25–30 minute experience, or the time it takes for a midday stretch.
Through their sound work, poetry, and performance, Abdu Mongo Ali deconstructs and reconfigures found and built language, beats, and genres to explore embodiment, connection, and uncompromising joy. Ali, a Baltimore native, draws on their hometown’s history as an epicenter of vibrant and audience-oriented music shows to lead a new generation of energetic performance merging a wide range of references and styles. In the following interview, Ali talks through their process of crafting what they call “sonic essays,” compiling instrumentals and audio fragments to construct new narratives within aural landscapes, and shares their newly commissioned work, “Joy Ride: A Commentary.”
A Q&A WITH ABDU MONGO ALI
Audio sample of archival recording of Lucille Clifton reciting “won’t you celebrate with me” from Book of Light (1993), recorded at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and used with the permission of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Reprinted in transcript with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd. Copyright © 1993 by Lucille Clifton.
[Audio description: A dreamy, ambient atmosphere of chimes and bird chirps. Lucille Clifton recites her poem “won’t you celebrate with me,” echoing and reverberating as if from a cave. An audience applauds and then fades out, replaced by a slow percussive beat. More percussion enters, the speed picks up, and a chopped and rearranged sample of Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” weaves in and out of a slowed down recording of a voice saying “what.” The background sounds temporarily lower in volume as a clip of a young child saying, “I wanted to do hoodrat stuff with my friends” plays. A voice recites, “It’s all I do is dream, all the time,” to which a second says, “I thought you played piano. “No,” the first voice says, “this is not piano, this is dreaming.” The energy slows down and a sample of a piano melody plays and then fades out.]
Allie Linn: It’s so nice to see you, Abdu! Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.
Abdu Mongo Ali: Yeah, of course. Thanks for inviting me, it’s good to see you all, too.
Allie: I’d love to start off with having you walk us through the new track that you’ve written for this commission. What were its origins? What’s the process like for you to embark on a standalone project like this one?
Abdu: Doing sound design or sound pieces as projects has been really fun for me. As a vocalist, music artist, and performer, that work has taken up a lot of space in my music practice, so doing sound compositions has given me more space to experiment with music in a way that I haven’t previously been able to. I have been enjoying being more in the background when it comes to making sound or music and not necessarily having to think about how my voice is going to fit in or how I will be perceived on stage. It’s been really freeing. I feel like I have so much space to go in sonically in a way that I can’t when I’m making songs for performance and with the attention that people are going to listen to it and it will involve my voice. It’s a way to liberate myself sonically in a way that I haven’t been able to before.
I think this is my third or fourth sound commission, and lately I’ve been thinking of them as sonic essays. I always start with a literary or text aspect in all of my work. I think the word, in regards to songwriting and music composition, is my anchor, so even with making sound compositions that are mostly instrumental, I think about them as if I’m trying to write about something in particular. I came up with the terms “audio essays” or “sonic essays,” which I think really describes the way I approach sound composition.
For this piece, with all of the things going on in the world and all of the things that I’ve seen being put out there in regards to sound and music in general, I think we need to cultivate collectively more space for songs that are about just having a good fucking time, celebrating yourself, and just standing in your bitch I’m here energy. I’m here, and I’m feeling myself and feeling my vibe.
I took this commission as an opportunity to get into that bag more. I wanted to do something about feeling yourself, having a good time, and being in the spirit of joy. I thought about how that would sound and how I could write an essay sonically to express that.
A lot of how I approach music and art in general comes from a place of spirit, so things just come to me. I have a library of references in my head that is always moving around. I started with the idea that I wanted it to feel like joy, fun, and feeling yourself, and then things started coming in.
[ID: On the dancefloor of a club bathed in dark green light, Abdu Mongo Ali stands at the center of a crowd, eyes closed and singing into a mic. The crowd surrounding them is mostly masked, and many have their arms up as they dance to the music.]
I always start with a literary or text aspect in all of my work. I think the word, in regards to songwriting and music composition, is my anchor, so even with making sound compositions that are mostly instrumental, I think about them as if I’m trying to write about something in particular.
Allie: That joy really does come through in the track. When you sent it, I listened to it several times in a row; it was so uplifting, and you can really feel that energy that you’re talking about. I’m so glad that you’re bringing up vocals in relation to it, also, because I think that was one of my questions when I was listening.
