Speaking Straight From the Soul
By Rahla Khan, The Saudi Gazette
INTERVIEW‘I think of myself as a storyteller,’ says Boonaa Mohammed, on being asked to define his genre of art.
An award-winning writer published by Penguin books Canada, a performer who has to his credit playwright residency at the Theatre Passe Muraille, Canada’s oldest alternative theatre, and slam poetry titles including winning the 2007 CBC Poetry Face-Off “Best New Artist” award, Boonaa is being called the “voice of his generation” – all of this at age 23.
Being somewhat skeptical of the hype surrounding new artists these days – especially those in the fledgling Muslim modern arts – I took all of these accolades with a pinch of salt and decided to look in myself. To say the least: I was pleasantly surprised.
For one, Boonaa’s work defies definition – it’s a rare vocal art, handed down through generations of performers dealing with their audience on a one-on-one basis, sans music or any accompaniments other than the human voice. Neither wholly rap nor poetry, it sounds like the unadulterated sound of the soul talking, straight from the heart, on the many issues faced by Muslims today.
A radio and television broadcasting major, Boonaa believes his story-telling skills go back to the African storytellers that are a part of his heritage. His family is from Oromia, a strife-ridden ethnic area within Ethiopia. His name – which most people mistake for a stage name – means “proud.” “Not like pride or arrogance, but like proud of who you are,” he clarified in an earlier interview.
Pride – not the puffed up arrogance of Jahiliyah based on culture, lineage or race – but the strength that one derives from knowing Islam and following it is the theme of one of his best-received works ‘Pumpkin Seeds’. In ‘Beautiful’ he talks about the pressure to beautify oneself externally, often at the cost of inner beauty, including allusions to the beauty industry and Hijab-wearing women.
Besides writing, performing and conducting workshops and seminars with the youth, Boonaa conducts spoken word workshops with children especially with inner city children who have trouble expressing themselves. “As Muslims we are supposed to enjoin good and forbid evil; by doing acts of good in this world, you are respecting the authority of Allah and it becomes an act of good. And for me, I come with a mindset of helping these kids to speak up against evil,” he has said.
In an online Q and A session, Boonaa talks about a typical day in his life, his views on Muslim youngsters taking up the performing arts and doing away with racial discrimination.
Q: You’re studying, writing and performing… all this at age 23. How do you manage to do so much?
Boonaa Mohammed: Alhamdulillah, I try my best, but it is a lot of work and the traveling has a large impact on my social life. School is almost done for me, so I’m able to focus more on my career, but still I try to stay busy, because you only have so much time to work for the Akhira (Hereafter).
Q: Is there anything you’d like to share about a typical day in your life, such as habits that help you manage your time?
Boonaa Mohammed: I spend a lot of time at the Masjid, and with the Salat times in Canada so close to one another most of my day is spent just traveling back and forth. Aside from that my days are pretty typical aside from the fact that I spend a couple of hours responding to e-mails.
Q: What/Who are you inspired by? How did you get started in this genre?
Boonaa Mohammed: I’m inspired by the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who was the best of examples in every single aspect and taught us how we should be as in every single aspect of our lives. I started off doing more hip hop in high school but slowly started becoming more interested in performance poetry and eventually made the transition.
Q: Would you encourage youngsters to get into the performing arts?
Boonaa Mohammed: I think it would be better if people focused on what is Wajib (obligatory) upon them first. This doesn’t mean that poetry isn’t a beautiful Halal (permissible) means of expression, but it just means that you shouldn’t spend so much time on it that it distracts you from more important aspects in your life. No matter what you write, it will never compare to what Allah has revealed in the Qur’an, so study and learn that first.
Q: You’re being called the ‘voice of your generation’, what are your future plans?
Boonaa Mohammed: Getting married and being the voice of a family.
Q: Do you have a background in Islamic knowledge? I’ve noticed allusions to the Qur’an and Ahadith in your work that indicate you have studied both.
Boonaa Mohammed: I am mostly self-taught. I read a lot and am exposed to tons of lectures and Islamic-based classes around the city, Alhamdulillah.
Q: I was listening to ‘Pumpkin Seeds’ and was very moved by the words. Have you undergone/known people who experience racial discrimination often? Is there something you’d like to tell people – Muslims and non-Muslims both – with regard to this?
Boonaa Mohammed: Yes, I have experienced racism from both Muslims and non-Muslims and I would simply like to refer people back to the sayings of Muhammad (peace be upon him): “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, or of a white man over a black man, or of a black man over a white man, except through piety.” (Al-Tirmidhi, no. 3270 and Ahmad, 5/411, authentic)
As well was what Allah revealed to us: “O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Qur’an, 49:13)
If this doesn’t sum up our thoughts and feelings on the subject, I don’t know what will! May Allah guide us all. Ameen. – SG