PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE According to Abdu Ali
Words and Images by Amira Green
In early spring of 2016, I moved from the house I grew up in in Northeast Baltimore to an apartment in the Upton neighborhood, where central becomes west. I was on the fringes of a concrete jungle - a far cry from the landscape I was used to, but it wasn't all that different. A few blocks west of Upton lies Pennsylvania avenue, known by natives simply as “the avenue”. It was once the city’s prime hub for Black culture and a major scene for Black musicians from the 1920s through the ’50s. As my friends and I ran those streets, statues, murals, and plaques on historic corners introduced me to a monumental history. I wondered how I could have lived in Baltimore my entire 18-year life and not known anything about it. On one hand, the newly gained knowledge of local heritage was affirming. But it brought on a new type of pain to see those same blocks now deeply affected by decades of systemic abuse, and further threatened by the erasure of gentrification. The display of negligence was disappointing, but not at all surprising. In one way or another, most Black people in Baltimore have been well acquainted with neglect for a long time. We make the most of it, but the constant trauma inflicted by this relationship leaves us in perpetual need of healing.
Through a friend, I heard Abdu Ali for the first time that summer. ‘Did Dat’, now a classic from their mixtape MONGO, was my first taste of their sound. The beat started as a simplistic drum pattern, then quickly erupted into the signature rhythm of Baltimore club - the score of my summers as a kid. But instead of the voice of Miss Tony or Rod Lee, I heard a mantra best suited for the unabashedly confident, delivered with the ferocity and cadence of a ballroom emcee:
“I DID DAT! .. I KILLED DAT! .. I DID DAT, THREE SHOTS IN THE AIR ‘CAUSE I KILLED DAT!”
Archival Images By Diamond Dixon
It felt new but familiar at the same time, and so good. I didn’t know Abdu yet, but we had a few mutual friends, all some years older than me. They were artists of some form, and active participants in a radical, artist-led uprooting and reimagining of Baltimore’s creative infrastructure. Through events like Abdu’s legendary Kahlon parties, space was conjured for Black, brown, queer and trans folks, artists, musicians and all their intersections to exist together in unanticipated harmony. Those nights inspired otherwise-unlikely collaborations, and unified the city’s various creative pockets. Venues and art institutions were forced to reconsider their relationships with local artists. A movement of sorts was taking place right under my nose, but school and work kept me occupied and on the outskirts of the experience. ‘DID DAT’ is a special take on our city’s native sound. Simple, but potent. I didn't realize it at the time, but being exposed to it made a lightbulb go on in my head. I saw that we can take all the things we inherit, transform them, and usher them into the future - and the results could be insanely cool. It pushed me to investigate new approaches and mediums in my own budding practice. Further, I developed an intense fear of missing out on what all these local artists were doing. I dropped out of college at the end of that year. It was admittedly a chaotic decision, but I had grown dissatisfied with being there. I had yet to find a place where I felt completely understood, and academia was certainly not it. I was still in my hometown, but in that space, I felt like an alien. Part of me knew I needed to be making art in community with people who come from where I came from, and had been through the same things. Eventually, I would end up right where I needed to be, initiating the process of some much-needed healing. And interestingly enough, I can thank Abdu Ali and their music for sparking the light that led me there.
The groundwork that many Baltimore legends have put in over the years allowed me the space and inspiration to imagine the kind of artist I want to be. Abdu takes up a huge part of that. From watching and working with them, I’m learning what it really means to be radical - how to embody that energy, and how to pour it into everything you do. In 2019, Along with releasing their sophomore album, Fiyah, they birthed a new initiative, a curatorial platform called as they lay. It serves to facilitate artistic collaboration and critical dialogue by way of digital media, programming, and exhibitions. Through radicalization of public space, physical and digital, they are bringing all types of people together for humanizing experiences (some of my last and fondest pre-pandemic memories were made at their in-person programming). Abdu constantly encourages everyone around them to stay mindfully engaged in resistive praxes, through our work and in our personal lives. Their own commitment to these practices is deeply evidenced by the integrity of their being. Like an elder of the family, their presence commands your respect and puts you at ease, all at once. They always show up with confidence and honesty, no matter who’s watching or what space they’re occupying. Showing up as yourself might sound like a simple task to some people, but it can make a world of difference. It’s the kind of thing you don’t realize you really needed to see in another person until it’s already left its impact on you. That’s what representation is. Queer Black kids in Baltimore have it in today’s age where they didn’t before - in a rare gem, formed by a blend of materials known to coexist only within the sediment of our city’s culture. A boss bitch from west Baltimore doing things on their terms, and affecting change in the process. That’s Abdu Ali.
