On the first day of Autumn, a few hundred Seattle residents celebrated the city’s return to dreary gray weather by gathering to be a part of a sold-out show featuring two of hip-hop’s most profound underground MCs: Bambu and Brother Ali.
Full disclosure: I saw Bambu perform in LA when I was in college and became a total fan girl. Needless to say, his presence on Brother Ali’s “Home Away From Home” tour caused me to have exactly the same reaction. Dressed in all black like an omen, he appeared on the Crocodile’s stage full of Cali swag. And while his delivery is cool, make no mistake, everything about Bambu can be summed up in one word: Power. He was there to give you a show, yes, but mostly he was there to give you an education. Bar after bar, rhyme after rhyme, social justice delivered in dramatic form is the name of his rap game. With all the heavy subject matter — Ferguson, women’s rights, student loan debt, to name a few — listeners took away a better history lesson on what it’s like to be struggling in America than they could have from a classroom.
As a treat to all the Seattle rap devotees, Bambu brought out special guest and other local rap activist hero Prometheus Brown of Blue Scholars, to perform their song “The Bar.” The crowd went nuts. Like Bambu said during his performance, Seattle is his home away from home and he was received accordingly.
After tour DJ Last Word spun the crowd back into a hyped state of mind with some lighter material, women screamed, men chanted and, after a while, Brother Ali gracefully took the stage. The thing that struck me most about his performance was the beautiful contrast between he and Bambu: While the latter is more brazen when it comes to driving home the urgency in his words, Ali is there to walk you through all of the ways in which oppression ruins us. Kind, thoughtful, humble, and nimble, Brother Ali has a rap flow that makes you feel like everything is going to be alright in the end.
As the MC made his way through a remarkable set covering over 20 songs from various albums, he kept reassuring the crowd that this was their show. It was impressive to see a group of people so excited to hear the heavy subject matter on which Brother Ali raps. Through his performance, he asks you to dig deep and think about what your choices and ideas really mean. Even bolder, perhaps, is his devotion to honoring his holy book of choice, the Quran. Brother Ali suggests that transformation is possible and reflection is key. His art never suffers as a result of his conviction, a lesson many MCs should take away from rappers like him.
Brother Ali’s conviction is so intoxicating that it’s easy to forget how good his music actually sounds. His jazz-like flow and soul-based beats nod to the glory days of rappers like Snoop Dogg, and provide the balance between his sound and sobering words. The Midwestern MC arrived at the Crocodile for spiritual uplift and conducted rap church. The most powerful song of his set was “Uncle Sam Goddamn.” If you only hear one song by Ali, it should be this one.
Brother Ali and his tour mate Bambu prove that rap can be both entertaining and important. They are, in truth, the essence of what rap was destined to be: A battle cry to think about the ways we are all limited, angry, oppressed and suffering. Rap is art, and rap is power. And Ali and Bambu are on a mission to remind hip-hop heads to get involved after the song ends.
Zac Davis is a photographer and social worker in Seattle. His photography exhibition, “Rainier Beach Project: Overcoming Displacement,” was recently featured on local NPR affiliate, KPLU. View his portfolio of work, here.