Islam, indie-rap and charity will converge Saturday as Brother Ali headlines a free concert at Masjid An-Nur in north Minneapolis.
It sounds a lot like one of Minneapolis' more popular summer bashes: a charitable concert in a parking lot outside a house of worship.
Saturday afternoon's Twin Cities Day of Dignity celebration, however, will never be mistaken for the Basilica Block Party. The musicians are rappers, the location is north Minneapolis, and the holy house is a Muslim mosque.
"It's not that big a difference in my mind," said rapper and co-organizer Brother Ali, while admitting, "There aren't too many mosques out there that would host a hip-hop concert."
The mosque in this case is Masjid An-Nur, a progressive-leaning Islamic institution that prides itself on being part of the North Side community. Which is pretty clear when you build your mosque in a former barbecue joint near the busy intersection of Lyndale and Broadway avenues -- and your members include a member of the U.S. House (Keith Ellison).
With Day of Dignity, Masjid An-Nur hopes to bust its open-door policy wide open, while breaking down any negative stereotypes outsiders might have of Islam and north Minneapolis and hip-hop music.
But the event is not really about all that, organizers say.
"People here are hurting," said Makram El-Amin, the mosque's imam.
Many North Side residents are still reeling from a May 22 tornado that damaged an estimated 2,000 homes in an area already hard hit by the down economy. The number of homeless families in Hennepin County rose by as much as 30 percent over the summer.
The mosque isn't just promising a free concert, but also free medical services, a hot meal, winter clothing, school supplies, hygiene kits and other provisions for needy residents. There will even be barbers -- "and they'll get as many people in their chairs in one day as they can get," El-Amin said.
Organizers also hope the event will serve as a long-term boon to nearby businesses simply by drawing in the thousands of fans who typically attend a local Brother Ali concert. Said El-Amin, "North Minneapolis is a great place. A great place. We intend to prove it to people from outside the community."
A nourishing history
That all sounds good to local residents. North Side native Diane Presley, who helps run Sandy's food truck outside the neighboring Cub Foods, said, "A lot of people are still feeling the effects of the tornado, along with everything else."
Conrad Bergman, a former Marine who lives near the mosque, blames Islamic extremism for instigating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he said about Masjid An-Nur's members, "They do enough good work in the community to put even the Salvation Army to shame. Their food shelf alone probably keeps half the neighborhood fed."
Masjid An-Nur's location has long been a place known for feeding North Siders. Started in 1998 in a community center, the mosque wound up in the former home of Skip's Bar-B-Q, a famed eatery easily forgotten now under the towering minaret and shimmering dome. Masjid An-Nur expanded by about 6,000 square feet in 2006 at a cost of around $1 million.
Insight News editor Al McFarlane, whose office is two blocks away, laughed at the unlikelihood of the barbecue joint of his youth becoming a mosque, but he said Masjid An-Nur's involvement in the neighborhood has been no joking matter.
"They really stepped up when the tornado happened, and they have been consistent with their openness and support for the community since Day One," McFarlane said.
"I think this event speaks volumes on what this mosque is all about."
Where rap and religion meet
Day of Dignity also says a lot about one of the Twin Cities music scene's biggest stars.
A former north Minneapolis resident, Brother Ali (born Jason Newman, 34) has frequently referenced his Muslim faith in a rap career that has brought him everywhere from Conan O'Brien's and Jimmy Fallon's late-night TV stages to a European tour in November. Because he was born albino, with extra-pale skin, Ali said he always felt like an outcast until he was taken in by the Muslim community at age 16.
Last fall, following a year and a half of steady touring, the rapper took a month off to travel to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It's no coincidence the idea for the Day of Dignity came up after that. "That trip changed me the same way having kids changes you," said Ali, a father of two.
Ali's imam bragged about his music career -- "His success is our success," El-Amin said -- but he said the rapper's influence at Masjid An-Nur goes well beyond that.
"He greatly values his religion and uses it to keep him grounded, and I think he sees [Day of Dignity] as a way of paying back what his faith has brought him," the imam said.
El-Amin believes the event is a chance for Ali's young fans to "pick up the value of serving others in the community."
That, too, is a value of the famed block party at the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis. However, Saturday's event will be different from that Catholic bash in one other way: No alcohol will be served, since most Muslim groups prohibit drinking.
Neither the rapper nor the imam see the idea of a hip-hop concert at a mosque as contradictory. For one thing, Ali's music is mostly devoid of violent or sexually explicit content, as are the songs by the other featured performer, Freeway, a Philadelphia rapper (and fellow Muslim) once signed to Jay-Z's Roc-a-Fella Records.
"Like it or not, hip-hop is the primary culture of our youth," Ali said. "There might be no better way to reach them with a positive message."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658