by Nadia S. Mohammad 4/20/10 – 1:08 PM
Using his words as dawah, Boonaa Mohammed, is a driven poet with unique name and a clear message. A gifted story-teller, twenty-two year old Mohammed entertains as he teaches and has been dubbed the, “voice of a generation.” His work was most recently published in the anthology, Pieces to Pieces: Stories About Fitting into Canada, and he just released an album of poetry called Stranger to this World. A first generation Canadian, Mohammed talks about the discrimination he faced growing up, his fascination with television and film, and the need to unplug and find inner taqwa.
EM: How is your name pronounced and what does it mean? Do you have any nicknames?
BM: It’s pronounced Bo-naa. I also go by the mispronounced version of that name. A lot of people think it’s a stage name, but it’s not. It’s my government name. My family is from Oromia, Ethiopia. It is a fairly large ethnic area in Ethiopia. Its people were oppressed by the government. My parents were very involved with resistance movement. They fought to be recognized as a people. So once they had the chance to be free [in Canada] they named their son, me, Boonaa, meaning “proud.” Not like pride or arrogance, but like proud of who you are.
EM: What led you into the world of spoken word and slam poetry?
BM: I guess I’ve always kind of been a storyteller and interested in writing. When I was a bit younger I used to rap. I think for a lot of younger Muslims, when they put pen to paper they naturally go towards hip-hop. But I think with rapping it’s a medium that puts you in a very tight box. There’s only so much you can do. You’re writing to beat or a pattern, so your creativity is limited. And often with hip-hop you’re writing about nothing, just using a lot of words without saying anything. I think sometimes music takes away from what you want to say. It is an unnecessary ingredient that covers up your message. I see every poem as a monologue.
I come from a background of theatre and used to act when I was younger. Once I recited a piece I did with music. Then later I did it without music, and my teacher was like, “That’s cool. It’s spoken word.” I didn’t even know what spoken word was.
Either than that I’m not a huge fan of spoken word and I don’t go to any other shows unless I’m performing. It’s a form of expression to me, but I’m not a huge fan of the whole scene. When I used to compete in slam poetry contests I had an edge for that reason, because I didn’t know what everyone else was doing. I just did my own thing. I didn’t know what the standard was. I just did my own thing and was “fresh” that way.
EM: How does the creative process work for you – Where do you find inspiration? What moves you?
BM: I don’t really know the way it works. It’s quite confusing. I don’t get to decide. Usually the pieces just write themselves. When it hits me I just drop everything I’m doing, sit down and write it out. I may go back later to correct it grammatically. That’s about it. I don’t work on a piece for longer than a day or so.
I have been commissioned to write poems before, and I find that to be the hardest thing to do. I can’t just sit down and say here’s a poem on justice or love. It has to come from a real organic place or it doesn’t come at all.
EM: Who are you trying to reach with your words and when someone comes to your show what do you want them to walk away with?
BM: As a Muslim everything I do is Islamic in nature. I don’t see my poems as Islamic. But the ultimate goal for me is to please Allah, Subhanahu-wa-ta’ala. So Allah is my main audience. I try to make my work a form of dawah. I think a lot of that comes out. I always remember how my parents fought, how a lot of people have fought in history just for the right to be heard. So I always remember how valuable that voice is. I think about, what if I had the whole world in one room, what would I say? I think on a grand scale. The best speeches are about Allah and it helps people remember their purpose. So I try to make my work something that is meaningful and will speak on behalf of how I feel.
In a way poetry is selfish by nature, because it is based on feelings. It’s just how I feel. But the Prophet (PBUH) said, “If you see something wrong with the world try to fix it with your hands, if you can’t do that try with your tongue, or if you can’t do that with your heart. So I try to use my tongue.
EM: You are incredibly passionate in your storytelling, are there any other storytellers in your family? Any stories you remember being told as you were growing up?
BM: I’ll tell you a weird story that doesn’t really answer that question. When I put out my first album, I found out that my dad was a putting out a book of poems at the same time. Odd thing was that I had no idea my dad was a poet. My dad had no idea I was into poetry. Did I get it from him? I don’t know. He never sat me on his lap and read poems to me. He wasn’t that type. He was the hard-working immigrant type, trying to provide for our family. So I never got to see my dad in a creative or artistic capacity.
I think my major influence, unfortunately, is television. The story-telling and characters I like to play comes from a fascination with TV growing up. I’m in school now as a fourth year at Ryerson University in Toronto, studying Radio and Television Broadcasting. My main goal is to eventually use my writing and take these short monologues and turn it into theatre, and then turn those plays into movies.
EM: What play are you working on?
