Brother Ali may be an albino and legally blind, but what defines the 29-year-old hip-hop artist from the Twin Cities is a gift for fighting his way to musical redemption.
You can hear it in the verses of "The Puzzle," a track from Ali's 2007 album, The Undisputed Truth.
"This is a piece of my puzzle now," raps Ali. "Through the years I found peace in my struggle now."
Those years began right here in Madison, where Brother Ali was born Jason Newman. His family moved frequently. Despite spending his early childhood in Wisconsin, most of Ali's youthful memories are set in Michigan. And his lyrics suggest that most of those memories aren't happy ones.
"I understand I ain't perfect all right; I been a thugged-out nerd all my life," he sings on "Lookin at Me Sideways."
Raw emotional honesty makes Brother Ali's music intense. His tracks face up to the searing pain of being an outcast before commencing a lyrical journey toward inner strength.
Nowhere are these ingredients more concentrated than on "The Puzzle," my favorite track from The Undisputed Truth. The beats themselves have the feel of optimism and courage, and the words tell a tale of endurance:
"If we were put here to carry a great weight, the very things we hate are here to build those muscles."
The Undisputed Truth is Brother Ali's third release on Rhymesayers Entertainment, the independent hip-hop label based in Minneapolis. The album debuted at #69 on the Billboard album chart last April and sold 11,000 copies in its first week.
Not all the songs on The Undisputed Truth are reflections on self. Arguably the most potent track on the album is "Uncle Sam Goddamn." Released with a video depicting cross burnings and lynchings intermingled with Washington monuments, the song paints an image of the U.S as a money-hungry war machine.
That track is more proof that Brother Ali's music never simmers - it boils. Maybe that's because there's a conviction behind his music that Brother Ali reveals on "Truth Is:"
"Our songs are supposed to be the voice of our soul. Not bought and sold, not all controlled."