Musician Abdu Ali didn't come to this interview to play. On his phone, he's made a list of eateries he loves and wants to shout out. He pulls it up at the start of our meeting at Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant in Mount Vernon because he didn't want to forget anything.
"I'm a food thot," he tells me.
Ali, a busy, inventive, and constantly evolving musician (he just returned from a more than three-week long, 14-city tour in Europe, and he'll be helping organize Cut Up Series III: Brown Paper Zine and Small Press Fair on April 29 at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center), works a lot. Food, he tells me, centers him and comforts him when life gets chaotic.
"I just love food. I love to eat. At first I thought I had a problem, like maybe...gluttony, but then I realized no...I just really love food," he says. "It's so nourishing to me, beyond just feeling physically full or satisfied, beyond satisfying my hunger pangs, you know, food is very much a part of our culture. As humans we get together when it comes to ceremonies, it's like moments we get together we eat, we grub, you know, or like your grandmother cooking for you every Sunday."
Ali gravitates to places where the food tastes like it's been prepared by a mother- or grandmother-type who has been cooking for years and serves the food with love.
"It's love energy that goes through that and you can tell when people don't because shit be bland or, I don't know, it just don't be feeling right," he says. "So that's why I tend to usually go to family-owned restaurants or something like that because usually it's that vibe. Or like restaurants where you can tell they've been there for a long time, the reason why they've been there for so long is they simply make good food."
Here at Dukem, it's a quiet Sunday night. There is only one other couple in the restaurant and Ali and I are tucked into a tiny table in a dark corner. I've never had Ethiopian food, and Ali guides me through the ordering process. He orders us two veggie samosas to start and together we decide to get the vegetarian platter. We also order the fried fish, which Ali tells me is always fresh.
Ali says that he can't remember how he started coming to Dukem, but thinks it's probably from his days attending the University of Baltimore, which is just a few blocks away. He keeps a mental file of good places to eat, both here in the city and when he's away.
"I remember most of the good food spots when I travel in different cities because, like I said, I'm a food thot. It's this one Indian spot in Pittsburgh, oh my God." He closes his eyes, as if he's in prayer: "Their food will send you into, like, a spiritual reawakening because it's so good."
He continues: "What else? It's this one Asian food spot in Brooklyn called CoCo Lin and it's all vegan Chinese food and it's good as shit. They got these good-ass banana chicken rolls, it's not real chicken, it's vegan and it's so good."
He also has fond memories for a place called Soul Veggie in Atlanta, which specializes in vegan soul food ("so fucking good"). Ali isn't a strict vegan, but says he tries to eat vegan most of the time.
"I wish Baltimore had more places like that. We do, but it's rare. It's not as consistent enough," he says. "In general, we need more black-owned restaurants, this is a black city. But like you know the reason why that isn't possible. Because of racism."
He returns to the subject of his favorite food spots, like Taco Mac in Austin: "They got good-ass fish tacos."
Ali says that whenever he arrives in a new city to perform, he interrogates locals about the best places to get food. He says he'll do whatever it takes to impress upon them the importance of his request.
"I have to be real dramatic and be real serious about food recommendations," he says. "I usually ask somebody what food in this city is gon' change my life and that's how I get the good spots."
Despite his passion for food, and his intense performances (his shows can feel like a Holy Ghost revival), Ali says he's mostly chill. Because of that, he tends to be a homebody.
"I don't really like hanging out in bars. I think because that's my job to be at bars or venues that I just am desensitized at this point. You know I've performed for 30 days straight, I performed at over 200 clubs or bars," he says.
"I get real introverted because I don't wanna be around nobody after the show. I feel like I've just exposed so much of myself and now I'm ready to go back into my cave."
He stops, because he's just remembered a few more places he must go on the record and praise—like The Local Oyster in Mount Vernon Marketplace.
"Their oysters are the shiiit," he sings.
Our food arrives and he gives me a quick tour of the platter, which literally is a big silver platter filled with various scoops of yummy looking, colorful foods. "The greens are good, the lentils are good, the chickpeas are good," he says. Spongy, flat injera (an Ethiopian bread) comes with it, and Ali shows me how to tear a piece off and use it to scoop up the food. He also shows me how to break bits of meat off the fried fish, dodging the bones. And then it's back to food in general.
"And then I get my chicken boxes," he says. Ali recommends the chicken box from Erdman Seafood & Chicken in Erdman Shopping Center.
"They got the best chicken box in Baltimore right now. Put salt, pepper, ketchup all over and they got mumbo sauce, okay? A lot of Baltimore places don't got mumbo sauce."
Before our meal is over, I tell Ali that my favorite song of his is 'Did Dat.' The song makes me feel powerful and strong and ready to face the day.
"That's why I made it," he says. "For self-empowerment. Because I was like, I want to make a track that when people listen to it they feel like that, they feel like 'yes bitch I did that and I'm going to keep doing that you know as long as I'm on this earth.' I'm glad people feeling that way about it. That's people's most favorite song."
I ask him about his work habits—whether he is the type to bury himself in the studio, taking his favorite foods with him.
"I work like a drill sergeant when I'm in the studio. Like, 'lets go in and get this thing together.' I usually just drink water and I just get in the zone and I knock out my work in like three to five hours and that's it," he says. "Like that song 'Did Dat,' I did that in one day. But I need to figure out a schedule or ritual though because my life is getting a little cray."
Ali says that he likes to entertain at home, not just because it's cheaper, but because the repetitive details of cooking—chopping, stirring, mincing—are calming.
"It slows you down. You have to focus on this physical thing and that's the crazy thing, we don't really do that many physical things no more. Everything is done on the phone or on the computer. But I don't really cook as much as I used to because of my traveling and I feel bad because that's a part of self care."
Our conversation meanders over to the subject of Trump, as most of my conversations do lately. Just that evening, hundreds of people were protesting at BWI and other airports across the country against Trump's first travel ban.
I tell Ali that some Americans are just now waking up to the fact that this country isn't a fair, happy place for everyone. But for someone like him—a gay black man in Baltimore City—this might be old news.
"I feel like this country has always been violent and very destructive and I think that the more scary part is now the response that you see from the people. People acting like this is brand new or some shit. It might be brand new to people my age or younger in the sense that we have never seen such a messy-ass president in our lifetime, but at the same time this country at one point made it legal for slavery," he says
"That's the thing about Americans. They always forget the past. And I think that in order to make the future and present a better place you must acknowledge the past. We are not acknowledging the past at all."