You have so many tracks that are in your voice and your vocals are such a big part of the music that you make, and then in a piece like this, you’re sampling fragments of others’ voices. It opens with that beautiful Lucille Clifton poem, and I think there was a fragment of a Khia lyric in there, and even some pieces from YouTube videos, approaching community-collected archives. So I was thinking about voice and vocals in relation to this work, too, and I was curious how you choose when to begin with one versus the other.
Does it feel like a different experience to begin with these text aspects that you’re talking about when it’s through your own voice versus through a found piece of material via somebody else’s voice?
Abdu: I was thinking, “How do I want to write this? How do I want to begin?” The intro, the body, the outro. Like I said, I think about these as sonic essays, so I’m thinking about them as if I’m writing a thesis paper, and I’m using the sampling as words or paragraphs to bring in a point, take out a point, or move into another point. Lucille Clifton came to mind. I overuse this poem, just in conversation, in dialogue, on Instagram. [LAUGHS] It’s one of my favorite poems of all time. Shout out to Lucille Clifton, shout out to the Baltimore connection because Lucille was based in Baltimore, and they’re actually opening a residency in a house in honor of her there. I think it’s already in operation, just called the Lucille Clifton House. So I thought it was cool to bring in not only her, but also that Baltimore connection.
It’s one of my favorite poems of all time: “won’t you celebrate with me.” I love the title in itself and how she’s celebrating moving through oppression and moving through all of these systemic issues that Black women face. She’s not coming from a place of victimhood but instead coming from the place of a champion. That last line — won’t you celebrate that all of these things have tried to attack me and come for me, and yet I’m still alive — is one of the messages that is a theme throughout a lot of music that I’ve done. I have a song called “I’m Alive.” I’m alive, don’t be surprised.
I wanted to start there, because often when we talk about Black joy, it is coming from a place of centering oppression and coming from a place of victimhood, and I wanted to denounce that. I thought “won’t you celebrate with me” was a great way to open up this sound piece from a place of being a champion and not a victim. I used the Khia sample as a call and response mechanism, where I’m thinking about it directly talking to the listener. All you ladies pop your…like this…Don’t quit…Just do it, do it… And I’m like, just do it! We’re about to get into it. We’re about to get into the party. The Lucille Clifton intro sounds a little more meditative, chill, and cerebral, and I think of that as the precursor to the party. Let’s use that at the door. With the Khia, it’s more of a siren to get things popping. When Khia comes in, it’s a little more clubby and turned up.
Being from Baltimore, I’m a huge fan of Baltimore club. One of the things I love about Baltimore club is the call and response mechanism that is often a device or utility to immerse the listener and the audience into the music and to affirm the listener. Not even just their consciousness or ear but also their body to help them feel comfortable and, in the moment, have a good time.
And I love that YouTube clip of the little kid who went viral for driving his aunt or grandma’s car. He’s so innocent and is like, “I just wanted to do hoodrat stuff with my friends.” I love that comedic relief in the piece, and I get where he was coming from. We’ve all felt like that before, and I think it’s important to stay connected to our inner child. Just wanting to have a good time, just because, not because we’re fighting oppression, not because of white supremacy, not because of capitalism, just because. Obviously we are severely affected by those oppressions, but sometimes I think we hold it on our shoulders a little too much. We let that take up so much space, when that’s not fair to us. We already have to deal with it on a daily basis in the world. Sometimes, let’s just turn up, just because, not because we’re suffering. Some people might come for me about that, but sometimes I just want to have a good time. I just want to do hoodrat stuff with my friends. [LAUGHS] Just be in the moment.
I think the last sample that I use is an interview snippet from Duke Ellington. The interviewer asks him, “What do you do all day?” and he says, “I dream.” The interviewer says, “I thought you played the piano.” Ellington starts to play the piano and says, “This is not piano. This is dreaming.” Yes! When I think about creating, there’s a lot of conversation around the importance to lift up and center the Black gaze and the Black radical imagination for Black people with Black artists when it comes to making the work we’re doing, and I think that piece honors the celebration of constantly just being in your thoughts. It’s honoring your inner child, too.
All that we are doing with art, with playing music, with him playing the piano — we are conjuring. We are creating new languages. We are creating new visions for the future, new ways of being. And so when he said that, that’s how I interpreted it.
Allie: Yeah, I love this idea of conjuring, and to bring it back to something you were saying in the beginning of that, this history of call and response that you were mentioning in Baltimore club music. I’m thinking about Miss Tony and K-Swift, and now I’m looking at this piece that you’ve made in a new light and thinking of it as a call and response with these collected fragments of different texts, different poems, different media and thinking about crafting a narrative from these collected pieces.
