Abdu Ali has made his career living on the fringes of rap. His earlier music joined the genre with the thump of club music from his native Baltimore, and the vocal fervor of punk to articulate his experiences as a queer artist from a city with weighted politics. It made for a unique combination and one that, when played live, could conjure the same forceful energy from his crowds—which he regularly directed to participate in call-in-response with him while performing. But in 2016, Ali gave his musical identity a facelift when he released Mongo, a nine-track "black self-care mixtape" that used more than just intensity to place emphasis on Ali's musical sermons. R&B-leaning and Baile funk-inspired tracks projected messages of healing for black communities, whether that meant ridding yourself of unhealthy relationships or taking time to celebrate your personal victories.
Today, we're premiering music from Ali's first project since Mongo with a new track titled, "DaWon." The Mouth of Infinity-produced song is a return to Ali's experimental, more punk-leaning origins. In its opening lines, Ali spits with deep, deity-like vocal effects: "I am the universe's mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, daughter, son / Am I the Holy Spirit? Who Am I? I'm the fuckin' one." The song goes on to depict Ali as a character born into challenging circumstances that he's hellbent on pushing through, while mind-bending synths add to the dystopian feel of it all. The song will be featured on Ali's forthcoming FIYA!!! mixtape. We recently spoke with the Baltimore rapper about what he's been up to since Mongo, what incorporating a band into his live set has done for him musically, and what to expect from him this year. Listen to "DaWon" below.
Noisey: What’s been your musical approach since you dropped Mongo? Are you trying to transform?
Abdu Ali: My goal with Mongo was to make an album that was universal, not just context-wise, but also sonically. I feel like my music before was me experimenting and doing whatever, which was necessary. Mongo could speak to the diaspora more. Like, my mom could listen to it. Or people who don’t necessarily listen to punk or noisy music all the time. That album opened a lot of doors for me and took me places that I didn’t have access to before I dropped it. That has compelled me to think about making music that a lot of people can rock with. Like pop music, but make it more radical, more futuristic, more unorthodox.
When you say radical with your music, do you mean beyond the lyrical content?
Look at people like Sun Ra, or even Prince. Coltrane made radical music with no vocals. The instrumental composition and production of the music is radical because they did whatever they wanted to do. They created a new language within the production. So I’m asking myself how can I create a new language. A lot of people want to throw shade at mumble rappers but at the end of the day, just because somebody isn’t necessarily speaking “clearly” doesn’t mean it’s not good music. For one, music started with no words. Saying that people are mumble rappers is anti-black and filled with classist, white supremacist values of what language is supposed to be. But how come people can honor scatting and motherfuckers saying “shoo-wop doo-wop” for hours? So yeah, having music with no words or where I’m shouting and screaming, I’m trying to take that to another level.
Did you have to teach yourself as an artist to take out time to live life and process your days instead of churning out projects back-to-back?
Me taking my time is a combination of things. Mongo has really has built a pathway for me to perform constantly. It got me to Europe to play for the first time. That was all good for me because performance drives me. It’s so good to me that I didn’t want to follow the trend of having shit out just for the sake of it. My legacy and my name is way more important than keeping up. Plus, yeah, I needed to live life and be inspired again. Being black and queer in the music game, people like me feel like there’s more doors open than it would be even like seven years ago. But there’s still a lot of barriers we have to break. A lot of us still don’t get the support we deserve. That kind of bummed me out for a long time and I needed to work through it before I felt comfortable putting out music again.
You’ve been performing with a live band recently, which really amplifies how explosive your music can be. Why’d you make the shift? Are you making songs with consideration of them being played with a band now?
Well first, it came from boredom. I was playing off my laptop or backing tracks or a DJ. I wanted to add drummers and there’s nothing like it. A lot of my music and live performances are inspired by the black church; watching the choir and choir director perform, and seeing them conjure spirits and energy into the space, making people shout with just the sound of music is powerful. I felt like the only way I could match that is to have live instruments. It’s nothing like hearing a drummer bang. It immediately makes your body go crazy. Plus, the drum to me is indicative of black music and Baltimore club. That’s what black music is centered around.
“DaWon,” in ways, is more in-line with your older, club-inspired, noisy music. What led you to go in that direction?
It’s an ode to my old shit but at the same time, trying to push more boundaries. The song is definitely turned up and punk and I’m on this thing where I want to create post-futuristic music. Music for after the world ends. Everybody is on this futuristic shit and I’m like, we’re in the future! I’m thinking about what happens to the black consciousness when the world ends. What happens to black queer bodies when the world ends? That’s where I’m at. To me, that’s making music where I give a dope flow, but doing things with my vocals that I never did before. I’m singing in three different voices on here. I’m trying to push my abilities. But also I just want to spit hot 16’s. Like, Lil Kim Hard Core and Biggie’s Ready to Die vibes. Those were the two albums I was listening to when I first started doing music. That inspired me to rap but also made me want to push boundaries of what rap is supposed to be.
Is there something in particular you’d like people to take away from the song?
I picture it as a monologue and it's speaking from this character I’m developing. Their name is Dawon and they’re a non-binary, enhanced being. I’m basing my whole next project, FIYA!!!, around them. Each song is a story from the character’s life. “DaWon” is about this character realizing their potential, and out of that, leaning to empower their self.
Abdu Ali will be performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC on March 7, the Motor House in Baltimore on March 17, and will be touring Europe in July 2018.
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