Baltimore Performer Abdu Ali: ‘We’re All Dealing With Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome’

By Teta Alim

Abdu Ali: "[My music is] still very much black music and for my people."
Abdu Ali: "[My music is] still very much black music and for my people." Cristobal Guerra Naranjo

When the drums pound in Abdu Ali’s music, they travel straight to the head.

“I blatantly confront racism and white supremacy with my music and performance,” says the rising vocalist and rapper from Baltimore, Maryland.

With a mix of Baltimore club music, jazz and noise rap, Ali’s music blends an assortment of styles with critical theory. He strikes a balance between “turning up” and exploring deeper issues — such as living amid racism.

“I think people are over this s**t, this bubblegum music,” Ali says. “You need to go back and make music about the people again.”

Today Ali debuted his newest EP — called Mongo, after his middle name — via the Fader‘s website. A month ahead of the release, we talked about about white people listening to his work, how he feels biologically programmed to make music and what kind of “mainstream” he’d like to be.

Bandwidth: What does accessibility mean to you? Who should listen to your music? Who can listen to your music?

Abdu Ali: Who should be listening to my music? That’s a complex question. Who can listen to my music or who can interact with it… like my newer stuff, specifically, is made for POC [people of color] to raise their consciousness about social issues or self-empowerment — or just help heal. Whether they’re dealing with — well, I feel like we’re all dealing with post-traumatic slave syndrome or just the oppression of POC on the regular. My newer stuff is specifically for them. And then I have some songs that are just for people who are underrepresented: women, POC and queer, trans, intersex.

Then some songs, it’s just turn-up s**t — like, I got this new track coming out called “Did Dat” which is just being, like, patting yourself on the back like, “I did that! I killed that. I slayed it.”

As far as who should listen to it, I mean, everybody should listen to it. Everyone can benefit from listening to it; I definitely do. I made it, but I still benefit from listening to it, performing it. Everyone can listen to it. But when it comes to who is it for, that’s when I dissect it a little bit.

Warning: explicit lyrics.

Are white people coming to your shows, too? Do you feel some type of way about white people consuming your music?

You can’t really avoid that. Do I feel some type of way about them coming to my shows? Not necessarily, because it’s just positive energy and I welcome that. I don’t feel no kind of way. Do I feel some kind of way in a positive way when there’s a lot of POC and queer people there? Yeah, I feel really happy to see them. But as far as seeing white people, I just don’t feel no type of way. So, it is what it is. I don’t feel negative about it. Support is support and I appreciate that. But it ain’t like I’m bending my performance or bending my words to make them feel comfortable or anything. It’s still very much black music and for my people, you know. A lot of people be talking about that, too, but it’s hard because the more popular you get, the more… you know what I’m saying?

How do you see your music spreading?

Hmm. I like looking at it like levels — like you can be “mainstream” like Rihanna, or you can be “mainstream” like [Trina], but I don’t know, I do definitely want to get to a global level. My dream is to be able to connect to all black and brown people all over the world, you know? So I want to be global in that way, but “mainstream” as far as like, MTV Video Awards, and s**t like that, no. I don’t care about that s**t [laughs].

You’ve done writing before music and you’ve done a lot of visuals. Which is more important to you, the writing aspect or the visual aspect? Is it a combination of both? And a larger question: Are people more receptive to words or images?

Today, people are more receptive to images, for sure. I think back in the day it was words, but today, Instagram, Facebook, everything is image-based. When I make a music video for a song, people know those songs more than the songs I don’t make videos for. But what’s more important to me is the words and the production, for sure. I feel like they both need to be visceral and provoking.

Performance-wise, it has to resonate because every time I make a beat or something like that, I always think about how people are responding to it. I guess, really, the performance is more important than anything … I really, really think the performance is what solidifies me as a musician and an artist. It’s real. It’s not makeup. It’s no nothing. It’s no walls up.

How do you take care of yourself?

I don’t know, I ask myself that all the time. Because I’m always ready to be over this s**t. It’s hard. It’s like a drug, though. It’s a blessing and a curse. I can’t stop doing music — like, I really can’t stop. I have some, like, moments of fear, moments of discouragement, but I just gotta keep going. I always think of insects — like ants and bees, like they have jobs or whatever. One’s assigned to be a worker bee or worker ant… I feel it’s kind of like that where it’s just this innate, biological, thing of fate where I just have to do music.