Abdu Ali is one of the forerunners in Baltimore’s reinvigorated music and arts scene. Not just a rapper, and just a singer either, Abdu Ali tip-toes the line between both, often re-drawing the boundaries of verse and song structure at any given time. Fresh off a tour which started and ended in Baltimore, and took him to both coasts of the U.S., the enigmatic performer has organically built his audience with his aggressive, yet endearing catalogue of songs. In addition to investing into his own art, Ali has devoted his time and energy into curating Kahlon a microcosm of festivals like Lollapalooza and Governor’s Ball, featuring artists from in and outside of Baltimore.
Before Kahlon opened its doors at Baltimore’s Crown Lounge, Abdu Ali discussed how Kahlon came together, why he channels Patti Labelle, and why he prefers that no one can define his music.
Interview conducted on Mar. 07, 2015. Words + Photo by Antonio.
Q: What was your role in developing Kahlon?
I was the curator, the main motherfucker who did everything as far as getting the right people together. It’s also a collaboration, too, more than me being a director, you know? I have a visual person; I have promoters; I have people who help me find artists in Baltimore and outside of Baltimore to book. I’m the one who’s like the editor-in-chief.
“For a show to have as many different acts on it, genre-wise and culture-wise, race-wise on one bill is really refreshing. It’s sad we don’t see it that often”
Q: What about Kahlon made it so popular? It got a lot of press and there’s a lot of hype for this.
ABDU ALI: For real? (laughs). I hope people come! [Author’s note: A lot of people came.] I always say that, I’m always very hopeful. I think Kahlon fills a void in Baltimore, especially. It’s refreshing to people to see a music event showcase that features emerging artists of all different genres on one bill, while also having people who are more seasoned or have more of a reach than a lot of the emerging artists here. For a show to have as many different acts on it, genre-wise and culture-wise, race-wise on one bill is really refreshing. It’s sad we don’t see [it] that often. I think that’s what makes it really, really tight. We had people not just from Baltimore play Kahlon, and that’s on purpose, because I feel like for things to get poppin’ here, people from outside the city have to start paying attention to what’s going on and, as you can see, that’s what’s happening.
“Kahlon mixes everything the fuck together. I feel like that’s why people fuck with it. It’s good-spirited, it’s ran by good-spirited people in a nice venue, and it’s done with love”
ABDU ALI: It came from just me being tired from seeing the same kind of shit over and over again. You might have a bill in Baltimore where it might be a bill full of artists who aren’t quite the same, but are all in the same scene or the same culture. Kahlon mixes everything the fuck together. I feel like that’s why people fuck with it. It’s good-spirited, it’s ran by good-spirited people in a nice venue, and it’s done with love. That attracts people to come and everybody that comes always says the vibes are just so good. They love being here. It’s at the Crown which I appreciate and adore, but people always say they don’t feel like they’re at the Crown when they’re at Kahlon.
Q: You posted inspiration tonight, as being Patti Labelle.
ABDU ALI: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah! She’s one of my performance icons.
ABDU ALI: Because she goes the fuck off! She let’s whatever takes over her, and she becomes the music and she becomes the alter-ego. She lets it come through her and comes through her movements on stage, and she goes the fuck off – she doesn’t give a shit, and that’s what I try to be.
Q: Being that you want to become the music, what if your message. You’re pretty outspoken on Twitter and Instagram –
ABDU ALI: Yeah, I be buck.
“I express life. Whatever I feel, it comes out in my music”
Q: And you talk about gentrification. You talk about the state of music in Baltimore, the state of music, etc. What are you trying to express in your music?
ABDU ALI: I express life. Whatever I feel, it comes out in my music. It’s my perception on the world, on people, on the way things are, society. It just comes out naturally because I just feel like music that’s what music is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a reflection of your experiences in this world. A lot of people I look up to musically – from Sun-Ra, to Erykah Badu, to Kanye West, to Marvin Gaye – you can tell their music is about real life, about what they’re going through, what they see, how they’re feeling, and what other people are going through. It’s a strong narrative in all their music, and that’s what I try to do, you know? In my new music, I think I’m [being] less of a commentator and more of an , I don’t know, an artist/person just illustrating my life. And hopefully through my life there’s a universal message, or a lot of universal messages and context that people can grab onto.
