ourselves with that reality.

“Since then — you know, that was five years ago — I’ve had a lot of changes in my life. There’s been changes in the world. I’ve grown a lot, I’ve been able to read a lot more than ever before, and technology’s helped me with that. I’m legally blind so I read really slowly, but technology’s helped me with the iPad and the Kindle, it’s helped me to blow words up and read a lot more than I ever have before. And it’s just kind of opened up a new world of thoughts for me, and I would say that Dr. Cornel West was really central in that. In his memoir, he just talked so much about how the great thinkers throughout time connect to each other, so the way that Plato and Aristotle connect to Malcolm X and the way that that connects to John Coltrane… My feeling is that so much work has been done inside of this American project to make that American dream a reality for everybody. Those people did too much to make this place better and to make this reality better, and they’ve made huge contributions, and they lost their lives and they lost everything.

Brother Ali at Soundset 2012; photo by Nate Ryan/MPR

“So for us to just say, ‘F*** it, it’s too far gone. Let’s just tear it all down and forget it all’ — well, what about the suffering and the sacrifices made by all those people? What does that say to them? And I feel that. I feel that anger, and that anger is important. ‘Cause it’s not just blind anger, it’s a righteous indignation, and we should be angry when people are made to suffer intentionally so that somebody else can have more than they need. We should have anger. But how do we direct that, and what is that energy, how is that directed? And how does it become productive instead of just being destructive?”

It’d be hard to argue that Ali’s new album is completely devoid of anger, especially with the title track chanting a chorus of “Murder, murder / Kill, kill kill.” But he also consciously balances his dissent with an overall message of hope. In that way, Ali has become one of the most persuasive political songwriters of his era; his arguments are presented eloquently yet accessibly, and his humanism shines through.

Ali bristles when I ask him about the optimism I picked up on in his music, and is quick to make a distinction between being optimistic and having hope. “It’s much much deeper than optimism. Optimism is the idea that — and it’s something that’s celebrated in Minnesota, to our detriment I think — that if we’re just big smiles and we’re polite and we’re pleasant and we don’t rock the boat and we don’t do anything to bring too much attention to ourselves, that things will somehow magically get better. I think that kind of idea is actually a problem. It’s a barrier and an impediment to real progress and real growth. Hope is different than that. Hope is deeper than that. Hope can be a little scary. Hope is revolutionary. Hope is tied to faith as well. Hope says that if I’m willing to put forth the sacrifice, if I’m willing to put forth the effort, if I’m willing to work on myself or work on the world, then whoever is in charge of this existence that we’re in, whoever controls things, whatever forces out there are making it a reality, that those things/that thing won’t let my work go unrewarded. If I put forth the effort, the world can be better, I can be better.”

“But it’s not pretty,” he continues. “You don’t achieve that by going along with the status quo and just making everybody comfortable. A big part of the problem that we have is that we’ve become comfortable, and this reality that we’re in has become normal. And it’s not normal! It’s absolutely not normal.”
Us vs. Them

So what are we going to do about it? That seems to be the question that arises again and again on both P.O.S. and Brother Ali’s albums. And though they agree that something is fundamentally wrong and must be done, they have drastically different suggestions for improving our quality of life.

P.O.S.’s personal politics have never been stated so clearly and aggressively as they are on We Don’t Even Live Here, right down to the meaning behind the title of his record. “I think a lot of people think that that’s what it’s about, the idea of trashing people’s stuff without thinking about it like whatever, it’s not yours, you don’t even live here. But that’s not so much what it is,” he says. “I think it’s more about trying to work within the political system and the way people live, like the prescribed life, and deciding that it didn’t really fit anything that I was about. And looking around and it doesn’t seem to fit what most people are actually about. So the idea of We Don’t Even Live Here is finding a totally different world to live in. Same world, but like we live on a different planet on the same block.”

His philosophies fall somewhere between libertarianism and anarchy, and he says he identifies most closely with the latter (though dislikes many of the associations that word suggests) and is including a book written by anarchist collective CrimethInc about the economy with his new record. For P.O.S., the solution to a lot of the hot-button issues of the day is to simply disengage and chart your own path, with an emphasis on self-actualization.

“I’m at a point in my life where — and I’ve gotta use a better example than gay rights because people are going to be offended, and no offense to anyone — but what I’m essentially getting to, is that fighting for marriage equality at this point in my life feels silly,” he says. “To me, it feels like, why fight for marriage equality? Why not just do what you want? Call it whatever you want to call it, and do what you want. People aren’t going to let you into the hospital because you’re not a spouse? F**ing lie. You’re a brother. Whatever it might be. I think the system is clearly working against most of us, at all times. And these rules and walls are only here because we let them be. They’re imaginary boundaries and it feels liberating to push through. Why fight so hard against people that don’t even want to recognize you anyway? Why not just have your own thing? Have your own life and live it exactly how you want to, and stop working within a system that doesn’t want you in it. That feels like progress to me. I feel like that’s real progress. Ignoring it. It’s not here for us. It’s here for some giant, imaginary, super-rich them.”

