Wednesday, July 16, 2008

YBW Exclusive Interview w/ Amir Sulaiman

Interview with Spoken Word Artist and Activist, Amir Sulaiman, by Tolu Olorunda.

Amir Sulaiman is a renowned poet, activist, recording artist, and a 2 time HBO Def Poet. Sulaiman is a household name in the world of Spoken Word Poetry. His brand of poetry has garnered him much adulation from those who have come across his unmitigated-ingenuity. Amir has performed – and still performs - at countless colleges, universities, high schools and community centers. He has shared the stage alongside such artists as, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, KRS-One, Pharoah Monch, Floetry, The Roots, Goapele, Stevie Wonder, The Last Poets and Dead Prez. As a member of “Youth Speaks” in the Bay Area, California, Amir works in mentoring and teaching kids, by way of spoken word, and a focus on the union of art and education. He is a visionary and a monument of inspiration, who believes that the power of love can disempower the stranglehold of narcissism in our society. With a passion comparable to none, Amir Sulaiman has managed to prolong the legacy of such trail-blazers as “The Last Poets.” I had the pleasure of speaking extensively with him on issues of direct relevance to our society, and the world at large:

Thanks for joining us, Bro. Sulaiman; can you start by informing us of your musical background, and the pathway leading up to “Cornerstone Folklore” – the album?

Well, Cornerstone Folklore was my very first album – which very few people have. It was composed of just acappella poems, and these poems were a collection of everything I had done up to that point. I started writing around the age of 12, and continued through Junior High and High School, but I got a lot more intense with it in college. Cornerstone Folklore in some ways is my origin and my favorite album. Cornerstone Folklore has a double meaning. The “Cornerstone” aspect of it is, giving honor to the ancient tradition that we have – involving the didactic stories, inspirational stories and cautionary tales that we have in our tradition -- as black people in America, and also as Africans. And, the Folklore element of it is the urban element – particularly the Hip-Hop era – from the ‘80s, ‘90s and present.

Now, it was in 2006 when you stormed the stage of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, and delivered the mind-gripping poem “Danger.” Can you dissect Danger and explain its symbolism?

Well, Danger is what most of my poetry is about – expressing for those who can’t express for themselves. So, there are people who don’t have a voice – whether it’s because they are disenfranchised, impoverished, their economical status, their age, or incarcerated – but need their stories told. Danger was meant to facilitate their voices to be heard, and give them a platform to be noticed. So, I started off saying, “I am not angry, I am anger;” and that was meant to show that this wasn’t just about me, but about the collective membership that I represent. And, most people have informed me that the poem inspired and motivated them when they first heard it.

Following up the “Danger” performance, the ACLU and Amnesty International broke reports of you being questioned by FBI Agents; can you enlighten us on that exchange?

Six days after the poem on HBO, the FBI came to my house and followed me around. They did it in a fashion that alerted me -- so it wasn’t clandestine. They also came to the school where I was teaching, and got the names and personal addresses of my students. So, that process showed me the power of the word, and reminded me that most of my heroes we’re in like-manner, known for the power of their words and brought into questioning by the same organization. After that encounter, I wrote an op-ed about it, called “The High Cost of Freedom of Speech.”

Your classic album, “Like a Thief in the Night,” was released in May last year. Pls. explain the process of creating that project, and your motivation during production?

Well, the project artistically went in a new direction for me, because I was inspired to blend poetry and instrumentals on it. On the album, I was craving poetry songs, and so the format was different from my earlier projects. It was also different because it was my first album to have a major distribution, which opened me up to an international audience. It was more so different, because this was the first time that I had featured multiple guests and producers on my album. I consider poetry a solo enterprise -- where one writes the poems and recites the poems. So, cooperating with other artists brought something out of me that I couldn’t bring out on my own. In that sense, Like a Thief in the Night was very influential to me as an artist. I chose that title, because I believe the purpose of life is to stay awake; and if we could stay awake to witness our honor, beauty and miracles, it would inspire us with the power to achieve whatever we were designed to achieve. But, if we fall asleep to depression or a victim-mentality, we won’t be effective; so our spirit has to be awake to witness God.

I want to move on to politics and then back to music in a second. As an outspoken Muslim, what is your assessment of the rise of Islamic consciousness -- following Senator Obama’s announcement of his presidential-run, and how do you gauge the Obama campaign’s response towards it?

