“I believe in art for social change,” reads the Twitter bio of Aaliyah Kara – a fierce, unapologetic and bold poet whose words have the power to both heal and comfort, disrupt and provoke.
The poet’s passion for writing and social justice has led her to pursue spoken word, a medium she uses as a platform to both express herself and to engage her audience with pertinent social issues. Her poetry in itself is revolutionary. It forces listeners to question the status quo and to interrogate their prejudices, and it motivates individuals to take action, be involved and initiate change.
We chat to Aaliyah to learn more about her spoken word journey and what influences her to create the type of work that she does.
Although it’s slowly gaining momentum, spoken word poetry isn’t something that many people in South Africa are exposed to. How did you first get into spoken word poetry? Is there anyone who’s inspired your path?
I’d like to disagree with the fact that spoken word poetry in SA is something that not many are exposed too. Every day, I open some other social media platform, and there’s a new young artist on the block, or a YouTube video that has gone viral or a Facebook status that has been shared by hundreds of different people. Smartphones have definitely narrowed the gap between artists and their audiences and I love that. It means that you don’t need to whip out cash to watch poets perform and gain access to spoken word. That said though, I don’t think much support is given to artists. They are generally underpaid and there aren’t enough spaces for them to develop their skills. I started out my journey performing at rallies and events centred around particular social justice issues. This took great networking and a considerable amount of guts. I then hopped around to random poetry gigs and was very much inspired by the poets I met at the Sandton Poetry Show. Rafeef Ziadah, Saul Williams, Lebo Mashile, Thando Buthelezi and Saaleha Bhamjee are some of my heroes.
You’ve been referred to as the ‘Muslim Eminem’. Are you able to draw parallels between the work that you create and that of Eminem’s?
Wow! I had no idea this title of “Muslim Eminem” had reached this far. It’s hilarious actually – someone reacted to one of my performances in a tweet one day saying “Aaliyah be the Muslim Eminem. Well Done tho”. I hadn’t actually noticed it until my best friend did and shared it with everyone. At that point, I had no idea who Eminem was and what he was about. I am trapped in the Dark Ages when it comes to popular culture. Ask me anything about literature but don’t ask me to complete the lyrics of the song. I did listen to some of Eminem after that and my reaction was, “This guy is so depressed”. I was so impressed with his rhyme and rhythm though. He really is a great artist but we hardly have much in common.
In one of your poems, ‘If I Should Have a Daughter’, you refer to female Muslim warriors such as Nusayba, Khadija, Khawla, A’isha and Fatima. How does Islam and it’s rich history influence you?
A lot of who I am today has been spurred by my faith. In High School, I was determined to understand all aspects of Islam and took it upon myself to acquaint myself with the meaning of the Quran, the landmarks of Islamic history and most importantly, the road towards social justice. I was also very disturbed with the way in which Muslim women were viewed and treated within my own community and how it was at odds with the women mentioned in the Quran. Nusayba was a female warrior, Khadija was a successful businesswoman and Khawlaa was the woman who fearlessly questioned her faith. The women of Islamic history inspired the beginnings of my feminism. They existed within an age of intense patriarchy, yet they challenged the odds and exist as flag bearers of the religion. For a teenage girl, battling with orthodoxy in her community, this was immensely inspiring.
How do you use poetry to challenge the misconceptions around what it means to be a Muslim woman?
I am actually so tired of this question and people policing what Muslim women should and shouldn’t be. Some want them to be oppressed, some want them to be obedient housewives and some want them to featured in Playboy magazines. I don’t like to see myself as a representative of Muslim women at all – as someone who is breaking down barriers for them and changing the meaning of what it means to be a Muslim woman. I represent myself and my own story. That’s all. I can only hope that somehow I can inspire more women to share their own stories. No one’s story holds more value than another and I wouldn’t want anyone to exist in the shadow of how I choose to define myself. We just need more artists from everywhere to bring along every interesting story they have of themselves.
Your poem on climate change titled ‘Until You Let Her Go’ was something different to your other spoken word poetry which is largely influenced by Islam, women’s rights and politics, however it managed to be the poem that has gotten you the most publicity. What have you learnt from your decision to do something different?
That poem taught me the value of saying “yes” to any writing opportunity that presents itself. Prior to that piece, the most I understood about climate change were the articles I had read about the declining bee population. A friend of mine who alerted me to the Spoken World for the World Competition was very passionate about climate change and taught me so much. I realised how it was actually not far from the subject matter I was used to – climate change has adverse effects on women in developing countries. Saying “yes” and trying really hard to produce a good piece, earned me funding for my first spoken word video. It couldn’t have been more rewarding.
A line in your poem ‘Miss Representation’ is: “I won’t dance to the drums of your patriarchy.” To what extent have the challenges you face as a woman in South Africa shaped your work and it’s purpose?
On the one hand, being a South African woman means that you constantly live in fear of becoming part of that dreadful statistic, “The 1 in 3”. People do not take cases of rape seriously. In the Muslim community it is one of those taboo topics and a great amount of victim blaming goes around. Much of my work came out of angry venting sessions about the condition of women in this country and in my immediate circles. Performing has always been therapeutic for me, in that way. Recently though, I can’t handle how heavy and real my work is and I am finding it difficult to perform the pieces that swell with anger. In particular, my piece, “The Man With the Green Blanket”, that I wrote on the anniversary of the Marikana massacre two years ago, makes me feel defeated by hopelessness. Nothing has changed since then and I fear nothing will change. It’s incredibly difficult to envision a just society that everyday seems less possible. But we must beat on because, in the words of Arundhati Roy, “another world is possible and on a quiet day I can hear her breathing”.
Your spoken word poetry tends to inspire your listeners to ask questions and take action. Do you think that if you performed a piece that wasn’t focused on addressing social justice issues you would be betraying your true aims and purpose as a poet?
I hold a firm belief that art can be used for social change but recently have begun to question the notion that art should always be speckled with activism. In the wake of the call for the Decolonisation of Everything that young student activists are calling for, I wonder how we will understand literature if we are only exposed to a Literature of Activism. Recently, I cannot bear the seriousness of my poetry and have started writing about things I would have previously called trivial. Honestly, I think they are some of my most beautiful pieces. I think all art holds value regardless of whether it has relevant political commentary. Does decolonisation mean we toss out George Orwell when he prophesized, in much of his writing, the state we find ourselves in now? We need art that’s a little bit more light-hearted to create alternative realities. More than anything, we need creativity and focusing so much on activism makes us lose the magnificent stylized playfullness of our literary predecessors. If poetry is going to heal it needs to get less angry. I could be wrong, but this is the space I am in now and it has done wonders to the quality of my writing.
What are your hopes for the future of your spoken word career?
I have no plans. I never did. I have no idea where I am going. Everyday I try and write a little something and make it better than the day before. I have realised my own insignificance. I am in no way extraordinary. I just love reading. I love writing and nothing makes me happier than having a platform where I can perform.
Find more by Aaliyah on YouTube.