Photo by Daniel Yang
We spoke with Ali for the cover story for our sister paper, City Pages, and he talked about his experiences and state of mind while creating and awaiting release of the album. He went to Mecca and he went to jail. But another story didn’t fit in there. He met one of his heroes, Princeton scholar Dr. Cornel West, and recorded him for the album. The story of their meeting, as told by Ali, is below.
Brother Ali: My wife bought me a Kindle — because I can’t read regular stuff at the speed that most people, and I can make the words bigger. While I was on tour in Europe, I kept going back to Dr. Cornel West’s memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. It spoke to me on so many different levels.
Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color has a lot to do with him. There are a few quotes and thoughts that appear throughout. At the very least, I wanted show him the stuff before I put it out and get his blessing. Not for any legal reasons, because it’s not the exact words. But it’s clearly inspired by him and I don’t want to appropriate or steal from him.
I basically spent like two months trying to track Cornel West down. He doesn’t have email. He doesn’t touch the computer. Early this year, I called his assistant at Princeton. She said, “Doc gets hundreds of these every year. Write an e-mail.” How do I write an email for a man who doesn’t have a computer? This sounded like bullshit to me.
That night, I poured my heart out in this e-mail. I put links to some of my songs, and videos and just sent it. The next morning, my wife and I started talking about what other voices would sound cool on the album. She came up with some really good ideas, and right as we wrapped up that conversation the phone rang. I didn’t look at the phone, I just picked it up and was like “This is Cornel West.”
Shit. It’s fierce weird. Sometimes you just know stuff like that. He was like, “I’m very busy, but I’d love to do it.” I’m like, “I really wanna get this done. Please. I have a portable studio. I can set it up at an airport, at a hotel, your office, at your house. Wherever. All I need is 15 minutes.” And he was like, “Well, if you’re serious about that, tomorrow you can come to Princeton and do it in my office. I’ll give you one hour. I don’t want you to travel all this way and feel dissed when it’s only one hour.”
It was perfect. I would play the songs for him and have his thoughts, and then I could record the thing. We’ll connect finally. I told him, “Man, I got this hug I’ve been trying to give you for ten years.” I stayed up that night booking the flight, getting ready, and deciding what I was going to say and all this stuff.
I got out there, and we met in the morning. We talked for two hours before we even set the studio up. (I ended up getting about 20 minutes of him talking.) We talked like old friends. There’s certain Sufi sheikhs, where you sit with them, and they know you. He told me, “You’ve been called by God to do this work, so be careful about being unnecessarily humble. When you downplay your own greatness, there’s actually more ego involved because you’re acting like it’s yours to claim or not claim.” And that’s very real.
Then he took me to a public conversation with one of his mentors, James Cone, who founded the idea of Black Liberation Theology, in the bookstore at Princeton. At this point we’ve been hanging on since ten in the morning and it’s eight o’clock at night now. So I’m like sitting there, dozing off, and I felt so terrible. After that, me and Dr. West and his entourage go out for dinner.
I sat across the table from Chris Hedges, who used to be a bureau chief for the New York Times and an expert of US and Middle Eastern affairs. We were the only two people at the table that weren’t black. Certain questions would come up, like “Why are there so few white religious people that stand up for racial justice, but there’s a lot of historians that do it?” and they would turn to him. One of the other guys wanted to hear my answer, and Dr. West said, “No, no, no. He’s different now. Brother Ali is his own thing. I’m interesting in what you have to say, but just so you know that’s something different.” And it’s interesting that he saw that in that setting. So we hung out and talked until probably midnight. What was supposed to be an hour ended up being fourteen.
At one point, I said, “Man, I feel funny saying some of these things in your presence, because I didn’t even graduate high school, I didn’t go to college.” Dr. West said “Brother you didn’t go through college, but the college went through you” Aw shit. That was great.
Here’s Cornell West’s contribution on “Letter to My Countrymen”
“My dear Brother Ali / I think you know deep down in your soul that somethin’, somethin’ just ain’t right / You don’t want to be just well-adjusted to injustice and well-adapted to indifference / You want to be a person with integrity who leaves a mark on the world / People can say when you go that you left the world just a little better than you found it / I understand, I wanna be like that too.”