If history were written today, Abdu Ali’s name would join the ranks of other legends—John Waters, Anne Tyler, David Simon, and even their musical peer, Dan Deacon, as showcased in a recent feature on Baltimore’s cultural relevancy in The New York Times. The difference is, this boundary-breaking rap artist hails from the heart of Baltimore City, and through their music, the gender-queer artist paints a portrait of black Baltimore that has long been left out of the national narrative surrounding our city’s idiosyncratic arts community.
Over the past several years, Baltimore’s DIY scene has reached new zeniths in terms of experimentation, collaboration, and inclusivity, thanks in large part to Ali’s Kahlon concerts and dance parties that included artists of every color, gender, and genre at The Crown with a similarly diverse crowd. Their music, too, has pushed the limits of the city’s hometown genre of Baltimore Club—a frenetic blend of hip-hop and house music born here in the 1980s—by reimagining the sound for the 21st century. In doing so, they have helped forge the path for other local artists to create their own lanes, too.
And yet, after all these years, now—this moment—feels like the very beginning for the bold musician with their new record, FIYAH!!! Its 14 tracks are an amalgam of both the old-school sounds that shaped them and the futuristic vision that maps out the forward direction they plan to go. On the heels of its recent release, we caught up with Ali about reassessing success, finding their voice, and the prospect of a bass-slaying future.
Recently, you’ve talked about realizing the important of nurturing yourself as an artist. How did you learn to do that with this new record?
There is so much pressure. I love performing, but I was in a space where I was touring so much, and after a while it starts taking a toll on you, especially when you don’t have Beyoncé tour treatment. The travel, the shitty promoters, the pay—it starts to wear you down. So, I needed to take a break not just for my music but for myself. At the end of the day, I think a lot of artists don’t prioritize themselves or their self-care, but we have to stop letting the all the industry, celebrity, social capital dictate how we move. Is it really worth all that pain and struggle?
I’ve been reading The Will to Change by Bell Hooks and she talks about decentralizing what we place as value or pillars of success, especially when it comes to being male-born people. To be a man is to make money, to provide, to overwork yourself, to value material things, and that perception and expectation trickles down to every facet of society, whether you’re a doctor or work at an Amazon factory. I wanted to decentralize what I deem as success—things like getting publicity or internet celebrity—because that doesn’t matter and that is not the work. That stuff is cute, but at the end of the day, what is your legacy? What cultural impact are you making? What community are you directly affecting? What is it doing for your own personal joy and happiness and ability to self-love and love the people around you?
It’s scary though. If you’re independent or marginalized or disenfranchised, it’s really hard to take those breaks because you literally cannot afford to.
This album was inspired, in part, by Fire!!, an early 20th-century, African-American literary magazine, published in the 1920s, that features the likes of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. How did you discover this and when did you decide you wanted it to be a source of inspiration for your music?
As soon as I read it. To me, it was really a pro-black, pro-queer protest against all the antics of respectability politics, of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity, of colorism. It was everything that I’m about, and about speaking out against. It was fascinating to see how radical these writers were in the 1920s. It just made sense, and to me, “fire” is the symbol for queer black energy in America. You can go back to the Reconstruction Period, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, Gay Liberation Movement, the Women’s March—LGBTQ black people have always been at the forefront when it comes to disrupting the status quo. We are the fire providing a new way to look at music, fashion, art, our society, and culture—pushing us a step forward.
Similar to the publication, you’ve included other influential black Baltimore creatives on your record. Do you draw inspiration from eachotherl?
I always knew my friends was dope, but re-reading that book recently, it was like, all these folks was friends, hanging out together, in the earliest parts of their careers, and they turned out to be these legends. And I’m just looking around at my friends like it’s the same vibe. JPEGMAFIA, Butch Dawson, Lawrence [Burney]
, Devin [N. Morris]. Devin is actually the one who got me the zine for me for my birthday.
At the same time, in addition to taking time for yourself, I loved how you’ve said that you’ve spoken openly about the need to look for inspiration no further than your own past.
Yeah, you know, a lot of black artists are starting to realize that our experiences are enough. That our history, our family legacies, our community, that’s enough, and that should be the narrative of our art.
Was that process cathartic?
I don’t know . . . It was in the sense that it gave me the release in knowing that I can create my own music, that I had it in me all this time, and I don’t need nobody else. It definitely felt freeing in that way. But now, I think the next album is going to be all cathartic. It’s going to be about healing and being more vulnerable and raw. This is the first chapter; everything that came before was me laying down the groundwork. I’ve matured as an artist. I know who I am. I know who Abdu Ali is. It took me seven years to figure that out, and you know, I think it takes a lot longer. Now I’m in a place where I can really sit down and think about these albums as an author would about a book they want to write. This is my first published book.
In it, you’ve found a way to fuse a number of different genres—from rap to punk to funk and especially jazz—that shaped you into one singular sound.
I’m really inspired by the jazz, funk, and soul artists of the 1960s and ’70s. That, to me, was the golden era of American music—of black music. They had the money, they had the time, they had the space to really be creative and experimental. If it wasn’t for that, techno, club music, hip-hop wouldn’t have been able to come. All these huge bands and great instrumentalists did the work to create a lane for people like me. It makes sense for me to get back into that sound in my music because, for me to move things forward, I have to go to the era of when it was nothing but people pushing boundaries. George Clinton and the Funkadelics had spaceships on stage! John Coltrane created one of the most complicated songs of all time and was really creating music based on astrology and science and math! These were great thinkers and they made music a philosophy. This is a lifestyle, a practice, a discipline, a spiritual way of being.
At the same time, these songs also incorporate your longtime love of Bmore Club.
I’ve always had Baltimore pride. I always wore Baltimore on my shoulders. I grew up loving the culture that my city brought to my life. From partying in the club at [the Paradox] to watching marching band practice to the food and the museums—even with all this crazy political, social, economic shit going on, Baltimore was high-key a black cultural oasis in the 1990s and early 2000s. So why not keep amplifying that story and amplifying that culture? I’m a Baltimore Club preservationist, and I want to keep my sound alive until the day I die. Nobody can speak to that existence than me. Nobody can speak on the black queer American Baltimore experience like I can, because there’s not too many people like me.
This project marks your debut as a producer, as well. Did that come naturally for you?
For years, I subconsciously avoided producing because I was intimated. It’s really complicated, and it takes a lot of time and patience, especially learning these programs. But I forced myself to keep going and it ended up coming naturally to me and I just got into the groove. It is so empowering to know that I don’t need anybody else to make music. I’ve always been very hands-on with the production of my music. But all of the musicians I love and respect, who are at the top of my list, from Prince to Missy Elliott, they do everything. They’re polymaths. And that’s what I wanted to be. A renaissance person.
Andy you’re already working on your next album now?
Yes, already. Now that I’m in that groove, I’m going to just try to keep it movin’. Learning to produce my own music, it took me to another level. My Co-Star astrology app said that this summer I’m going to be doing things I didn’t realize I was capable of. And you know what the next move is? Learning how to play an instrument. How dope would that be to have a black, queer, gender-non-conforming person on stage in my look, in my dress, with my nails done, playing the bass? That’s a radical act it itself.
For more on Abdu Ali and FIYAH!!!, see our June issue, on stands May 24.