Recently, I paid Abdu a visit to have a conversation about their journey up to now, and the collective needs that continue to drive their vision. I brought along a bottle of Pinot Noir, and they ordered a pizza with pineapple and broccoli on it… A polarizing choice, but I just thought of it as another testament to their distinctive taste. As we settled into a flow, what was intended as a meditation on their creative path quickly derailed into the world according to Abdu - a series of perspectives on the past, present and future. By the end of our talk, it felt very fitting. To know them is to know that they’re gonna tell it like it is, no cut cards. Their perspective is grounded yet fluid, and uninhibited at all times.
AMIRA GREEN: Between art and social practice, you’ve put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears and done a lot of really amazing, transformative work, in Baltimore, but beyond here as well. How does all of that inform what you want to do next?
ABDU ALI: Right now, I’m just in the space to really cement my legacy and my name as an artist, as a writer, and as a performer. It’s really important for me to think about how to create a greater impact, not just in Baltimore or in the DMV, but on a global scale too. I’ve been out here doing my thing for a minute. Being a Baltimore girl and being Black, I have often felt like an underdog. But there’s nothing wrong with that. The story of the underdog is always the most compelling story to me, whether it's a book or a movie, or whatever. And I think it’s because the underdog is us. It doesn’t mean that we’re less worthy. Given the political economy we exist in, it’s really hard for a lot of Black and brown and gender non-conforming people to really be out here doing what we do. I wanna stop moving from that place of victimhood, and start moving from the place of just being like… a ferocious bad bitch. I realized victimhood doesn’t provide us the autonomy we need to survive and thrive. I want to be an example for people like me, who come from a place where shit isn’t fair because of who they are. You can still be legendary despite the hand you’ve been dealt. And it’s really important for us to realize we can do it on our own terms, without having to wait for anyone to validate us or give us permission. Nobody is gonna give it to us anyway. Self-determination has always been the theme of my story, and I want that to be an anchor of my legacy.
AG: You speak a lot about legacy in general.
AA: I think we should all be thinking about it. It’s funny, people think the only people who have to consider legacy are super famous or powerful. We all need to think about our legacy and what kind of impact we wanna have in this world. I want my nieces and nephews, their children, and their children to benefit from what I’m doing. People don’t be thinking about the kids! But we have to. We have to find a balance between being present and being considerate of the future. Maybe don’t reminisce too much about the past. That can get toxic.
AG: Maybe, but I think the past is important to consider too. I think it was you who said to me that knowing your past can help affirm your identity in the present. Right?
AA: Mm-hmm. That’s true. People need to do that research work too, chile. You’ve gotta learn as much as you can about your ancestral path. You gotta know your history to be better informed about where you wanna go.
AG: What’s a really important way that you’ve been shaped or informed by the wisdom of an elder or someone who came before you?
AA: Well, you know, rest in peace Andre Leon Talley. He’s an ancestor now. Seeing this gay black man who was super unapologetic about how he shows up did a lot for me. He was so regal and classy, and just had this larger-than-life personality. But he was also incredibly smart. He really knew fashion history and could always pull a reference. He spoke so eloquently, but was still kinda banjee in a way, you know?
AG: Absolutely. I was in 8th grade when he joined the panel on America’s Next Top Model. I didn’t even understand at the time why he was so amazing to me, but I was obsessed. He just had such a commanding presence. I couldn’t wait to watch every week just to hear him talk.