Abdu: Mhmm. When it comes to sound production, I’m low-key a minimalist. When it comes to contextualizing things, I’m a maximalist. [LAUGHS] When I try to verbalize a context, thesis, or idea, I try to intertwine all of these different things into one. The whole point of this commission was to honor sampling. Honestly, this opportunity has given me a new way of thinking in regards to sampling and how powerful it can be to use the archive in that way, to write new ideas sonically and think about how sound compositions can be used in the same way as literary compositions. So thank you for the opportunity because it opened up a lot of different things for me.
[ID: View looking out onto the crowd from the stage of a dark nightclub. Abdu Mongo Ali faces the audience and is seen from behind, performing energetically. They wear a long red dress with puffy white sleeves and a chainmail headpiece.]
Allie: Of course. Yeah, when we started to draft this issue you immediately came to mind as someone playing around with sampling in a variety of ways. There are, of course, literal samples in many of your tracks, as we’ve been talking about today, but there’s also a broader sampling of genres that you play with. As you mentioned, you merge Baltimore club, but also jazz, electronic, punk, house. I also think that there’s a logic of sampling in your curatorial work. I’m thinking about Kahlon, the dance party series that you used to hold in Baltimore, but I have a feeling it extends beyond the music-related curatorial projects, too. I’m curious how you think about sampling across other disciplines that you’re working with.
Abdu: That’s an interesting way to think about it. I never thought about sampling when it comes to the culture work or curatorial work that I’ve done. With Kahlon, our first goal was to wake it up in regards to what was being seen in the landscape of music shows and parties in Baltimore. Often at that time, in the early 2010s, a lot of the shows and parties were super homogeneous and focused on one genre or one demographic of music. For one, that wasn’t representative of what was happening with music; it was the beginning of Soundcloud and Spotify and YouTube, where you could just click a button and experience so many different types of music. I think that was changing the way consumers approach music in real life. So for me, going to a show at the time and only seeing a bunch of punk artists who all sound the same was boring. [LAUGHS] It made me start to think about parties where we could mix up the genre and sample all these different tastes of music and vibes of people into one, and it turned out that people were really into that. It reflected the ears of the audience of that time.
I could definitely see how that could be interpreted as a way of sampling. To keep things moving forward, you have to avoid a homogeneous energy or way of doing things, or else you’re going to keep replicating something that’s already been done or something that’s already present. Your best bet to create a new idea is to sample and pull from so many different things and combine it into one.
For instance, like you said, genre-wise in this sound piece there’s a lot going on, and a lot of people wouldn’t think, “Can I add an ambient element and a club element to a jazz element?” But who made the rules? Let’s not think so in the box. I always approach music in a multi-genre type of way. In order to create a new idea, you have to throw all of these things in the fire. Things might start to get a little chaotic and sound a little messy, but one hundred percent of the time I think it’s going to create a new way of looking at something. I think right now, and at any other time in music and art and cultural history, it’s a time to get super messy and chaotic. There needs to be more opportunity for trying to figure out new ways of approaching things and speaking about them. Sampling from different places and genres and demographics and backgrounds of art and culture is a way to do it.
Within music, I use my samples as instruments. I have a Lil Jon sample in this, that you might not even realize, where I’m using it as a piece of percussion. If we had a sampling pad or drum pad, one of the sounds to click on would be a Lil Jon voice, and we’d be using it as a drum or snare. Even with the Khia sample, I’m using it in a very percussive way. That’s something that I picked up from Baltimore club, a recycling of people’s voices and songs as instruments in the track, where you basically create a new song out of them.
[ID: A black and white view looking out onto the crowd from the stage of a dark nightclub. Abdu Mongo Ali sits on the stage and is seen from behind. They wear a chainmail headpiece, and the crowd around them waves their hands in the air.]
All that we are doing with art, with playing music, with him playing the piano — we are conjuring. We are creating new languages. We are creating new visions for the future, new ways of being.
Allie: And there’s so much magic to that transformation that you’re talking about in a sample, to finding out how an artist has chopped up a track to the point that you don’t recognize it.
Abdu: A lot of people wouldn’t think to include a Lucille Clifton snippet in the same song as Khia. [LAUGHS]
Allie: But I’m so glad you are that person.
Abdu: I’m just here for it and for the fun of it all. Let’s just get messy and not take stuff too seriously. At the same time, the intellectual rigor is there.
