By Abby Higgs
All photos by Philip Laubner
What better atmosphere to interview a rising star than at a photo shoot? Right?
This is my inner dialogue on this frozen February night; my calm self soothing its unhinged counterpart. The cold Baltimore air bites at my ears.
My friend Phil is going to be the photographer at the shoot, which comforts me. I get nervous doing interviews. And I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed a performer in person. Not formally, at least.
But I’ve done my research. I’m on my way to meet Abdu Ali, a local Baltimore Club legend at the tender age of 24. I’ve listened to Abdu’s music and I’ve watched his videos on YouTube. His music can’t really be categorized. Heavily influenced by Baltimore Club, it’s just as much a montage of punk, hip-hop, and ambient house. It’s loud. It’s brash. It’s really fucking good.
Part of me wonders if he’s as tenacious in person as he seems to be in his songs, my favorite of which is “Bleed.” On this track, Abdu raps in a passionate pitch starkly resonant of Zack de la Rocha.
I suspect a good part of my anxiety tonight stems from the fact that, after I volunteered to do this interview, not one single person could give me a concrete answer to the question: “So what’s Abdu like?”
The photo studio in What Weekly’s basement is bright. Phil is in the middle of the room piecing together his camera, complaining that the battery is almost dead. Across the room is Abdu, robed in a bright kaleidoscopic coat made from what looks like canvas.
He’s eating potato chips and wipes them away from his t-shirt. When he sees me, he smiles.
Now I’m more relaxed. Abdu’s got a warm smile; plus there’s a bag of potato chips in his hand and Phil’s camera battery is dying. I’m fine.
“We should get started on the photos,” Phil says.
Immediately, Abdu takes his place in front of the camera. But he doesn’t go there striding with pretention. In fact, he steps before the camera with a compassionate demeanor, as if he just wants your attention to say, “Hey, your wallet’s on the floor.”
But then he glowers and all semblance of that neighborly young man is gone. Phil snaps away.
“So what’s next for you?” I ask Abdu over Phil’s camera snaps.
“I’m about to go on tour,” he says.
“That’s cool. Are you ready?”
“I’m getting there. No meat, no dairy, no smoking.”
Now he gives Phil a look like he’s going to punch him in the throat.
“That’s really great,” Phil says.
Abdu gets to talking about Brooklyn. He’s going there on a leg of his upcoming “KEEP MOVIN'” tour, which, for him, means returning to a place in which he recently lived.
“Do you miss it?” I ask.
“I do and I don’t,” he says between the faces he makes: anger, lunacy, maniacal joy. “You have to hustle in New York. People go there to establish themselves. And I think that’s important. But, you know, New York was fucking crazy in the 70’s and 80’s. No one wanted to be there.” He puckers—half puckers, I guess; more of a purse. “Now the culture’s all watered down because of gentrification.”
Abdu is fluid with his menagerie of expressions. He rolls with it; Phil snaps away. “I feel like the artists in New York are spoiled,” he continues. “They don’t put in the kind of efforts artists not in New York do.”
I admire Abdu’s certainty that Brooklyn is not where he needs to be. He’s wise.
And accomplished for a man barely into his mid-twenties; he’s done more than most musicians who’ve been around a while, even the ones in Brooklyn. He has a fervid following.
He wraps his right arm seductively over his head until it touches his left cheek. The gesture gives his extremities a disembodied appeal. An appropriate effect. Even when he’s in his elemental skin, Abdu is undefinable. He is posing for Phil like a seasoned model and talking to me like we’re old high school buddies.
We actually do have the same alma mater—The University of Baltimore. And we both graduated with degrees in creative writing. Before he was a 24/7 musician, Abdu was a poet, which explains his rich-with-energy lyrics dispatched through spitting diction.
Phil stops and asks me to help him adjust a lamp. As I head across the room, I accidentally step on his camera. He doesn’t notice.
“Now let’s do more shots with the jacket again,” Phil says.
That jacket. I need to know where he got it.
“A thrift store,” Abdu says. “I get almost everything at thrift stores. Like this Tiger’s eye ring I got three years ago!” He holds up his hand to show off a large molasses-colored ring. “I keep losing it and it keeps coming back.”
A metaphor for Abdu? I wonder.
No, no. Because he never really left.
*Abdu and I corresponded via email after he returned from his most recent leg of the KEEP MOVIN’ Tour:
How has the “Keep Movin” Tour gone?It’s going gooood. Learning a lot about myself and society, or people. So far I realized I need to reserve a lot of myself for just me and the people who need me that I respect and love. I’m very excited for this weekend doing two amazing parties, CutnPaste in Philly and of course Kahlon in Baltimore. Ready to conquer.
What inspired the tour’s name?
The tour name is inspired by my new song, “Keep Movin (Negro Kai),” which is an homage to hustling and never stopping even if it gets real hard. Just Keep Movin. A classic and timeless theme.
Tell me one or two of your greatest moments on tour?>
It just began. So there are plenty of moments still to come. But Papi Juice in Brooklyn was amazing. Great show, good energy. It was beautiful to see many shades of people of color all together embracing [one] another just having fun. It shows the globalness and power of blackness.
Did you go to any thrift stores?
No, too broke right now. lol.
What’s next for you?
To finish this tour hardcore. Then to come back to Baltimore and start planning for the next Kahlon which me and my crew are going to start taking to another direction. It’s going to be sort of a finale Kahlon, the Black Edition featuring only artists of color which I think is a vital and poignant statement. I am also planning an event arts and culture series with a few collaborators that will showcase and bring awareness to creative artists of color in Baltimore.
Anything else you want to add?
Don’t miss Abdu at Kahlon this Saturday, March 7, at The Crown!
All photos by Philip Laubner