On Friday, May 1, the UCSB MultiCultural Center (MCC) hosted a live spoken word performance by poet and educator Kahlil Almustafa, also known as “The People’s Poet,” as part of its “Evening of Spoken Word” series in honor of International Workers’ Day.
With a virtual audience of over 75 people behind their computer screens, before any introduction Almustafa began the event by reading a poem on the struggles of African Americans. Lines like, “We dying up in these walls, what is it we fighting for, stop trying to sell us these American dreams, we don’t want them, we just want to be free” were spoken like blunt truths on raw wounds.
Performing some poems from his first collection “Growing Up Hip Hop,” Almustafa spoke about living in the “ghetto” of Queens, New York. It was during these times in Queens that he saw injustice happening around every street corner — college graduates raising high school dropouts, disenfranchised drug users in parks named after civil rights heroes, and mothers dying of AIDS. It was because of these injustices that Almustafa was driven to “pick up the pen and write.”
Because the organizers muted the audience on Zoom in order to allow Almustafa to speak clearly, there was no real clapping or snapping or cheering or empathic “That’s right!” or “Pop off!” — just divided boxes with faces or black screens of audience members positioned next to each other.
The chat on the side of the Zoom display blasted with words of encouragement and “clap” and “thumbs-up” responses, prompting Almustafa to charismatically make a joke in the awkward silence: “Oh, this is awesome! I’m just pretending you are all applauding wildly.”
“These moments when we get together are very sacred. It is in those spaces that I learned the most about the world, and how to respect people, how to respect other perspectives,” he said.
His words prove that any congregation — no matter the circumstances — can continue to appreciate and breathe the art of spoken word.
One poem in particular shattered my doubts of the effectiveness of spoken word in a virtual setting. “Do Something” was written in response to the phenomenon of disappearing bees being labeled “colony collapse disorder.” For Almustafa, it was ridiculous to name the disorder to suggest fault on the bees when bee endangerment is caused by what humans are doing to the planet.
“Nothing wrong with the bees,” Almustafa began. He then took on the persona of an anti-union capitalist to discuss ways to stop the bees from disappearing.
“Dock their pay for strike days, let them know they can be easily replaced by ants any day for half the pay,” Almustafa said. “Make fake flowers out of plastic, now with real flower smells and sell them for a profit, let, let, let the flowers die …”
I personally found that this poem profoundly resonated with the current situation, even though it was written before 2007. It was incredibly important that on International Workers’ Day, the poet spoke about how capitalism continues to completely ignore the busy worker bees who are dying from society’s carelessness and greed.
When Almustafa said our country needed to take responsibility for what we’re doing because “bees are the midwife of the earth,” I couldn’t help but connect the symbol of the bee with the essential workers who are currently on the front lines of this pandemic, whether they be a doctor or grocery store worker.
Almustafa’s down-to-earth voice speaks force and for the oppressed, the struggling, the vulnerable, and the voiceless. He in particular spoke about the kids he worked with in juvenile detention centers during his art workshops. Most of the kids he met came from areas where “when you commit a crime, you became a victim too. A victim of the crime of neglect,” he said.
With recent news releases that prisons everywhere are being hit the hardest by COVID-19, Almustafa spoke up for the children locked up in juvenile detention centers, dying alone in cold cells away from their families, sometimes for something they never did. He ended the event with a strong, unforgettable tremor in his voice, “How could the answer to all this be incarceration?”