Photo by Sydney Allen.

Abdu Ali is creating space for radical black artists

The Baltimore musician's new event series brings POC creatives together to celebrate their history and fight the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

by Wilbert L. Cooper
20 November 2019, 9:15pm

Photo by Sydney Allen.

For nearly a decade, whether they were hosting wild parties, thrashing on stage, or penning powerful poetry, Baltimore artist Abdu Ali has always made work with a radical agenda. In the early 2010s, their party series Kahlon helped cultivate an experimental and eclectic scene of local black artists and brought acts like Princess Nokia and Juliana Huxtable to Charm City. In 2018, their podcast Drumbooty fostered intellectual conversations with artists and activists that stretched from gender politics to colorism. And their debut album Fiyah!!, which was released earlier this year, blended punk attitude and Baltimore club beats with church-indebted singing and Missy Elliot bars that pushed a mission of racial, sexual, and psychological liberation.

Their latest project As They Lay is intended to be a culmination of all of those previous efforts, grounded in the idea that art can be a social practice and spark the fight against the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Launching this Friday in Baltimore, As They Lay is a “creative project-based organism” with the ambitious mission of bringing black artists together for mind-expanding events and dialogue that can foment revolution.

Entitled BlakkFRUIT, the event will be hosted at the Waller Gallery, a black-owned space that explicitly supports artists from marginalized groups. BlakkFruit will feature a collaborative sound and poetry performance by Abdu Ali and local artists like Pangelica, the avant-garde producer and violist from Baltimore's GRL PWR collective.


In December, Ali is taking As They Lay to the Baltimore Museum of Art at Lexington Market for an event he calls Legacy, Legacy, Legacy!!! The collaborative performance will not only feature poetry and avant-garde soundscapes, but it will also incorporate live visuals created by artist Karryl Eugene of the Maryland Institute College of Art and a dialogue with attendees about Baltimore's culturally rich history.

i-D caught up with Ali to talk about their bold As They Lay project and how they plan to use it as a platform to support and activate black artists in Baltimore and across the country.

What was the genesis of As They Lay?
This is something I’ve been meditating on for a year and a half. The name is about my journey as an artist and how our elders and ancestors laid the foundation for me and you. With this project, we want to honor those who came before us and also celebrate the people who are continuing to lay down the train tracks.

What can we expect at a typical As They Lay event?
Right now, the internet is pushing us into these social and physical silos. And digital dialogue is not enough to make change. This event is about people coming together in real life to have conversations. We are going to turn up, but it’s not just a party. We’ll have a collaborative performance piece featuring sound and poetry. And after that, I’m going to force people to talk. I want to have dialogue around what it means to be a black artist and what we want to see in the city to help sustain and vitalize the Baltimore art scene.

Why is this real-life dialogue so important?
Historically, black social movements have been driven by people congregating and talking about their oppression. Look at the Haitian revolution. It was premeditated and planned by Haitians who would get together in the jungle. I was thinking about examples like that when I was developing As They Lay.

This is a big undertaking, but it feels like it’s building on work you’ve done before.
Yes. With my Kahlon parties and Drumbooty podcast, I was always interested in these ideas. But artists like Rick Lowe and Chloë Bass have really helped me understand what it means to be an artist with a social practice. I’m an artist whose medium is bass and music writing, but I can also bring people together and raise consciousness.

Why is the collaborative element of this so important to you?
I think the popular idea of being a “one-man band” is the result of narcissism in art-making. Everything with As They Lay is about people working together. For example, when I got with Karryl Eugene, we came up with the idea of focusing on legacy. So we made a video that pays homage to black creatives and our black ancestors.

The video that you and Eugene made together sort of sets the tone for this entire project. Why did you focus it so much on honoring the past?
It’s important for people who live in Baltimore, because our legacy isn’t always documented like those who live in New York. And that’s a shame because knowing your past can affirm your identity. This is why white slave masters tried to erase African culture. But right now you see all these black archival Instagrams popping up, reclaiming the past. We need to go back into these archives so that we can create a vision of tomorrow. As They Lay is certainly an ode to the ancestral world, but it’s also an attempt to motivate people to conjure the future.


You’ve got these two events in Baltimore over the next few weeks. But where does As They Lay go from there?
Overall, As They Lay is a vehicle for me to become the plug and curate exhibitions and create events. I want to give the agency to artists who align with my mission to be able to come with me and get their ideas out there. Eventually, I want it to become a production hub and give funding to artists in Baltimore and beyond.

Your work as an artist is so linked to the city of Baltimore. Why is it that you want to build connections between other scenes?
It has always perplexed me that some New Yorkers have never been to Baltimore. Now, more than ever, it is important for us to connect, city to city. We want to promote the idea that we can easily collaborate and erase regional borders that have kept us from having an intercity dialogue. It’s crazy that people will go all the way to Europe before they take a bus trip Baltimore! But when we create that intercity solidarity and exchange, it gives us much more possibilities. I want to bring other artists to Baltimore so they can take what they see back to cities like Chicago and Brooklyn.

What do you hope is the impact of As They Lay?
I’m not seeing young artists being nourished or supported or validated right now. We have to dismantle this hierarchy of being seen and heard. People shouldn’t have to struggle for years until they get support. With the programing and events, I’m going to make sure I’m centering women, trans women, and gay people. And I’m going to go hard and push forward black artists.