BM: The play I’m working on now, Purple Dome Pride, is about two friends growing up in Toronto, one immigrant and one born an raised in Toronto with immigrant parents, and the sacrifices made. It’s based on the true story of myself and a friend of mine who died in 2007. Before he died he emailed me the screenplay and said that he wanted to create a movie of his life. It was kind of weird and egotistical in a way. But I actually gave it to a few people to read and they thought it was dope. So when he died, I was like damn, I have this screenplay and this idea. So that was the initial concept.
EM: You were recently featured in the anthology, “Pieces to Pieces: Stories about Fitting into Canada.” What was it like for you fitting into Canada?
BM: My parents moved to Canada right before I was born. The piece that I wrote in the book was called Under the Armpit of Noah. It was weird. The anthology has many stories of older writers in their forties or fifties. Most of their stories were recounting what it was like back in the day, like being a Jew after WWII. I was the youngest writer by far. My story was based on myself getting picked by the Jewish kids in my elementary school. I went to a random elementary school with lots of rich yahudi kids. I was their opposite. I was this poor, black Muslim kid. I was the ultimate target for them. It was the worst. But it was an interesting insight or twist on discrimination. The story is about a kid who is bullied until eventually he goes through such cruelty that he snaps one day.
EM: Have you seen any of those kids since?
EM: [haha] Yes. I see those kids now and it’s all love.
EM: What’s the Muslim arts scene in Canada like and how does it differ from the American scene?
BM: It’s pretty lame here. I’ll do conferences hardcore, Muslim talent shows, cultural groups, and so forth. But I get invites to travel across the world, and I don’t see anything as cool in Toronto. The scene here is underdeveloped. I feel like London is pretty much ahead of everyone. It’s the most fun I’ve had so far. I think with most of us here, because our communities are culturally embedded everything is still coming from a root perspective. It’s Pakistani or it’s Somali, etc. We don’t understand how to blend art and religion. As young people we can come together and be like hey, we do our art thing and we’re still Muslim. But our culture stops us. You know, every culture has their own weird dance or music, which is cool. But we have a new community, a new scene and it’s up for grabs.
As my daytime gig I teach high school kids. I do creative writing workshops.
EM: What are the some challenges facing Muslim youth in Canada and the US these days? What advice do you give them?
BM: I would tell them have taqwa. You have to have consciousness of Allah and know why we are in this world. How to achieve taqwa is not something I can help you with. The Prophet (PBUH) showed us hot to achieve taqwa. I try to show this in my poems. How to Be a Slave, for example, I make reference to this. Trying to remind people of what their ultimate goals are in life. I talk about how life is like a commercial break and you already forgot what you were watching. You know when you watch TV sometimes, and a commercial will come on and it distracts you so much that you forget the original show? That, in a sense, is this world. This world is a commercial break, and we get caught up in the commercial. You’ve got your popcorn. You’re about to dial the number for the weird infomercial. And you forgot the entire program. This is just a tiny glimpse, the duniya. If I can unplug people from that reality, I would.
I was watching The Matrix the other day, and I thought so many of us are plugged in. We get caught up and forget we are plugged into a matrix. The people who are unplugged and free, those are the ones who have taqwa and consciousness of Allah at all times.
EM: What’s the best way to get over stage jitters for a first time performer?
BM: Public speaking is like the world’s worst fear. It’s like public speaking and then drowning. People would rather die than speak in public. I think you have to remember the audience just wants to be entertained. They are not a hostile crowd. They are not an adversary trying to humiliate you. They are your friends and family.
I see my audience, sometimes, as a child that doesn’t want to hear a lecture. But you have to give it anyway, because it’s important they hear it. Usually, within seconds, if I’ve spoken effectively they’re laid back and smiling because they’re entertained. I want to serve Allah and want to help people remember him and their purpose in this world.
EM: Have you ever recited “Mr. Scardy Cat” to a girl? Has it worked?
BM: Wow. Every girl holds that poem against me. When I first wrote it I never meant it to be a big thing. So I never performed it in front of anybody. I only performed it twice and with context. Then people started looking at it from the Islamic perspective, trying to see if it meant something more. There are even some girls who still think, For the Love, is about a girl. [haha]
EM: What projects do you have in store for the summer?
BM: I just put out a CD, Stranger to this World. And I am working on developing the play. So in the summertime I am going to be doing some workshops and small readings and performances of the play itself. Eventually I want to take it on the road. I received a grant form the Canadian government, last year around June or July, to write this play. But because of school I haven’t had the chance to do it yet. So my focus this summer is to get that done and make it perfect.
EM: Can you give us an on-the-spot freestyle using the words – Elan, sunshine and taqwa.
BM: Taqwa is the key to eternal sunshine and Elan is the reporter on that matter. And… that was stupid. [haha] I hate that stuff. My expertise is not freestyle.