“If I’m mad at certain classes – white people coming in to certain neighborhoods of Baltimore just because it’s the cool thing – I’m going to talk about it in my music; or, if I’m horny and I want to fuck, I’m going to talk about that in my music”
ABDU ALI: That’s why I think it’s going to happen, it’s going to make my music a little bit more tangible, and people won’t be able to deny it in that way. If it’s just about my real shit, not just the shit that goes on in the world. My music is just IRL: if I’m mad at certain classes – white people coming in to certain neighborhoods of Baltimore just because it’s the cool thing, I’m going to talk about it in my music; or, if I’m horny and I want to fuck, I’m going to talk about that in my music; or, if I want to get high or whatever, I’m going to talk about that. It’s just not even like ‘aw, I’m smoking weed.” I’m going to tell you why I’m smoking weed. I try to be as diverse as possible in music, because I feel like a lot of artists just talk about the same shit over and over again. I feel like that is a set-up for failure.
Q: It sounds like you’re very deliberate in what you do, how you record and what topics you choose. Have there been any happy accidents?
ABDU ALI: Oh, all the time. I’m a happy-accident whore. I just feel like, especially with these last few songs I did, I don’t know if you listened to “Keep Movin’, Negro Kai,” that whole second verse is freestyle. I feel like I was so constructed before, because I come from a writer’s background. I went to school for English. I’m a poet, [I studied] creative writing, and so I would write very like, ‘I need four, lines I need four stanzas’ or whatever and I need to rhyme every other line, blahzay, blahzay, and I wanted to break away from that construction to see what would come out of it. And I feel like it’s beautiful, and I just need to find a point where I could combine both, freestyling, or more [uninhibited], in my music, or carefully curating words.
“The interesting thing is that my music is kind of hard to describe, but at the same time it’s not unfamiliar, it’s not too unfamiliar”
Q: When you deiced to freestyle that verse, was that during the recording?
ABDU ALI: Yeah, it was during the recording.
Q: What happened? Were you recording the first verse and then you could tell that you wanted to keep it going?
ABDU ALI: I did it probably like fifteen times, and the one you heard in the track is the one that I said ‘that’s it.’
Q: In What Weekly, the author asked your friends and whoever else was there when she interviewed you, what you were like, and no one could say. Why do you think that is?
ABDU ALI: Because, I’m crazy! Sike, I don’t know, because I just try to dib and dab in everything. The interesting thing is that my music is kind of hard to describe, but at the same time it’s not unfamiliar, it’s not too unfamiliar. I feel like it’s all cohesive, because, I don’t know what to call Erykah Badu. You can say it’s soul, you can say it’s hip-hop, you can say it’s rap, you can say it’s a lot of things, but a lot of people I look up to, their music is kind of like – I don’t know what to call Björk, I don’t know what to call Missy [Elliot]. You want to call her a rapper – she’s a rapper, she’s does hip-hop, but she does a lot of other different shit, and her production can sound like it’s music from the depths of India, to like the streets of New York, or space even. I think it’s cool that my music is hard to explain. I think I’m going to keep it that way.
“I think it’s cool that my music is hard to explain. I think I’m going to keep it that way”
Q: How has the response been when you perform out of town?
ABDU ALI: Beautiful, beautiful. They really fuck with me. It seems like as you get more north, people get more hesitant. In New York and Philly, the audience… has more walls up. But actually, in Brooklyn in Papi Juice, this past performance I did, it was amazing. It was the first time in New York everybody let go. I think it was the party it was at, and it’s really, really warm inside. Mostly everywhere I perform outside of Baltimore, people fuck with it. I feel like the performance is what makes you be like “oh okay, I get it.” It brings it all together.
Q: What about Schwarz made you decide that you wanted to work with him?
ABDU ALI: His beats. I realized he’s multi-faceted. He can do a lot of different shit, and that’s what made me fuck with him.
“I feel like the performance is what makes you be like ‘oh okay, I get it.’ It brings it all together”
Q: How are you preparing for tour?
ABDU ALI: I’m trying to eat better. Not smoking, not drinking.
Q: At all?
ABDU ALI: Yeah, that’s basically it. I need to workout – I realized this time, I need to consistently workout.
Q: Where will you be in five days, five months and five years?
ABDU ALI: In five days, I’ll be in Portland. In five months, living it up in the summer in Baltimore, hopefully creating a lot of good music. Five years? I don’t know, I’m going to let that be. I don’t even want to think about it, it’s overwhelming.