AA: Yes! The performance of his vocality, just everything about him. To see somebody like that just be super unapologetic about who they are was everything. Miss J too. I was like, if these men are going on TV doing this, just being Black and themselves and not giving a fuck, then I’m gonna do it too. But one thing I really loved about Andre was that for him, living a luxurious life meant to be unapologetic in that way, and to hold yourself in the highest regard, no matter what space you show up in. Luxury is not limited to people with money, and he proved it. He’s an example of why representation does matter. But it’s not enough - especially if the person isn’t showing up in their fullness in the way Andre did. There was no policing him or his personality. He wasn’t engaging with respectability politics, but he was still respectable and respected. There is so much power in that. Yeah. He’s definitely somebody who influenced me as a young Black kid.
AG: I see a lot of why he was so respected and great reflected in you. You have that same commanding type of presence. It’s like when you walk into a room and have something to say, everybody’s gonna pay attention. And like him, you don’t cut cards, you say exactly what you think. I can detect that influence on you, for sure.
AA: Thank you. Definitely, no doubt.
AG: We lost bell hooks very recently as well, like a month ago now.
AA: Yeah. That whole generation of Black people that came up in the seventies and eighties, they’re just a different breed. I want to continue that energy of living a hundred percent in your truth at all times, and not caring about respectability politics so much. Nowadays, people are so scared to say what they wanna say because they fear public scrutiny. In a way, it's good that we’ve developed some of the language and space to really hold people accountable for their actions. There are pros and cons. I think it’s making people scared to live their honest truth and just be themselves. bell hooks and Andre Leon Talley are both amazing and intelligent people, but they’ve also done and said some problematic shit. They didn’t have evil intentions, though. We need to read and consider people’s intentions along with their words and actions. If we did that more, I think it would allow more people to move with honesty. bell and Andre were oldheads. They were human. Sometimes they didn’t know what to say out of their mouth. I love that generation of Black people.
AG: Me too. You can gather a lot of wisdom from that energy. Sometimes the delivery is a little wild, but if you really listen there’s some good stuff in there.
AA: Exactly. The best artists are good listeners and good hustlers. They know how to take good advice and run with it. Being combative or not listening to what people have to say only hurts you, at the end of the day. That’s something I had to learn early on in my journey. A lot of us come from a place of insecurity, trauma, fear, and pride. It can make us stubborn, especially when we’re young. There are a lot of things people told me when I was younger, that I wish I had listened to. I could have figured many things out a lot sooner. Successful people are great observers.
AG: And internalizers.
AA: Yup. That’s the type of energy I’m trying to carry, in my career and in my daily life too. To be open-minded and hear what people have to say, be super observant, and practice silence.
AG: Right. In any space, inside or outside academia or whatever, it feels important to be listening to people around us and taking the time to understand where they are coming from. Everyone deserves the space to feel understood. And everyone should be prompted to self-interrogate. If we can't be critical of each other and ourselves, what are we really doing?
AA: Yes, exactly.
AG: That’s a big part of what as they lay is about. Your art initiative.
AA: Mm-hmm. Definitely. I’m a student of bell hooks and Paulo Freire. One of the main elements he talks about in Pedagogy of the Oppressed is that your approach to whatever you do, whether it's revolutionary work, art, or educating, should be rooted in dialogue. A combination of action and reflection. If it doesn’t have that, then you’re not doing anything revolutionary. So I wanted as they lay to be imbued by and center dialogue. No shade, but people think that’s what they’re doing on Twitter and Instagram. But that’s not really the space for the type of critical conversations that we need to have in order to make the world a better place. We have to hold space for that in real life too. In our personal lives, with our families, with our homies. The home is where revolutionary work begins. Home is where the heart is. (laughs) I had to make sure that dialogue was a core element of as they lay. It’s a curatorial initiative intended to create space for dialogue.
