Kahlil Almustafa Aims to Empower, Inspire Social Justice and Change

Gustavo Gonzalez/Staff Photographer

Monica Itxy Quintanilla

After a three-hour social justice-themed poetry workshop at the MultiCultural Center last Thursday, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Kahlil Almustafa, also known as the “People’s Poet,” to talk about his role as a poet, teacher, student and activist. As the afternoon sun reflected off of our cups of tea, Kahlil Almustafa began to retell his journey as a writer.

Growing up in Queens, New York, Almustafa began writing poetry as a means of understanding the world he inhabited. “When I think about it, in hindsight, I used to cut school to go write in the park, because none of the institutions that were forming and shaping [me] were talking about the things that I was thinking about or providing the space for me to question or discuss,” he said.

An author of four books, an educator, a mentor and the 2002 Nuyorican Grand Slam Champion, Almustafa teaches performance poetry workshops while simultaneously attending school and writing his own prose and essays.

At 15 years old, Almustafa began to explore and create his own poetry after reading Langston Hughes’ writing. As the institutions he frequented failed to provide answers to the questions he was asking, Almustafa gravitated toward poetry as an opportunity to express what he was witnessing.

“No one was talking about, for example, why there was a liquor store on every corner,” he said. “Not at school, not with my family, not at my church.” Almustafa explained feeling confused and alienated at what seemed to be unprecedented observations, “I’m thinking about why everyone is getting lotto tickets and why the funeral parlor keeps getting renovated … Writing, at least for myself, was an opportunity to say ‘I see this.’”

Performance poetry, also known as spoken word, soon became another expressive medium that Almustafa learned to partake in. Given the venue to speak and an eager audience willing to listen, Almustafa became fascinated by the idea of crafting something well enough into a 3-minute piece of performed text. Sharing, in his words, became a way of saying, “I’m not alone in seeing this.”

Originally, Almustafa’s poetry spoke about the reality of growing up as a young Black man in a neighborhood that was heterogeneously Black, “I say that my grandmother lived in the suburbs and I lived in the ghetto and we lived in the same house.” This very concept greatly influenced Almustafa’s early poetry as he described developing an identity as a spectator rather than a participant in his world.

“I feel like I’ve always had a poetic identity,” he said, “Partially because I grew up as the only boy with two girls, [that is,] my mom and grandma.”

Due to the gender dynamic in his household, in addition to observing his environment differently from his community, Almustafa became an observer rather an active participant, which consequently led him to embrace poetry as a means of creative expression.  

Five years after he started writing poetry, sometime between 1999 and 2001, Almustafa began to discover his voice as a writer and performer. It was in the post-9/11 environment that he became much more politicized and began to explore the area of social justice through poetry as he entered college.

Currently, Almustafa attends Loyola Marymount University where he is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership for Social Justice. Apart from being a student, Almustafa continues to work with youth, “I love being in communities where people are growing and people are talking about their truths and listening to other people’s truths.” It is his very work with the younger generation that most inspires Almustafa, because, to him, it is a part of building a movement toward meaningful lives.

Although Almustafa teaches frequent spoken word workshops, and last Thursday marked his very first social justice training poetry workshop. In just a short period of time, the participants were able to travel through a myriad of different perspectives and struggles through sharing and writing exercises. “It’s interesting,” Almustafa said, “because what is spoken word? Is it a social justice tool, or creative expression?”

The concept of performance poetry, to Almustafa, has shifted and evolved since he began performing. “I’m really into this idea of spoken word and I never called it that until I got into school,” he said. “I always called it performance poetry because I started off on the page and I was kind of righteous about the text.”

When he started to teach, however, Almustafa expressed his ability to view spoken word in a different light, one that appreciated the oral nature of the art. With the addition of yet another layer — social justice — spoken word creates a reality from written text, Almustafa explained, rendering the text indispensable as it does not exist without being spoken.

In an educational setting, spoken word functions as a moment in which a text cannot be altered or misinterpreted. In this manner, social justice issues may speak louder as they are represented and expressed through an individual who resonates strongly with their text. Through this tool, Almustafa aims to inspire and be inspired: “You can study social justice, but spoken word is an opportunity to embody social justice.”