Abdu Ali's work gives voice to the creativity and resilience of black, LGBTQ and other marginalized Baltimoreans. Their debut album goes further. (Amy Davis, Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)
Abdu Ali is many things: rapper, producer, Baltimorean, black, queer, curator and agnostic “baby Buddhist,” are some. But “activist” isn’t one of them.
To be sure, Ali, who uses “they” and “them” pronouns, makes art that stands against racism, homophobia, transphobia and other injustices. They write club bangers about consent, host a podcast highlighting black artists and advocates and boast an extensive resume of projects fighting all kinds of oppression. The city’s LGBTQ Commission and Mayor Jack Young’s office recently honored them with its Artist of the Year award.
Still, as Ali explained during a driving tour around their old Baltimore haunts, “activist” means something completely different.
“I respect that work, but I would never call myself an activist, because I’m not out here on the streets, in the city halls, doing that work to combat these policies — oh, right here, make this left,” they said, barely breaking their train of thought to direct my driving before resuming: “ — these policies or things in our government that piss all over marginalized people.”
If they aren’t technically an activist, then Ali certainly seeks to change the system that lead to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. They explore these issues and more throughout “Fiyah!!!,” the debut full-length album they released in April. The 14 songs’ abrasive, shape-shifting instrumentals draw from Ali’s roots in gospel, punk, vogue, Baltimore club and the avant garde. They provide a propulsive and bass-heavy foundation for lyrics, delivered in varying meters and vocal styles, that explore the debilitating effects of oppression, mental illness and ideological warfare while imagining a future beyond that pain.
"I wanted to embrace all of the facets of my identity but not let those paradigms build chains around my artistic vision," they wrote on Bandcamp. "this album is a queer’d journey of interrogation in order to discover the seed of my fire."
On May 28, as a gloomy mid-morning sky gave way to inconsistent rain and sunlight, Ali took a Baltimore Sun reporter to sites where that fire was first stoked. The first stop: a playground behind their old house on Orchard Street, in the Seton Hill neighborhood.
Ali, donning sunglasses and a black T-shirt with a gold- and cash-hoarding Pillsbury Doughboy over flowing green pants, pointed out the Historic Orchard Street Church on the way in. The church, founded by former slaves and a reported stop on the Underground Railroad, represents black Baltimoreans’ historic resilience and innovation, they said. So does Baltimore club music, which Ali said surrounded them during their late-’90s/early-’00s childhood.
“We used to come out [to the playground] and dance to Baltimore club music all night,” they said. “It was the score of my childhood.”
A self-described “Baltimore club preservationist,” Ali recalled the sounds of K-Swift, Reggie Reg and other pioneers flooding places like the now-defunct Paradox and kids’ parties at the nearby Shake & Bake center.
“People don’t respect black subculture dance music as much as hip-hop or jazz, and that’s why they mask it in ‘electronic music,’” they said. “They’ll say, ‘I make electronic music,’ but it sounds like some club music. Club music comes out of jazz, funk, disco, techno and house…all branches of the black musical tree, the American musical tree, should be celebrated.”
Those trees include the gospel music from Ali’s childhood, which they touched on while standing by the statue of jazz great Billie Holiday, near the Shake & Bake on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Ali attended kids’ dance nights.
“The reason why she resonated with so many people is because her voice literally encapsulated the gospel,” they said. “That’s one of my favorite things to find, is musicians who carry the gospel in their voice.”
Ali also found comfort in voguing. Immortalized by the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” Madonna’s “Vogue” and FX’s “Pose,” voguing references the pose-based dance practiced in the ballroom scene by primarily black and brown LGBTQ people. Ali said that they encountered vogue music during gay nights at The Paradox in their late teens, which also coincided with them exploring their sexuality and gender identity.
“The first time I heard vogue beats was with my gay family, when I was 18-19,” they said. “We would just cut up and vogue in an apartment, have a good time, then go to The ‘Dox and dance and vogue there, it was so much fun!”
Ali founded a recurring multi-genre party, Kahlon, in 2013. They hosted that at The Crown in Charles North, the last stop on this driving tour. They and friends like DJ Genie and Lawrence Burney built it up over its five-year existence, to the point that artists in Washington D.C. and New York called with requests to perform there.
“We started really going ham [hard] with these parties that we felt reflected not only the city but people our age, the times and what was going on in music culture at the time,” they said. “The music scene, specifically in central Baltimore … wasn’t reflective of women, LGBTQ people or black alternative music.”
Ali also turned Kahlon into a place to promote their growing list of EPs and mixtapes.
If these tour stops honored the past that made Ali an internationally known artist, then “Fiyah!!!” captures what this past can do for the future. It marks the first time that Ali handled the vast majority of production on a release themselves (DJ Haram and Butch Dawson produced “Spiraling” and “Hypebeast,” respectively), as well as their first record with live instrumentation from the likes of virtuoso drummer Josh Stokes. The instrumentals mix Ali’s influences into something positively futuristic. The lyrics tackle the themes pervading their work with an eye for introspection and imagination.
“F.U.F.M” launches the record with a glitchy bang, as the artist repeats the unprintable anthem behind the song's titular acronym with devastating disgust. The song, they explained in a phone interview the next day, captures the sentiment that “you can't hate me without hating yourself.”
Later in the record, Ali tackles their own depression and self-criticism on “Spiraling,” rape culture on “No, I Ain’t Doin’ That” (“[I] made a club song, a song for the club, about consent!”) and myriad other topics.
“This next album’s probably going to be about creating this world where I’m fully being Abdu Ali, at fullest potential,” they said about the forthcoming record, which they said may come out in fall 2020.