AG: Yeah. Freire talks about dialogue being an act of humility and love. And it provokes healing. He was a humanist. You can’t feel fully human without engaging with other people. We start to decolonize our minds when we understand our own oppression and the goal of the oppressor. Dialogue allows us to work through it together and shed the ideas that keep us in that place. Art is good for that too. That’s how we develop self-worth and form resistance against those powers.
AA: (laughing) You really know what’s up.
AG: (laughing) Not really. I’m figuring it out.
AA: All that is true. It is really important. A lot of times we dehumanize people simply by not listening to them. Social movements are almost always ignited by people feeling like they’re not being heard.
AG: Yup. They also usually start with a person or group initiating dialogue with others.
AG: as they lay is cool because performance plays a role in that exchange of ideas. Then it functions as a platform as well. It makes a lot of sense. Performance is a very big part of your musical practice too.
AA: It is. Performing is like the heart of my artistry. Even when I am recording in a studio, It’s still a performance. I’ve always taken it seriously because my favorite music artists are the ones who are craziest on stage. No shade, you could be a great recording artist, but if you can’t perform, I’m sorry. You’re not that bitch. You’ve gotta give life on stage. That's where music needs to show up a hundred percent. Because that’s where music started. For Black Americans, it started in the church, in the fields. It’s a way to honor that history. If you’re not pouring into that as a Black artist, what are you doing? So I always wanted to make sure my performance was on point. And I’m proud to be known for that.
AG: It’s funny you say that, because some moments in your performances feel like sermons. It’s really an experience watching you. I’ll never forget seeing you open Jpeg’s Boiler Room show a few years ago. You took those white boys to church. They weren’t even your demographic, but you had them in a crowd control vise grip. (laughing) I had a whole new found respect for you after that night.
AA: (laughing) Yess! I loved that show.
"...YOU'RE NOT THAT BITCH. YOU'VE GOTTA GIVE LIFE ON STAGE."
AG: In November, you performed music for the first time since then I think, since before the pandemic. How did it feel to be on stage again?
AA: It felt good, especially considering all I’d been through in 2021. It felt like a release. It was a spiritual detox. The purge. That was the name of the show. For me, it was all about letting go and making space for the Phoenix to rise… Were you there?
AG: No, I tried to come but I had to miss it.
AA: Oh yeah. I had such an amazing time. The best part for me was having Kenzo and Blk Vapor and everyone open for me. They really did their thing. I always try to make space to shed light on younger artists, especially ones who I feel are super super talented. They deserve as much success as possible. So that was definitely the highlight of the experience. The Purge, The Phoenix is probably one of my favorite shows I’ve ever done. It was affirming to see my community show up for me. It was a packed house. I haven’t released music in two years so for people to come out for me like that meant a lot. I was like, damn, I really am a legend. I wasn’t calling myself that - other people were. That night showed me it was the real deal. I have a foundation. It’s really inspiring and motivating me to continue to do my thing. During this pandemic, a lot of times I didn’t feel like doing this anymore. I think a lot of independent artists started to feel like their foundation was crumbling. It created a lot of moments where I was like, this is fucked up. I did all this work - I shouldn’t be out here struggling the way I’m struggling. I know part of it is because I’m Black and queer. If I was a light-skinned or cis straight man doing all this stuff, I would have been signed a long time ago or receiving the support I need as an artist. I’ve really been doing the damn thing, all on my own.
AG: It’s extra crazy now because of the way that those identities are now sort of being bought into and commodified. Blackness and queerness sells because social consciousness is the thing right now, but an artist who is actually talented and lives that experience still has to scratch for the opportunities and resources that they deserve. It’s pretty ass-backwards.
AA: Right! I think about Saucy Santana. He has expressed that same sentiment, if he was straight or a woman, he would have been getting deals and popping off a long time ago. And it’s true. He is so majorly talented. He said he’s been approached by people before, but that they wanted him to tone it down. People love Santana because he is the complete opposite of being toned down! That just goes to show you the severity of homophobia. It’s really crazy. You’ve got a lot of undeniably amazing people who don’t get mainstream support because of it. Between Frank [Ocean], Lil Nas X and people like that, there have been moments. But things should be better. Things get harder when you’re gender non-conforming. Look at Big Freedia. It took people so long to get hip to Freedia. She’s been doing her thing since the late nineties. I’ve been doing what I do consistently for 10 years, and with success. Not even an indie label has approached me.
