Ismael Musoke is a South London-based spoken word performer of Ugandan descent. He has recently launched his debut poetry anthology, “The Lost Essays” which is available on Amazon. Aisha-Asher from the Black Muslim Times UK sits down with Ismael to discuss the motivations behind his poetry/spoken word, the importance of having spaces where young Muslims are able to artistically express themselves, and his plans for the near future.
I saw Ismael perform for the first time at the SB.TV Summer Poetry Jam earlier this August at the Jazz Café in Camden. Like most Spoken Word events, poets from all walks of life jumped at the opportunity to get on stage during the “Open Mic” session to share some of their deepest and most personal thoughts, expressed through the lyricism and wit of poetry. One such poet was Ismael Musoke. At the time, my friends and I were deep in conversation with another poet and spoken word performer, Tommy “A-man” Evans, about the need for young Muslims to create their own cultural spaces where they are able to artistically and creatively express themselves.
There is a growing community of young, (Black) Muslims – myself included – who are passionate about literature, poetry and art, and for that reason feel compelled to continue an oral and written tradition that is so deeply ingrained both within African (and diasporic) cultures, and Islamic teachings: “Recite, and your Lord is the most generous/Who taught by the pen/Taught Man what he knew not” (Al-‘Alaq, 96:3-5).
Young Muslims, however, often find that these spaces go against some of their fundamental Islamic values – alcohol is being served, smoking is allowed, profanities are being used – leaving these poetry-passionate individuals feeling like there is no where for them to identify and belong.
I was grateful, nonetheless, to have been able to connect with Ismael, and when I helped to organise an event in Brixton called “Diaspora and the Return”, I reached out to Ismael and had him front lined as one of our spoken word performers. It was here that I got to learn more about Ismael, and his plans to create a platform specifically for Muslim spoken word artists in the UK.
As-Salaam Alaikum Ismael. Thank you for joining us at TBMT-UK! Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, your background, and when you first started to write and perform?
Wa-Alaikum Salaam. I find it difficult to explain who I am, as I am constantly evolving; the Ismael I was yesterday and today are two different people. But in a nutshell, I’m Ismael, 20 years old, and I write poems. Notice I didn’t say I’m a poet because I feel poetry is a lot more complex than words on a page. It’s freedom of expression in motion. All I do is tell my story and hopefully my journey sparks something in your mind. I started writing at the age of 12, purely for fun and games. Back then it was all about rhyming over grime beats. Looking back, starting young helped build the foundations for who I am today. I used to see other kids in the ends play instrumentals, and spit over them, and that’s what I wanted to do. It was when I was 14 that I fell in love with writing again. I was in a dormitory in boarding school back home in Uganda and I was going head to head with another kid (I won the rap battle) and the whole room went crazy. It was then that I realised the power of words. I was writing and performing rap/poetry from ages 14-18, but at the age of 19, in September 2015, I decided to take poetry seriously and haven’t looked back ever since.
If you could describe your poetry (and indeed yourself as a performer) in three words, what would they be and why?
True. Unapologetic. Spontaneous.
‘True’ because I aim to tell my truth through my poems. Everything I write has to be true to who I am and what I represent.
‘Unapologetic’ because I’m not here to apologise for being me. If me, being a young black Muslim man who believes in his abilities makes you uncomfortable, that’s your problem, not mine.
‘Spontaneous’ because I might write about plantain today, and police brutality tomorrow. I’m a believer in calculated spontaneity, which in essence means, following your gut instincts strategically.
Could you share with us a snippet from one of your poems, and maybe talk about some of the motivations and thoughts behind that particular piece. What compelled you at the time to write about that particular issue?
‘This might sound funny but if we really loved ourselves,
How would the bleaching companies make money?
How would the hair relaxing companies make money?
Like the melanin in your skin doesn’t illuminate excellence,
Like your black skin isn’t beautiful.’
This is an extract from my upcoming poetry book, ‘The Lost Essays’. I hardly explain what my poems mean because 9 out of 10 times I have no idea what they mean myself. But with this extract signifies the importance of black people loving the skin they’re in, which I feel is a radical stance in a society that capitalises off us hating ourselves.
How do Muslim and non-Muslim audiences respond to you and your poetry? Would you say that there is there a particular difference, and if so, what do those differences look like?
People gravitate to truth – Muslim or non-Muslim. If what I’m saying is authentic to who I am and what I stand for then people will respect it. They might agree or disagree, but they’ll definitely respect it. Don’t underestimate the audience, they can tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.
How important is your Muslim and Ugandan identity to you as both a person and a poet? Do you feel as though your poetry has helped to untangle some of the questions that these identities pose, or has your journey as a poet simply left you even more uncertain, and without answers, than before you started?
This is a complex question. Identity is something that has always underpinned my work. There are complexities of being black and Muslim (i.e. facing racism from fellow Muslims, and Islamophobic attitudes within the black community.) This is an experience that only black Muslims can relate to. I also see my identity as a unique one, nonetheless. People are always curious about my who I am and my experiences, so I discuss it in my poetry.
Why do you think it’s important for more young Muslim people to write and perform poetry?
I think it’s important for young people to tell their stories using whatever medium they want. For me, poetry is free expression in motion and that isn’t limited to writing poems on a page. There are many ways to express yourself freely such as photography, film, or even illustration and calligraphy.
Musoke giving a TEDTalk
What are some of your plans for the future with regards to creating a space or platform for young Muslim poets?
We’re currently building young muslim creatives as a platform for young muslims who want to express themselves. We want to grow YMC into a global brand, holding events that give young muslims an opportunity to grow as artists and creatives.
Thank you Ismael!
Ismael can be found on Facebook (Facebook.com/ismaelpoet), Instagram (@callmeish) and Twitter (@IsmaelMusoke).