Well, the question of Obama for me is two-sided – as I have to look at it from a Black Man’s perspective and a Muslim’s perspective. It is hard for me to put a finger on it, because he represents a symbol of hope, and appeals more as a person than as a politician; but, with the two incidents involving the Muslim Women wearing Hijabs, and Rep. Keith Ellison, it is a definite blow. It is unfortunate that Barack Obama has a problem with the Muslim community – which overwhelmingly loves and supports him. Also, his defense to the controversy surrounding him being an alleged Muslim, insinuates something fundamentally wrong with being Muslim. He treats it as though it’s an insult, and being a Muslim is problematic. So, I want to observe how he navigates this moment, and see if he lives up to the expectations; also, I’m aware that the pressure of the presidential office sort of bends candidates against their will.

Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to select certain songs from Like a Thief in the Night and have you deconstruct the science behind them. On “They don’t know,” you speak of our past – comprising of victories and losses – having an impact on our present state; can you explain that dynamic, and how we can draw both correction and inspiration from our history?

Well, generally for anything, the past always impacts the present, and the present is a product of the past. So that, in one way, for Black people in America, we have this idea that our home is Africa, and in other way, we say our home is in America; and I think both of those things are true. We are an indigenous people, and we had a pre-Columbus presence here. We are as indigenous as the Bush and Cheney family – and probably even more so. So, with that, one half wants to leave this land, and the other half says, ‘This is my house -- which my grandmothers and grandfathers built.’ Now, with that comes a certain responsibility and mental-determination to fix the problems we are experiencing, and “They don’t know” explains that reality. So, I want us to think for a moment, on topics such as, the history of crack, and if indeed it originated from some random person in L.A playing around with baking soda and cocaine; and, I want us to think beyond the present to find the answers from the past.

“How beautiful” was a soul-stirring ballad, where you lamented the degenerating self-esteem of Black Women; please elaborate on that?

It is a well-known fact that our women are treated most poorly than any other demographic in America – which is a shame on us. So, out of that shame, I wrote the poem expressing the beauty of Black Women -- in hope that they recognize it.

On the closing theme, “Killers,” you presented a different context to homicide within our community -- nevertheless pointing out the ramifications of such atrocities; can you break down the line of “Most killers don’t want to kill,” and “most of the dead don’t want to die?”

Well, “Killers” was one of my favorite songs when creating the album. But, if you can imagine in your mind, a young man killing another young man - with the realization that the killer doesn’t really want to commit the murder, and the victim certainly not wanting to die - you start asking certain questions like, “why is this happening?” Most of the time, both parties more than likely don’t want to be involved in that situation; so they become “Gladiators” -- even without the will-power to act in such manner. And I was pondering with that idea, that thousands of homicidal victims have been killed, without the desire for it -- which is a very peculiar and strange circumstance.

Lastly, on “I love you” – an emotional tribute to black heritage – you wanted to stress the importance of caring and selflessness. As a messenger of love – with the understanding that most black people are suffering severely from self hatred – how can love heal the wounds that have scarred our community, and what are effectual means of injecting that ‘serum’ back into our communities?

Yes; this question is ‘the question’ – as love is the cure of all ailments. All the cooperation that goes on between elements of the universe is a manifestation of love. Without love, there is no life, and if you find hatred, you find death. Hatred cannot generate life, and you cannot live simultaneously with hatred in your heart. Every time you hate, something in you has to die. So, love and selflessness necessitates surrendering one’s ego. Ego feeds off hate, and has the need to defend itself. Our level of love therefore has to transcend our ego. If our love transcends our ego, we will remain infinite, but if our love fails to transcend our ego, our life will only be as big as an ego – and an ego is only an illusion, in and of itself – which would make us meaningless; and only when we achieve selflessness, can we expect the Kingdom of God on Earth.

On the subject of your ministry through music, Abi Odun from “The Last Poets” joined you on the track, “We Are the Revolution.” Do you consider your musical-style more in tune with the legacy of the last poets?

Very much; they are my fathers – without a doubt, and they invite me into their house, to counsel me and advise me. I consider myself in their tradition, and find my music in line with them. I also want to be an inspiration to the up-and-coming generation of poets -- so “The Last Poets” are very essential to my music.

Finally, what are your upcoming projects and ventures?

Well, one of my projects is the Cornerstone Folklore tour – which is a very important venture for me. We did the tour in Atlanta and Sweden, and we’re looking to perform in Africa very soon. I try to present new artists and showcase new talents with the tour. Also, I’m working on my next project, which is called “The Meccan Opening.” I’m almost done with it, and it is expected to be released early next year or later this year.

Thanks for the time, Bro Amir.

This interview was conducted by Tolu Olorunda, Staff Writer for


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