AG: To me that makes no sense, because aside from anything else, your musical output is so special. I know my taste can be a little out there, but Fiyah to me is like Grammy level work. Why wouldn’t people wanna get behind that?
AA: Wow. Thank you! It’s all good, because now when I do get approached in the future, the ball is in my court. I get to be selective. That’s something you earn by doing things your way, whatever your art form may be.
AG: Amen. This is random, but when you came over the other week, you showed us this band. I forget where they’re from, but they were African and had this electronic Afrofuturistic vibe. They were crazy. I can see that you gravitate toward Afrofuturism as a philosophy and an aesthetic. Can you speak on why that’s so compelling to you?
AA: I’ve always been into sci-fi, futuristic and post-apocalyptic stories and movies. Also like I said, I’m always trying to maintain a balance between being present, and thinking about the future. Not just my personal future, but the world that I want to live in. I think it’s important for us all to consider and have that on our brains because we’re still gonna be here. And I think that encourages us in real-time to be rooted in our liberation practices and radical movements. When we are considering the future that much, it compels us to make sure that we are doing the work to make sure that we end up in the future we want to be in. That’s why I think Afrofuturism is so dope. When I think about Afrofuturism, I think about Sun Ra, I think about George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Michael Jackson too - especially in the nineties. I think about Octavia Butler. Even Terence Nance’s Random Acts of Flyness. That has a futuristic aspect to it. These people are not just doing stuff that’s cool and edgy or nuanced, they’re also affirming and comforting us with visions of Black people in the future, and the idea that we will be able to, you know, exist and live in abundance in the future. We don’t get those images often in contemporary media or in pop culture. It’s important to do work that is rooted in Afrofuturism or that considers Black people in the future. We go through a lot of shit that makes us wonder sometimes if we even wanna stick around at all. But we need that comfort because, at the end of the day, Black babies are still being born every day. We have the future of other Black people to think about.
AG: Yeah. Afrofuturism provides that space for imagination. We need that to keep us collectively moving forward.
AG: What can people expect from you in the immediate future?
AA: I’m definitely coming out with some new music. Hopefully in June. I have a song that I really love. I’ll play it for you if I haven’t already. I wanted to write a gay, Black love anthem, but with that nostalgic feel of Baltimore club. To pay homage to what that music did for me as a kid. We need some loving music that just makes us feel good, like how we feel when we hear ‘Before I Let Go’ at the cookout. Music that’s not coming from a space of trying to conquer something, or the shit that we deal with every day. We fall in love too. Showing and embracing that softer side of ourselves is radical and political in its own way. I think the best way to normalize experience is to just talk about things that we all go through. Everybody wants to be loved or be in love. I just wanted to add my 2 cents, ‘cause most of my music is not lovey-dovey. Right now, I’m just playing around with music and experimenting to see what sounds I want to put out there in the world. I’m gonna keep making Baltimore club, because it’s the sound that made me want to be a musician in the first place. It’s important to me to help keep that sound alive. I’ll be making it until the day I die. But going back to what we talked about in the beginning, about legacy - I think it's also important for me to continue to challenge myself and keep evolving. I want to fall in love with being an artist and making music all over again. So that’s what I’m focused on. I’m building Abdu 2.0 so that these next ten years can be as abundant, fun and fruitful as the last ten years. I’m gonna keep living, travel a little, and see where things go. I’m gonna take my time with it, but eventually I’ll drop an album for sure.
AG: That’s what I like to hear.
AA: I’m excited to continue being an artist. And I hope people like this new music I’m gonna put out. That’s where I’m at with it.
AG: Nice. We can’t wait to receive it. I think that’s a good place to end too. Thank you Abdu.
AA: Yeah! Thank you.