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Meet the Baltimore artist Abdu Ali, a self-defined “gay and sociopolitically queer butch femme” who’s putting underground and black creativity at the forefront. In 2019, they released their debut album, Fiyah!!!, an explosive record informed by liberating radical theory, poetry, and their own life experience.

With an almost innate vocation to help and take care of their community, Ali has been improving their surroundings by writing poetry, performing on stage, hosting parties like Kahlon – where they brought the likes of then-unknown Juliana Huxtable and Princess Nokia –, starting podcasts like Drumbooty, where intellectuals and activists discuss themes such as gender politics and colourism. Today, we speak with the artist about the current black visual arts renaissance, their inspirations, and the hope to meet and collaborate with fellow Baltimore queer artist, John Waters.

Abdu, you define yourself as a “gay and sociopolitically queer butch femme” from Baltimore. And your work is always politically charged. Do you feel that as a black, queer artist, you must use your voice for a greater purpose?
As an artist, my obligation is to tell the truth about what I see and my experience living in this world. All of our lives are inherently a socio-political experience, so of course it would be expressed in my music. I also talk about love, I talk about having fun, and I talk about the struggles too. I talk about everything that is Abdu Ali living in this world.
Anger and rage inform your work. Are writing lyrics, producing music and performing live different ways to come to terms with these negative, self-consuming emotions/feelings? Like a sort of catharsis?
Anger or rage do not inform my work. I don’t feel angry but rage definitely is an expression of my work, but my life experience informs my work. I also don’t believe that rage is a negative feeling. Liberating radical theory informs my work, like the words of Paulo Freire, who is a humanist, or Bell Hooks or the works of Octavia E. Butler. Radical revolutionary literacy informs my work. My music and performance practice are the message, the food and the product of my expression. That is for sure a therapeutic and empowering experience when I create it or perform it.
What are you most angry about right now? And looking on the bright side, what are you most happy/proud/hopeful about too?
I’m not angry. Happiness is a false social construct. Pride is something to be avoided. But I do feel hopeful about the advancement of global black creative expression getting the space it deserves to just be and finally at large be invested in. Particularly the black visual arts renaissance that’s happening right now is very inspiring. The art world is very elitist, anti-black, and oppressive, but now, we are seeing a shift happening where black visual artists are being supported more.

“I try to be as unapologetically loud, fierce, and unique as I can.”
Earlier in 2019, you published Fiyah!!!, your first full-length album, which comes three years after your first EP, Mongo. In this new album, there are three interludes and two ‘peggyludes’. What elements do they add to the overall storytelling of the LP?
Storytelling gives more insight to me as a person and helps perpetuate the themes of the album.
Besides your album, you’ve also collaborated with No Bra in Who is the God, a track featured in her new album, Love & Power. How did this collaboration come about? In what ways do you find your work and ethos are related to that of No Bra?
I’ve been knowing No Bra for years. We really fuck with each other’s work. I love what she stands for and her performance style. I live for the beautiful poetry and humor of her work. Being a person who studied poetry in college, I can always tell when someone has a similar fixation for words. I feel like we both love talking about the realness of living through it all and putting that in poetry. It’s a seriously funny thing about her work that I feel like it relates to what I do, especially on stage. We both are like, ‘fuck all men’ too, lol.
From organising the cult party Kahlon to starting the podcast Drum Booty, to recommending the best underground Baltimore artists through The Face magazine, you’re always creating spaces and platforms for marginalized/minority groups. Do you feel somehow obliged to do so? Where does this need (to create spaces and platforms to spread/disseminate ‘lesser-heard/valued/known’ voices) stem from?
I believe I have a natural-born vocation to uproot space and systems in my hometown that help transform the creative and economical climate to improve the quality of life for black artists living and working in Baltimore. The urge to do this work is in my blood too. I’ve witnessed my grandfather as a community leader and healer aide many so people in their battle with addiction. My grandma is a nurse’s assistant and has a genuine love to help the sickly, so she’s a healer too. My dad and mom are both providers and have a passion for taking care of the family.
Growing up with these role models definitely influenced me to always do community work. Before I was in the creative world, I worked in the non-profit sector too. I don’t think it’s every artist’s obligation to do community organizing work and I feel like my passion for that is a dichotomy from my passion to be an artist. I have a natural urge to just get shit done for my people.

Baltimore seems embedded in what you do and who you are. What role does your hometown play in what you do?
I grew up loving my city. I grew up in a time where the Baltimore black arts was on high. Baltimore club music was the score of my youth and I knew the historical legacy of prominent Baltimore figures like Thurgood Marshall, Billie Holiday, Miss Tony, and many more. My childhood neighborhood was full of rich history too. I went to the same middle school as Thurgood Marshall, actually! And Elijah E. Cummings went to my high school. Knowing all this history made me proud of where I came from. This city is my legacy and is so culturally rich, so of course I’m going to center it in my narrative. It gave me the tools and insight for me to do what I do.
One of the first people that comes to my mind when thinking of Baltimore is film director, author and legendary queer figure John Waters. As a curiosity, is he an influence of yours? How would you relate your work to his?
I really want to connect with John Waters! He comes out a lot actually, but I never had a one-on-one. Hopefully, that happens soon. I love his films. I feel like his earlier works, especially with Divine, authentically represent the unruliness of Baltimore, which I definitely convey in my work. We are both bold and buck. Performance-wise, John is definitely an influence. I try to be as unapologetically loud, fierce, and unique as I can, which I feel like John Waters does in his films.
2020 seems like a year full of opportunities. What do you think or hope it has in store for you?
I want to write more. Get back into my poetry and short story work. Something is telling me that that needs to happen. Also, there are barely any black gay fiction writers being supported and I feel like that’s insane. Well, I just don’t know too many contemporary fiction books with black gay protagonists; that’s unacceptable. So I want to get back into writing and I just think some things I can only express through that medium. I want to do more DJ sets, more sound performances/pieces. I definitely want to do more residencies too. Working on my next album too. 2020 is a learning year for me and expanding my practice. I might release some EPs; depends. Most importantly, I want to focus on my social practice, as they lay, a curatorial platform focusing on collaboration, public events, digital media, and performances that center dialogue.

Arnau Salvadó
Elliott Jerome Brown Jr

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