R. Tell us about your journey as a spoken word artist and winner of Yale’s Spoken Word competition.
N. I was a very young poet, penning my first poem at the age of 8. As a teenager, I used poetry and hip hop as therapeutic methods to release bottled-up emotions. For example, I had to deal with my family moving to a new state and my parents having had a divorce. Poetry has always been a great coping technique for me.
I had been performing spoken word poetry as a hobby for many years before taking it on professionally, in 2012.
A great friend of mine invited me to the infamous Morning Brunch, which was where the legendary Last Poets member, Abiodun Oyewele, would invite poets over and serve his homemade brunch to them. Those same poets would perform for Abiodun in his living room. I gladly accepted the invite to witness this in-person (but had no intention of performing, deciding to leave that to the “real” poets). I sat in the back the whole time until my friend unexpectedly stood up in the front introducing me as the next poet.
I was embarrassed, but with the elder Abiodun staring at me, I had no choice but to perform. After my spoken word piece, Abiodun leaned in, stared at me intensely and said, “You my dear, are deception.” Like whaaaat! Did I just get insulted by one of the originators of Spoken Word?! He added, “You deceived me, you came in here all quiet like Mother Theresa, then got on the stage and was a total beast! I didn’t expect that!” He then went on to ask me if I have work out? An album? A book? Was I performing anywhere? He said, “You need to be doing this!” So blown away by that moment, I booked a studio and two days later, recorded my first spoken word album for release. From that moment forward, I was a professional spoken word artist.
By 2018, I had been performing poetry nationally at universities, festivals and opening for musical acts. I even performed for political leaders. I also became a teaching artist, teaching poetry to youth in schools, as well as youth detention centers. Another amazing legend poet/musician(plays over 15 instruments), Ngoma Hill, was the host for the Yale MLK slam. You must be invited to slam. I don’t slam, I’ve never enjoyed participating in spoken word as a competition. I also battled with extreme stage fright in the past, so the idea of a public competition of my poetry made me nauseous. But there was an elder saying “You can compete with the top poets in the tri-state, I’m inviting you to do it”. That was one of the most nerve-racking moments of my life. An intense three rounds competing with 15 seasoned men and women who wanted that champion spot, and there I was, with a goal to not get knocked out in the first round. I not only made it through three rounds, but I became the 2018 Zanette Lewis Environmental and Social Justice MLK Slam Champion at Yale. I didn’t realize, until afterwards, that this was a big deal! Other poets got the word and my phone was going off all night with congratulatory texts and calls. I also received a $1K prize! I didn’t know there was a cash prize! This feeling of accomplishment, and making my mentors proud is one I’ll never forget. The “deceptive” poet from Brooklyn, overcame her own fears to become the first Muslimah hijabi to win this slam.
R. Do you write your poetry first or do you freestyle? What kind of topics do you speak about?
N. I mainly write my poetry. I get inspired or come up with a line and jot it down. Sometimes, the whole piece is written right in that moment, or sometimes, the lines stay in my notes to be re-read again later, then later it becomes a whole poem.
I am known for my social justice poetry. I write a lot about the injustices I see in my community, so I speak out against these injustices (poverty, police brutality, racism, bullying, war, islamophobia). I also write a lot about love (although I rarely share these pieces.) To me, love is as revolutionary as seeking justice. It is the ultimate answer. I have gotten to a point now that I believe the world needs more love poetry, so I plan to finally release some soon, إِنْ شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ.
R. Who or what inspires you and why?
N. Life inspires me! I literally pull inspiration from everything, it’s all here to teach me a lesson. If I had to choose a person that currently inspires me, it would be one of my best friends and business partners. I love being around other creatives, the art they produce, their perspectives, their tastes; there is always something to be inspired by when a creative is in my space.
R. Any advice for aspiring spoken word artists?
N. Learn your craft, study your craft, honor your craft. Don’t be a lazy poet. You need to put in time and effort to improve your writing, be familiar with poetry devices, spend hours memorizing your piece and delivery. Your favorite poet writes A LOT. Your favorite poet has a high standard of excellence for this art form, you should too.
R. Can you tell us about your current projects/endeavors?
N. I am the Project Manager for a literary nonprofit organization, Green Earth Poets Cafe. As a teaching artist, I teach youth in schools and detention centers Hip Hop, Poetry and Creative Writing. Currently, I have had the pleasure of teaching my Poetry/Creative Writing class to Senior Citizens ages 65-83 yrs old. This has been such a challenging, yet fulfilling experience. Most of my students have never written before. An additional obstacle was teaching this semester virtually to Seniors that aren’t tech-savvy. I am so very proud of my students who successfully completed my course and all became published authors. I curated their anthology “Golden Poetic Moments: An Anthology From Golden Age Writers,” which included their poetry, narratives, and short stories. With Seniors Sheltering-In-Place during this pandemic, poetry and writing class became great therapy, while allowing them to have much needed social interaction four hours a week. I will also be working on releasing my own book within the next year, God Willing.
R. How can we follow your journey?
N. @najmah53 on all social media platforms,