In his The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, James Baldwin said: “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.”
Those words always come to mind when listening to Abdu Ali's music. While the quality and energy in his music has changed since his raw ballroom-tinged debut Invictos to the electricity and supernatural ambience of last month's Infinity Epiphanies, Ali's music has always been centered around the recognition of his own identity—a habit that we could all stand to adopt. Comfortable or not, he's always shared his personal trials with being gay, growing up in the hood or just figuring out who the fuck he is. And even though he seems to be more self aware than most hope to be, he's still digging. He's fresh off of releasing his third project, the end-of-man themed Infinity Epiphanies, a self-curated tour with Chiffon through the south and midwest and will soon be moving to NYC in hopes to expand his artistic reach. To get some insight into how all three are helping him shape a new chapter in his career, I sat down to talk to Ali. Check it!
True Laurels: Last month you released Infinity Epiphanies. How do feel about its reach? Did you accomplish what you wanted to with it?
Abdu Ali: I did have a set out plan as far as the delivery and I achieved a goal with that. It was all set up from being premiered to dropping a video. The tour with Chiffon helped extend its reach to new people too and more people are starting to know me. It also helped really define what kind of artist I am and what I sound like.
Everything about the project felt post-apocalyptic from the industrial production to the lyrics centered around destruction and rebirth. Where’d that inspiration come from? Is it a metaphor for where you are in life?
AA: I took a class on post-apocalyptic literature and was in awe of the stuff we were reading because I felt like, even though it was about this end-of-the-world scenario, it’s still relevant to now. We’re always living in a post-apocalyptic world where people think the world is about to end. People think that’s some kind of new thing. We’re obsessed with the end and destruction. Look at how we destroy celebrities and destroy ourselves with the shit we put in our bodies from shitty food to drugs.
Post-apocalyptic stories are usually about how this main character has to adapt to a dystopian world and learn to survive. Conscious or subconsciously, we’re constantly figuring out how to survive in a crazy world. I just wanted to artistically create music that’d be the soundtrack to these stories I was reading.
You do everything on your own. From touring to releasing music to sitting in with producers. Do you like how that’s working out or would you consider letting other hands in the pot?
AA: Well the tour was already kinda set up but yeah, I’m definitely a control freak. I’ve always been very conscious of everything I do and how it represents me. I can’t imagine me doing something at someone else’s will. Maybe because I grew up in the hood and if I wasn’t this person who always went out and did what I wanted to...I don’t know. If I left it up to my environment or the social structure to shape who I would become, I probably would’ve been a fucking mess. Ever since I was little I knew I had to take control over my life. I treat music like that too. I never want it to falsely represent who I am. Whether it’s a pop star like Beyonce or somebody like Erykah Badu, you can tell they’re in control of every process.
You’re moving to NYC. How do you think that environment will help you progress as an artist?
AA: I think it’s gonna push me and motivate me. It’s gonna make me extend my reach even more. At least, I hope it does. Baltimore is cool and I think I did a lot. Doing what I’m doing based in Baltimore is kind of a gag. I’m not sure if NYC will artistically inspire me because I get bored by the scene. I also hope to bring more traffic from Baltimore to NYC and help those who I see with talent here. If I didn't have that type of help when I first stayed in NYC, I would’ve went nowhere.
From Invictos to now, you’re aggression has steadily risen. Is it still climbing with the music you’re working on now?
AA: It’s not necessarily aggression that’s on the rise but it’s the freedom. I feel less constraint every time. I was thinking aggressively with my projects before but I was getting bored with it. It’s part of me but not all of me. I’m gonna try to be a bit softer and intimate with my music.
How hard is making a transition in the energy you put out over tracks?
AA: I’m an emotional person so it’s not hard. With my friends I’m very open. I just hope it makes sense and doesn't confuse people who’ve heard the stuff I’ve done so far. It’s gonna be genuine, though.
As you’re getting more and more into your sound, do you want to start producing all your own records? You’ve managed to carve out a distinct style even while working with different producers.
AA: It has to get to that point. I do love working with people but I gotta make my own. Me and B L A C K I E were just talking about how back in the day everybody played an instrument. Every artist that I look up to knows how to play an instrument or has a hands-on role in their production. To progress my sound I have to get to that stage. I realized that when I listened to B L A C K I E’s music and how his shit is so solid all the time because he makes it. I’m not gonna lie, it’s intimidating but I feel like there’s so much strength in being a producer and an artist.
What’s been your biggest reality check as an artist?
AA: Same thing. Knowing that I need to get more into my production. Also, a really big reality check was accepting that I really need to believe in myself. It’s like if I don’t believe in what I’m doing, what’s the point? Touring taught me a lot too. I learned how important traveling is from bands like Future Islands, Chiffon and Dan Deacon. People think indie artists just pop up out of nowhere but they tour their asses off non-stop. They have core fans in different places. That made me realize that I need to do that more.
The lack of Baltimore artists being represented in music isn’t a secret. How do you think relocating will help you chop down that reality?
AA: I think it’s gonna help but I’m only one aspect of the city. Every time Baltimore gets national or international attention it’s always exaggerated and exploitive. I hope we can get it together and take control of our own image, as far as black culture goes. It’s hard for black artists to get it here. I can’t even blame the social structure of the city because who says that people in Chicago don’t face the same shit? Sometimes I really do think it may be something in the water. But I hope the hood and backpack crowds get it together and break out. The main problem is that some artists here try to sound like everybody else.
Follow Abdu Ali on Twitter: @AbduAli