Protest Song of the Day: ‘Letter to My Countrymen’ by Brother Ali
To recognize the power of protest music, acknowledge its role in keeping dissent alive and how musicians translate social issues and systemic problems into song, The Dissenter has launched a daily feature that highlights a protest song every weekday.
Brother Ali is a hip hop artist. His new album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, was released on September 18. It is an album with multiple songs that could be featured here because the album is filled with songs directed at people, who Ali thinks should understand how America, the idea, is worth fighting for while America, what it is today, is not a country that can or should be defended and loved.
The opening track, “Letter to My Countrymen,” which features Dr. Cornel West, begins with Ali confessing he thought he hated America and wanted to tell the president to his face. (Ali might be talking about former President George W. Bush. He wrote and released a scathing rap, “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” when Bush was president.)
He adds he has begun to embrace all of this country’s “beautiful ideals and amazing flaws”:
Got to care enough to give a testament
‘Bout the deeply depressing mess we’re in
It’s home so we better make the best of it
I wanna make this country what it says it is
Still dream in the vividest living color
No matter how many times my love been smothered
It contains a human cry against individualism and the absence of love and community in society:
Everybody’s hustling don’t nobody touch their friends
No group singing and dancing
No anthem nobody holds hands, and…
Instead they give a handheld
And make you shoulder life’s burden by your damn self
Ali righteously says, “Power never changed on its own you got to make it,” which is why community is “sacred.” Community comes from resistance. A group of people raising their fists in the air are a symbol of the strength of community.
The second verse addresses the still pervasive existence of racism in American society: “We don’t really like to talk about the race thing/The whole grandparents used to own slaves thing.” It touches upon white privilege: “And if we say it how it really is/We know our lily skin still give us privilege.” And ends with Ali expressing a core conviction that his fellow countrymen must understand, “This old crooked world won’t be saved by the passive type.”
The rap shifts from the people Ali is addressing to why Ali has written the letter. He is not a Democrat or Republican, but “one among” the people of America, a Brother. And he says, I “ain’t scared to tell you we’re in trouble ’cause I love you.”
Love is why Ali can talk about racism, individualism and other “-isms,” like later on his album, terrorism. His love for his child, a son, is why he asks his countrymen to recognize the need to rise up and resist. He wants a planet that is livable for his son decades from now.
West ends the song by affirming the humanity of Ali:
I think you know deep down in your soul that
Something, something just ain’t right.
You don’t want to be just well adjusted to injustice
And well adapted to indifference. You want to be
A person with integrity who leaves a mark on the world.
People can say when you go that you left the world
Just a little better than you found it. I understand. I want
To be like that too.
One might consider Ali’s sentiments the product of purism, if they are solely interested in the rotten game of politics today. Others might recognize that Ali is a father, who passionately cares about seeing social justice in the world. When he is dying, he does not want to regret never standing against forces, which were ruining the planet. He wants to know he helped ensure future generations could live on Earth like he did.
The Dissenter will be putting one of these up every weekday morning. If you have suggestions for songs that should be featured or if you recorded a protest song you think should be featured, email firstname.lastname@example.org.