Sensei Mustafa Ali: “The black belt itself represents infinity . . . there’s never an end to learning’

By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

Mustafa Ali leads a martial arts class at the Urban Attic gym on 1st avenue North in the East Lake community. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)

Mustafa Ali knows there is a message in music—and movement, too.

Ali is a master instructor with the Ensley-based Calligan’s Karate System, which runs schools that teach students and others not only self-defense but also ways to harness energy that enhances health, confidence, and inner well-being.

Known as “sensei”—Japanese for “teacher”—he is one of several martial arts instructors throughout the Birmingham metro area who teach young and old the art of karate.

Karate is a natural fit for Ali, who has always been an all-around artist, whether with paint or music. He spent his formative years in Birmingham, dabbling with art and listening to the pioneers of rap music.

Ali, of College Hills, hails from a family of 12 (eight boys and four girls) and was the youngest boy.

“Being the youngest brother, I was exposed to some more-mature things,” he said. “I started off listening to the Sugar Hill Gang; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five; the Treacherous Three; the Renegades of Funk; and Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, [who had the influential hip-hop hit] ‘Planet Rock.’”

Ali sees a comparison between the movement in martial arts and the composition of music.

“It is very rhythmic because there is music in the movement,” he said. “There is sound when you move … there is vibration, … a methodology to practice and form. [Just] as one would have to coordinate the right set of keys, … a set of moves can be like a symphony. You combine a combination of one, two, and three in the beginning with striking. You have to have form and balance. Without form and balance, you can’t have proper technique.”

Discipline

Ali, 47, is a seventh-degree black belt, and he’s married to Jacqueline, a third-degree green belt. He grew up in the Norwood community and remembers watching a neighborhood karate expert break a brick in half with his foot. The man later gave Ali and a cousin lessons in kicking and punching.

(Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)

Ali, who attended Norwood Elementary and Phillips High School, practiced and studied karate on his own. He learned even more from a cousin who came to Birmingham from Queens, N.Y., and taught him a combination of White Crane Kung Fu and Shotokan karate.

“I was a very disciplined person,” Ali said. “I was always artistic in some type of way. I was doing art, music. … I was a [DJ], doing hip-hop music and martial arts all at the same time. When I graduated [from high school] in 1988, I had scholarships in art, but I turned down the scholarships to pursue my dreams in hip-hop. That didn’t work, so I got back stronger in martial arts.”

His cousin would eventually take him to Grand Master Paul Calligan, owner of Calligan’s Karate System in Ensley and a master in Shotokan and Yoshukai karate.

“I’ve been with [Calligan] for the past 20-something years,” said Ali, who earned his black belt in 2005.

Ali conducts classes at the System’s East Lake location on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and assists Grand Master Calligan at the main location on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.

Ali himself has utilized his karate skills in a variety of vocations. He once served as a bouncer for several Birmingham clubs and worked security for a music festival. He provided personal security for celebrities visiting the city, such as Grammy Award–nominated R&B singer and songwriter Charlie Wilson; rapper and actor Ludacris; and R&B singer Avant. He also led a security team that patrolled a local apartment complex riddled with crime several years ago.

Patient Mindset

Getting young men involved with karate can help reduce crime, Ali said.

“The more you practice the [martial] arts, the less likely you will commit violence because you know the damage that can be administered,” he said. “When you know what you can do, when you know you are becoming a deadly object, you have more of a patient mindset, and you are less likely to react. You are more responsible for your response to a situation.”

Ali credits karate with helping him achieve a “miraculous” rebound after a bone marrow transplant in 2004 that caused him to lose some function in an arm and a hand. He says herbs, such as turmeric and garlic, as well as fish oil tablets, apple cider vinegar, and breathing exercises enabled him to recover: “It took a year and a half to regain my health and come from a dark and depressing place.”

Still a Student

Some see Ali as a master. He sees himself still as a student.

“There’s always something to learn. You can never master anything,” he said. “The black belt itself represents infinity. There’s never an end to learning. It’s as if would you look at the sky and expect it to end at night, … [but there’s] always something new that baffles the mind. … The martial arts are like that. They keep the level of excitement up.”

Perseverance is a large part of continued growth, as well, Ali said. Though he has had personal and professional setbacks, he said that studying philosophy and reading stories about the masters gave him the strength and power to persevere.

“I would always think about our ancestors, what they went through,” Ali said. “… I would contemplate how they worked for days and nights without getting paid, suffered under cruel and unusual conditions, and it made me say, ‘If they can go through all of that, I’m not experiencing half of that.’ It made me continue to push through. My father had an eighth-grade [education] and raised 12 children. He never gave up.”