By Lisa Snowden-McCray, Special to the AFRO
Musician Abdu Ali, who was born and raised in Baltimore (and goes by the nonbinary pronoun they), makes music that has roots in Baltimore club but then extrapolates into something else – channeling elements of gospel, punk, and rap. Ali released their first mixtape in 2012 and has released five projects in all. Now, they say, they have been working on making sounds that feel more unique and personal. Ali does that by mixing up the sounds they hear as they tour the United States and to different parts of the world.
Ali is currently in New York, where they’ll soon begin a residency program that will give them the time and resources to record their sixth album.
“Right now, a lot of the tracks are still club heavy but club music that’s distorted…not distorted in like the frequency of it, but distorted as far as [I] added elements that try to make people’s ears go ‘What?’ ‘What is going on?’,” Ali explains.
“It’s like punk, club, soul music with some jazz mixed in…what would music sound like after the apocalypse? That’s where I’m trying to be at with my sound.”
Ali says that the music feels more personal now, because they are also learning to produce – relying less on others and using software to create the sounds they want to hear.
“I will be executive producing this album but mostly produce the beats by myself,” they say. “The funny thing is, when I started actually getting into it this year, the beats, the music just flowed out. This is me, who I am, and I think this is the beginning of a new chapter of just Abdu really developing my own sonic palate and own sound for real.”
Ali was recently featured along with other Baltimore musicians Joy Postell, Al Rogers Jr., and Butch Dawson in a July New York Times piece titled “The Changing Sound of Baltimore” (“Ali’s spiritual lyrics transform performances into sermons of sorts, which draw on a Methodist upbringing but allow audience members to meditate and feel as close to whatever one may define as God,” the Gray Lady wrote). In March, Ali performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and at a sold-out solo show at Motorhouse in Baltimore. They have been written about on music websites like The Fader, Noisey, Saint Heron, Stereogum, and more.
They say they feel encouraged by the support they have gotten, and feel that their success is part of a worldwide recognition of the power of Black art and Black voices.
“I feel like I’ve been fortunate to always have people in my corner in Baltimore and people supporting me whether it’s Kahlon [a performance space Ali created to support independent artists in the city] or whether it’s my own music,” Ali says.
“I feel like what is happening is that these institutions are finally realizing that Black art matters and Black art is the future and if you are a Black city you have to focus on Black art, and no shade to White people, it’s just not the future, because the future is color.”
Ali says the recent successes of artists like Kerry James Marshall, who just sold a record-breaking $21 million painting, Edward Enninful, British Vogue’s new Ghanaian-born editor, or even singer Beyoncé, who, it’s been reported, pushed Vogue to hire their first Black cover photographer, show how important and influential Black artists can be.
“America in general needs to understand that Black people, we got it, and ya’ll just need to let us have it and I think that’s trickling down to Baltimore. They finally get it.”