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Lights Off, Who’s Ali Sultan?

posted on: Nov 17, 2021

Lights off, who’s Ali Sultan?
The comedian Ali Sultan

By: Isra Saleh / Arab America contributing writer

“Ali” his Ethiopian grandmother always called him with a very thick Arabic accent, which Little Ali’s friends mocked her for. “I always perceived myself as Yemeni back then, but she was a constant reminder that I am also Ethiopian.”

Fast forward and 10-year-old Ali had to move to Ethiopia to live with his aunt. Separated from his mom who went to chase the American dream and his father who suffered severe mental illnesses that went unaddressed and stigmatized. He found himself in an African country that he absolutely fell in love with. “I wasn’t looking for acceptance I just wanted it to pass as I thought the situation will only take a year, but it took four years. During these four years I started learning about the Ethiopian side of me and accepting it.” But his acceptance process got disturbed with an approved immigrant visa to the United States.

Happy to be here

After conflicting with the Arab – African cultural juxtaposition, Ali was only an “immigrant” in the US. He was 15-years old when he went to school in a white majority suburb in Minnesota, that helped him to be whoever he wanted to be, “I did not feel any pressure to represent anything around me.” Ali had accepted that he is a “citizen of the world” which he tries to reflect in his art.

Breaking from all the boxes that he was forced into, Ali Sultan found refuge in the comedians’ community. “We comedians are a bunch of misfits. We are just people who have different parts of them and can’t belong anywhere.” Ali found comfort by being around comedians after an excruciating journey of – where am I from?

The Arab-African-American comedian was not the first in his family to break out of the norm. Ali’s uncle and biggest influencer was the first DJ in Yemen, his aunt was the one of the first women to drive in Sana’a despite it being against social traditions to this day. “The top of my family is my grandmother, a single mom. They all taught me that I can dream and be ambitious.” Ali says. 

Arrested while Mexican

Comedy is like going back to a crime scene and changing the dialogue. “If you can laugh about something it means you’re half way there, it is in a distant place. But when you make people laugh about it, it is very cathartic.” One time Ali was mistakenly arrested as a Mexican father who was being abusive to his family. “It was upsetting when it happened but with comedy it allows me to go back and prevail, my mind goes back to the things that didn’t make sense and try to change it.”

Unlike ‘Happy to be here’ Ali’s second Album ‘Funny first’ shows his ability to play up different genres out of his identity box. “I don’t like to be married to a genre; I have a very wide range of comedy that my sense of humor reflects.” Ali’s goal is to master all comedy styles. “I play with structure, set a punch line. New York style, there is set up a middle and punch line. I also do stories, like my fist album it’s all short stories. I am bit of nerd about the structures and how it’s done and the mechanics of it”. ‘Funny First’ album was recorded in May, and released on September 24, 2021. “I’m excited that it came out well I wasn’t sure of that. I recorded it in half capacity in a small club, there was about 30 people in the audience.” The album is available on Apple music, Spotify, Sirius Xm and Pandora.

Ali became the first Yemeni American to make a stand-up television network debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Ali has been on Comedy Central’s Hart of The City with Kevin Hart. He filmed his Half Hour comedy special in Dubai for Comedy Central Arabia. He was named both Best Local Comic and artist of the year by City Pages. He represented Minnesota and won the Best in The Midwest competition at Gildas LaughFest.

When Ali is not doing stand up Ali enjoys making shorts. His short Zoom Legend won Best Short Mockumentary Film Award in the 2021 Reno Film Comedy Fest. “During the pandemic I was bored because stand-up wasn’t a thing, and we had to do Zoom comedy. I thought that Zoom comedy is really silly, then I thought its really funny if I did a mockumentary of a person who took that world seriously, a world where also everybody played along.”

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