Abdu Ali’s musical journey began in late 2012, when they released their debut mixtape, “Invictos.” That 12-track introduction to the world was tightly positioned somewhere in the crevices between rap, ballroom and Baltimore club music. Lyrically, though, it felt like something you may hear at a poetry reading, with mystical incantations and a showering of self-love.

It felt like a fresh moment for Baltimore’s underground: There was a healthy indie/punk crowd, a rap movement that was in its infancy but starting to take shape, and a club music community that was trying to find its post-K-Swift identity. Ali was part of a new class of artists in the city that helped pull together all those listeners and energies into one space.

They went on to release a new album or mixtape at least once a year through 2017. But what also helped extend Ali’s reach was being attached to a national and global shift in alternative Black music, in which artists were deconstructing historically Black-led genres into a more imaginative future — more industrial, more fusion, more free-flowing.

Ali would bring artists of this global community to Baltimore for shows and events, and those yearslong relationships led them to trying out new mediums, such as drumBOOTY, a short-lived podcast; a pre-pandemic art project, as they lay, which landed them a spot at the 2021 Athens Biennale; and, most recently, a collaboration with internationally recognized Philly-based artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase on the film “Anon & Jonathan.”

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These ever-expanding artistic offerings are what helped lead to Ali’s selection as a 2023 United States Artists Fellow, one of the country’s most prestigious arts programs, that comes with a $50,000 award. On a recent afternoon, I caught up with Ali to talk about the journey that led them to this benchmark, why receiving the fellowship at this exact time is so crucial and what they’d like to see from Baltimore’s art institutions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where were you on the day you found out you got the USA Fellowship? What emotions were you going through? Was it a shock?

What a lot of people don’t know is that, with this type of fellowship and grant — which is one of the biggest artists grants in the country — it takes a long time to find out if you got it or not. So I applied in January of 2022 and had to wait until late October to find out. That in itself makes it kind of an intense process. Also, this was my second time applying. I got nominated for 2022, but I didn’t get it. I was kind of sad about it, but at the same time, I knew that this was a really competitive fellowship.

When I applied the second time, 60% of me felt like, “Yeah, I got it.” But 40% was like, “I don’t know.” When I found out that I got it, I literally was in a therapy session and something in my spirit told me to check my email, and when I checked it, the subject said, “Congratulations, you are going to be a 2023 USA fellow.” And I literally screamed.

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That’s crazy.

These past couple years have been kind of complicated and difficult, with the pandemic and being a performing artist and someone who, a bulk of my practice is spent on stage and within the public arena. A lot of that was taken away from me because of the pandemic. But also, to keep it real, it was giving ”maybe it’s time for a pivot anyway.” Because what a lot of people don’t realize is that, especially as a music artist, you got to expect for the hype around your work to bubble down a little bit. So it was feeling like I got to either do an intense reboot or think about other ways to shake up my practice.

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With an award like this, do you still feel like you want to make that pivot, even though you now are being rewarded for the music?

I was already opening up the realms of what my practice can look like. First and foremost, even as a music artist, I feel like, sonically, my world is boundless. And I always experimented with different sounds or different ways of showing up as a music artist, especially when it comes to performance. And within my overall artist practice, I always curated cultural events. I designed my first score ever for a performance piece that happened at the Andy Warhol Museum. But I think that the USA Fellowship actually kind of gave me permission to actually go even further with experimenting with other disciplines of art or other career avenues outside of music.

So, it gave you validation.

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It gave me that validation to be like, ‘You did the damn thing.’ I think as music artists especially, it’s really hard for us to depart from just being solely a music artist. We feel super tethered to that work, and I’ve witnessed other artists when they get breaks in other avenues or different careers or different art-practice mediums, they have a hard time transitioning there. And I just feel like that can shoot you in the ass. Because at the end of the day, as human beings, we living on this Earth for so long, and it’s so many things you can do while you are here. Why just do one thing?

In my proposal for the USA Fellowship application, I actually said that this fellowship would help me expand my practice to different things. And honestly, shout out to Moor Mother, because I used her as a huge inspiration and blueprint for what it means to expand your practice, because she does a lot of great things using music as an anchor, but stepping into other avenues. And even people like Saul Williams and Rashaad Newsome — these artists who basically have really expansive multidisciplinary practices.

Abdu Ali poses for a portrait in their neighborhood, in Baltimore. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)
Ali performs at Ottobar as part of the “Love is Always Here” artist showcase in June 2022. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

This cash prize is obviously to help you expand your practice, but I would also like to touch on what this money can do for you psychologically. People who otherwise would probably be creative have to put things on pause to focus on making ends meet. Not all people have the wherewithal to push through, especially after trying for a decade like you have.

Well, some people have privilege, and that’s what people don’t understand. To be able to go to art school, to be able to invest that time into your music career and stuff like that, it not only takes money, but it takes comfort, financial comfort. It’s also a mindset thing.

Growing up Black and working class, your family going to look at you like, “Oh, you don’t really have time to be no artist. You got to go ahead and get this money or follow a career that is more financially secure.” And it’s not like they don’t believe you can do it, but it’s out of survival. A lot of us, even as writers or journalists, we don’t start seeing money or making money until five to 10 years into it. And who has that time? So when I finally was able to get my money for the fellowship, I felt relaxed. I felt like, “Okay, I can chill out.” And the ideas and the creative energy was just flooding in. I felt like I could take a breath.

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What else has this achievement led you to reflect on?

Krystal Mack, [another Baltimorean who received the USA Fellowship this year], mentioned this in her Instagram after the news of the fellowship.

About Baltimore not being supportive?

Well, systemically. And I think it might sound redundant to keep talking about it, but it’s important, because I think one of the greatest assets that this city has is the artists that live here. I don’t make no damn money in this city. A lot of people who have dedicated years and years of their artistic contributions, their intellectual contributions, their creative contributions to the city have to outsource income from other cities.

Baltimore might seem like it’s no money here to support artists, but there is. It’s not being prioritized, yet this city eats off of their artists and what we contribute in a multitude of ways. One of the biggest ways, I think, is really shifting the narrative of what Baltimore is. I think artists and writers like yourself have a big hand in that. For a lot of the transplants that move here, they move here because of the creative culture. I think Baltimore artists have a really unique perspective that a lot of people, not just in Baltimore, Maryland, find interesting. We can go down the list and find so many artists, writers, filmmakers that is from Baltimore that go on and achieve great things.

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And I think it’s irresponsible for the city, at the institutional level, [to not make] sure artists like me are being supported and invested into. And not just these one-off performances or making sure we do these little artist talks or asking us to be a part of some citywide campaign. It’s allowing artists to take up leadership positions. It’s having the mayor work with artists every year to figure out how to enhance the creative culture here. I think if they continue to not support artists, they just are continuing to be irresponsible and they going to miss out on a lot of great things that can happen in the city.

lawrence.burney@thebaltimorebanner.com

Lawrence Burney was The Baltimore Banner’s arts & culture reporter. He was formerly a columnist at The Washington Post, senior editor at The FADER, and staff writer at VICE music vertical Noisey. 

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