This contrasts sharply with Brother Ali’s community-focused, accessible humanism. Both artists are well-read and well-researched in their philosophies, and are clearly making an effort to stay informed and wade through the murky waters of modern-day politics. For Ali, that education has further drawn him into the realm of social activism and community service.

“I have great respect for him as a musician, I think he’s more talented than me as a musician,” says Ali, reflecting on his experience listening to P.O.S.’s single “F*** Your Stuff.” “But his idea of being connected to ‘your people,’ like, ‘I’m gonna get my family, and it’s just gonna be about us’ — I have a critique for that. That’s good, but that in itself is incomplete,” he says. “I think we still have to have a universal care for everybody. I think we still have to have a universal care for humanity. Just looking out for our group of people that we’ve decided is our circle isn’t enough. I think that we can be bigger than that! I think we can dream bigger than that. I think we can demand a just and equitable system for everybody.

“Because to say, “Alright, well me and my friends do THIS. This is who WE ARE. F*** you.’ There’s still a ‘f*** you’ in there. There doesn’t have to be a ‘f*** you’ in there. There’s a tribalistic thread in that thinking. We have to safeguard ourselves from becoming what we’re fighting against. If we’re saying we’re against this ‘us vs. them mentality’ that the elite have, if we’re saying that the people in power are grouping together with other people in power to keep other people out to hoard things for themselves — there’s a tribalistic group mentality at the heart of the problem. We have to safeguard ourselves from becoming that, because the only difference between us and the people in power is the fact that they have power and we don’t. We have to create in ourselves and become what we want to see them be.”

Brother Ali has taken that innate sense of responsibility to the streets this year, becoming active in the Occupy Homes movement in the Twin Cities and even being voluntarily arrested for the cause this past July.

Photo by Adam DeGross

P.O.S., on the other hand, bristles at the idea of organized protest, and namechecks Occupy specifically in his song “All Of It”:

I’m probably not welcome at your protest
Say I’m outta my damn mind 
Looking to break glass, not holding the damn sign

Occupy bedsheets 
Occupy everything differently

“I have tons of respect for anybody that spends their time protesting and spends their time out on those particular frontlines, making sure everybody’s voice gets heard,” P.O.S. says. “But I also don’t see the point in only protesting in zones where you’re allowed to protest. You gotta be in this protest box and you can only say so much stuff, and you’re definitely not violent, and we all know you’re not violent, so you don’t actually have to be scared, and we can all be scared of the cops together. It doesn’t seem like it’s making everybody happier.

“Occupy had a year, just a week ago — and that’s exciting to see, but I wanna see something done. I know it’s just me and I’m not trying to be a hater. I know they’ve done really cool stuff with Occupy Homes and little subgroups have managed to pull some other cool things together, and I believe in all that stuff. But my personal mission right now is true happiness. True liberty. Finding a space for me and my people and anybody that wants to be my people to really be free and live well. See the game for what it is and figure out the way to cheat it and play against it.”

Brother Ali warns against placing so much emphasis on individualism, and says he feels it has led us to feel increasingly isolated from one another and susceptible to disenfranchisement.

“That idea more than anything — this idea that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as groups or families or communities, that we should really think of ourselves as individuals — serves people in power because it’s not reality,” he argues. “It’s not a true worldview that leads to success or happiness or contentment or fulfillment. I think it’s very very important that we cut against that grain and that narrative to invite us to see ourselves as humans rather than these very individualized, specialized identities that we’re encouraged to wear as our uniform and our interface with life. We see ourselves as human because as a human being we’re not complete unless we’re connected with other human beings. The missing parts of our humanity are in other people. We feel incomplete because we’re not connected. That’s a HUGE part of what the solution is – as far as to see ourselves as we are, which is blades of grass. We see ourselves as a tree in the middle of the desert or something. But in reality, we are connected with everybody else and the more that we are able to get back to that idea, the better we’ll do.”

It’s a fascinating contrast in ideologies, and one I have a feeling that P.O.S. and Ali could discuss and dissect for quite a long time. I interviewed them separately for this project, but think getting them in the same room discussing these topics could produce an even more thought-provoking conversation.

One fascinating observation for me is that both Brother Ali and P.O.S. — though they take very disparate, roundabout ways to get there — are emphasizing the importance of family and community, and encouraging people to effect change on their immediate surroundings. The overarching message, it seems, is that hope can be found in our own homes, on our own blocks, and in our own neighborhoods, regardless of our thoughts on modern-day politics and hot-button issues.

And though these albums are hot off the presses, another exhilarating aspect of both Mourning in America and We Don’t Even Live Here is that they showcase Ali and P.O.S. as artists who are continuing to come into their own as thinkers and leaders, and who are increasingly confident and capable of presenting their ideas with raw, unflinching honesty. Personally, I can’t wait to hear what they’re going to say next.