It made me start to think about parties where we could mix up the genre and sample all these different tastes of music and vibes of people into one, and it turned out that people were really into that. It reflected the ears of the audience of that time.
Allie: You’ve described your music as building queer Black sanctuary. Can you share more about this sanctuary as it relates to your sound practice?
Abdu: Nowadays, I consider the music, or any art that I make, as a utility for people to use, whether it’s for themselves, whether it’s a communal thing, whether they’re using it and feel inspired to reference it in their work in some type of way. I see the art as a utility or device for people to use, consume — a beacon for themselves collectively or their own work or purposes.
When it comes to the spaces that I inhabit as an artist, when I show up to a performance or program that I curate, I am considering cultivating those spaces as sacred spaces, as ephemeral sanctuaries for whoever participates in those moments. When it comes to the real life experience, I try to create a very immersive, cathartic, visceral experience for the audience. I do see, especially my music performances, as church. I see it as an opportunity for not only me to release and relinquish some stuff, but also for my audience to release and relinquish themselves. Or even feel refreshed and nourished in some type of way. I do consider myself responsible for uprooting that type of energy for people. In that way, I do feel like a shaman or preacher or pastor when it comes to me as a performer or anything I do physically. As an artist, I’m beginning to feel like that is one of my responsibilities or destinies I have to do for people. It’s still outside of myself. I’m just a vessel, I’m being used for a higher power in that way.
Now, when it comes to the art, I do see that as a utility or device. I’m just out here creating, having a good time, and I don’t want to take up too much responsibility in regards to what it is supposed to be for people when it comes to actual artmaking. I look at artmaking for the sake of artmaking, and what I do with it in real life or on stage or in a gallery, that is my responsibility. How it shows up in real life, that is my responsibility. I take a lot of responsibility for that, but when it comes to making the work I’m just out here to try this. But I do see art in general as a utility or device. Or a weapon, possibly.
Allie: Yeah, I think that’s all really beautifully said. You’re also reminding me of how Beverly Glenn-Copeland talks about his work.
Abdu: Oh my God, I love him.
Allie: I know, such an incredible musician. Have you seen the documentary about him? Keyboard Fantasies. I think there’s a real shared language around this idea of being a conduit, being a vessel. Something is moving through to the audience.
Abdu: Yeah, definitely. Conduit, vessel. I really relate. As artists, we need to strive away from the God complex. It can be very dangerous and unhealthy for the artist to take up a lot of responsibility in that way. I think it’s better to see ourselves as conduits and vessels. Back in the day, people who were creators and artists in Indigenous communities in the Americas and West Africa were seen as celestial conduits or goddesses or deities; they had a relationship and were being used by them to convey a message. I feel like we need to go back on that. With the God complex, you get people like Kanye West or Elon Musk. They think they’re God. As an artist I try to stay away from that type of responsibility.
Allie: Thank you so much, Abdu. I think that was all really beautifully said, and we’re really excited to share this track with a larger audience.
Abdu: Me too. I can’t wait. I love it, too. I think it’s really cool, so I can’t wait to see what people think.
[ID: Abdu, a Black person wearing bright makeup and a colorful, patterned outfit, sits at a table in a yellow-painted room.]
Abdu Mongo Ali
They // Them // Theirs
He // Him // His
Abdu Mongo Ali is a Baltimore-based musician, writer, and multidisciplinary artist who works in sound, collaboration, video, and performance. Ali’s work often interrogates ideas of race, gender, and sexuality that manifests as poetic inquiries of identity, promoting liberation from oppressive ideologies and encouraging self-marginalized peoples to be self-determined. Their work also centers promoting authentic Black queer legacies and narratives as these histories are often subjected to distortion and erasure.
Described as a cosmic, punk, and soulful tempest on stage, they have performed their energetic and visceral shows at MoMA PS1, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Kennedy Center. Their work has been highlighted by The New York Times, The Fader, Elephant Magazine, and Tracks on Arte TV. In 2019, they founded “as they lay,” a curatorial platform that claims space for critical dialogue, collaboration, and radical envisioning for Black creative futures. They have held residencies at Red Bull Music and Pioneer Works. In 2022 they were a visiting artist at the Brown Arts Institute at Brown University. They were a recipient of the 2018 Rubys Artist Grant and a 2023 USA Fellowship. Ali received their Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Baltimore and will be a Literary Arts Candidate at Brown University this fall.