Building Art from the Bottom Up in Baltimore
Photo by Keem Griffey
Abdu Ali creates a bridge in his art that brings together young people, women, and People of Color through do-it-yourself music settings and show setups. He fuses hip-hop, dance and experimental sounds and vocal stylings to create a high energy party vibe with a much deeper meaning. His monthly party in Baltimore–Kahlon–features some of the region’s most exciting artists and is always packed with young people working toward a major cultural shift in the city.
During and after this year’s protests in Baltimore, Ali never stopped creating cultural events and opportunities through music. He also wrote on the demonstrations relation to art, people of color, and police violence in publications like Pitchfork and Impose.
VICTORIA RUIZ: What is your name? Where are you from? What would you say you do?
ABDU ALI: Abdu Ali is from Baltimore City, the hood, the ghettos of Baltimore City. What I do is music. I am a music man for the people, for myself, and for the universe. So yeah, I am a music man and a performer.
You are the creative director of the Kahlon parties in Baltimore. The events always seem to bring together musicians and DJs from all over the East Coast. What does Kahlon mean and how did you conceptualize and develop the event?
Kahlon is a Greek word and is also very rooted in Moorish in culture, I believe. It’s a word to describe something that represents the idea of absolute beauty. I really like the meaning of the word because I want to represent absolute beauty in music and underground culture–in ideas that don’t get represented in a positive light usually. Like you don’t see Black people and musicians represented in a good light, and so that’s why most of the Kahlon events have hella black artists. But also I try to integrate people who are universally oppressed and ignored, like Black people, women, and queers. Kahlon is about diversity too. It is also about pushing the envelope of what music is supposed to be which in itself needs to be a movement and an ongoing experience people can be a part of. It needs to be provoking so that people feel self empowered to express themselves in that way, and can do that in high visibility platforms without big money or in the hands of White European concepts of power and beauty. That’s what it is about, basically.
What is your process of writing music?
It’s a carpe diem moment. It’s very spontaneous and uninhibited. My concepts are very thought out and influenced by my everyday experience. For example, I will be walking down the street and I will be impacted by what is going on around me. I instantly start creating and sorting ideas and making lyrics. Then, when it is time to perform I use the ideas and things I have been thinking about. I’m not this person who is super scripted or calculated. When I am on stage, I’m in the moment and something inside of me comes out of me, and I let it be. It is very conceptual and I think a lot about that. A lot of stuff in music right now is super produced. We need to go back to feeling, being visceral, being real. We need to realize that a song can be about anything and come from anything. I can be beating on a table, not intentionally thinking of anything, and a song will come. Conception over construction? We need to be outside of rules and start building art from the bottom up.
After the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore became an important ground for the Black Lives Matter movement. You did not skip a beat during the heat of the protests and actions and you wrote on Baltimore and Black Lives Matter for Impose Magazine and Pitchfork. Can you speak on media coverage of Baltimore right now?
Baltimore City, as far as musicians go, is as real as it gets. You don’t see that outside of the city and people need to look at what the underground black kids and people of color are doing here more. A lot of people I know are tired of all the music media who only focus on artists from NYC or LA or ATL. Which is kinda surprising in the internet world, where you can easily find out what’s going on in other cities from looking at Soundcloud or Google. Journalists need to be journalists and give artists a platform to grow and cultivate instead of dick ride what’s in season and popular on Tumblr. Baltimore has a lot of uniqueness and the sound is profound and radical. People need to get in tune with that.
Baltimore City, as far as musicians go, is as real as it gets. You don’t see that outside of the city and people need to look at what the underground black kids and people of color are doing here more. A lot of people I know are tired of all the music media who only focus on artists from NYC or LA or ATL.
Do you see yourself as a political musician?
I see the various ways that the media represents political music, my music is very visually political. I’m not out here trying to be Malcom X, but what I am trying to do is create real narratives that represent what is really going on in my life and in the lives of people like me. Much of the time, a lot of political and social context comes up in my music. I think that this is politically provocative. It is what it is, it doesn’t have to be a “thing.”
What do you mean by “thing?”
Meaning it does not have to be a category or something that is something because I thought of it. It’s political because it’s the world I live in.
You use your body in many ways in your creative work. Your photos, your performances. What is the role of the body in music?
The body is a vessel. It’s really important. We have to acknowledge the body as a vessel, it has the power to really move things. Without the body, I wouldn’t be able to create. It is really good to self empower, not worship, but praise the body as something in itself. We have to own it. When people want to chastise is or exploit it, we have to realize that we already own it. We all know that the Black body is manipulated and exploited in the world, in many facets of life, in media and politics. It is really important to own yourself and know how precious it is to own life and yourself, so we can empower and self power.