This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Minneapolis-based Nobel Peace Prize Forum, and the second year that the Forum is incorporating hip-hop into its programming. Following on the heels of last year’s successful presentation and Q&A session with Dessa, this year’s summit will include a special evening with Minneapolis’s own Brother Ali and Syrian-American rapper and activist Omar Offendum.
Tomorrow night, Saturday, March 9, Ali and Offendum will present TED-style talks on the topic of “Hip-Hop and Peace” and give short performances at Augsburg College’s Kennedy Center (more info is available here). After their presentations, I will moderate a panel discussion with Ali and Offendum about their politics and music and help facilitate an audience Q&A.
In advance of tomorrow’s event, I caught up with Ali for a quick warm-up interview and asked him to give us a sneak peak of his presentation.
Local Current: Ali, thank you so much for stopping by today.
Brother Ali: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.
Those words “Nobel Peace Prize” carry a lot of weight. This weekend’s forum is actually the only Nobel event held outside of Norway. What was your reaction to being invited to such a prestigious event?
Well, first and foremost, I was really honored and excited and felt really appreciative. A little small part of me felt a little — apprehensive, maybe? But I think it just really turned into a sense that I really need to focus and prepare in a way that I don’t normally do. I usually just show up and say what’s in my heart and on my mind, and because of the nature of this [forum], it really kind of put that added fire onto me to really organize my presentation this time.
Now I know you’re really well-read in social justice history, is there a particular Nobel Peace Prize laureate that has inspired you?
Dr. King would be the first and foremost in my mind. He’s the greatest American that we’ve ever produced and one of the greatest human beings in modern history.
Can you give us a preview of what your presentation is about?
I’m going to go back and forth in-between speaking and performing, so I’ve picked a few of my songs that address issues that I think hip-hop is a really great, you know, makes a great contribution into the public conversation about issues of justice and peace and human dignity and human rights. So I’ll give a little short speech or presentation — spoken presentation on those things, and then I’ll perform the song. So we’ll go back and forth between the two.
And I think it’s really insightful and wonderful on the part of the Nobel committee to invite and include hip-hop, particularly at this time in history, because hip-hop comes from a legacy that has always highlighted people’s humanity, given a voice to voiceless people, in the most, you know, richest and wealthy and influential society on Earth at this moment. We have a class of people who suffer and suffer silently, and the music that they create, talking specifically about black and brown people, poor people of all colors, that music that they create has been the one and only and most pure opportunity for them to inject their narrative and their story and their feelings and their experience into the worldwide conversation. So even people who have not heard African-American people speak beyond Dr. King or beyond President Obama, you know, they get to hear how muddy waters felt; they get to hear how Nina Simone felt, they get to hear how Jay-Z feels, they get to hear how people from that environment feel. So I think that that’s what hip-hop offers the world in being included in a stage, in a forum like this, is really important.
Absolutely. He’s a star in the Muslim world, so I’m definitely – I’m very very familiar with him and his work.
Have you found any overlapping themes in your music or your politics?
Definitely. Yeah, we both – you know, we’re both Muslim-American, we’re both lovers of hip-hop, art, music culture, and we’re both artists. And there’s a very unique kind of experience that artists have with each other – that that kind of searching the self to be able to create, you know there’s a part of ourselves as human beings that we access when we’re creating that may be the most human thing in existence. And so anybody that has to access that part of themselves and offer that much of themselves to the world the way that the we do when we make music, the way that you do when you go into the community and try to share the great things that you come across, you know, you’re bearing part of yourself. And so when that happens, artists are able to transcend and really break down all of those barriers. So yeah, me and Omar have a lot in common. It’s a huge honor to be presenting next to him. I’m going to try my best to keep up with him.
And I know after the presentations you’ll both be sitting down for a Q&A. I’m very honored to be leading the Q&A and then we’re going to open it up to an audience Q&A as well, which I think is always really really cool. While I have you here, I know you just wrapped up a short tour of the state with Atmosphere. How did this year’s Welcome to Minnesota tour go?
It was great. I loved it. For a lot of personal reasons I don’t get to hang out with Ant from Atmosphere as much as I used to. He’s one of my greatest friends, and he spends a lot of his time in the Bay now, out in the Oakland/Berkley/San Francisco area. So you know, getting to spend that time with him was amazing. I felt like I had kind of a revelation in terms of where I want my life show to go that I’ve kind of been searching – you know, as an artist you perform and you kind of search to find your new – your next direction, and I feel like I kind of unlocked something in my brain on this tour. But then also just getting to see the state, you know, getting to see all the people that come out to shows – It’s not like any other place on Earth. There’s people that come out and watch us perform that they don’t go to other shows; they don’t go to concerts; they definitely don’t go to hip-hop concerts, but they will come and see Atmosphere and Brother Ali and Carnage and Haphduzn. So that’s a wonderful thing and it’s great that, you know, Slug and Atmosphere as the unchallenged leaders of this scene, you know, that they put that on, and they cause that thing to happen. It’s dope.