An Interview with Usaama Minhas
“I really wanna be good, man. That really matters to me. I’m really not comfortable with mediocrity.” It’s fair to say Usaama Minhas, the winner of the 2018 Hammer and Tongue National Slam, is far from mediocre.
His spoken word performances are vibrant, engrossing and unapologetic.
In one of his most powerful poems, See Something? Say Something, he commentates on the dangerous connotations of ubiquitous campaigns such as ‘see it, say it, sorted’ and ‘its probably nothing, but…’, from the perspective of a British Muslim.
“The whole point of the poem is to move beyond sloganism. To move beyond a tweet. If you really want to cultivate harmony, have dialogue. Dialogue takes time, effort and empathy. Slogans don’t.”
Usaama directly challenges the approach of the authorities, which he believes is alienating minorities rather than engaging them.
“See Something? Say Something is precisely about the phenomenon of counter terrorism. The state has its own approach, terms and parameters about counter terrorism. And it’s bringing those terms to the Muslim community and saying ‘engage in this conversation’. What we’re saying is – ‘we already have our own conversation, join ours’.
“We have to come to people who are oppressed and join their conversations, speak to them on their terms.”
Strategies such as Prevent, where faith leaders, teachers, doctors and others are asked to report suspicions about those they come in contact with, is something Usaama also tackles in the poem with his conviction that “a community of spies is not a community.”
“Relationships aren’t founded on love, they are founded on trust. This is how we build communities. If my teacher, doctor or neighbour is spying on me, how can I have that trust? It leads to people becoming inwards facing and ghettoised. I’m concerned with the effects this has on people in the community.”
Usaama puts the experiences and troubles of ethnic minorities directly before the listener. “You might experience three minutes of discomfort, but that’s our whole life. If I’m talking about my mother and her experience as a person of colour, to others that’s a political statement. To me, that’s my life.”
For Usaama, we all have a responsibility to acknowledge and harness the impossibility of disentangling politics from everyday life. “Your clothes are political. Your speech is political. Where you live is political. There’s nothing that isn’t influenced or impacted upon by politics.
“We’re conditioned to have some social prejudices. Being brought up in a racist system doesn’t make you blame-laden – participating in it makes you blame-laden.
“When I was 16, I started getting stopped at airports coming back to this country where I was born and brought up – red passport and all. Questioned, searched and everything. To the point where I was told I wasn’t going to be allowed to leave customs. And I was telling people in my school class about it and they just didn’t understand or relate. Since a young age, you’re made aware [that life is different as a person of colour].”
“I’ve only ever seen and processed through the lens of being a minority. So I’ve had to filter my behaviour because I understand my actions will affect the rest of the community and how they are viewed.”
The poet has received a lot of support since being crowned Hammer and Tongue National Champion. Usaama won by a single decimal point, which he draws attention to himself. This is why for him, the accolade of winning and opportunity to share his ideas all comes down to “now you have it, what do you do with it?”
It is now, through his poetry and the platforms it is providing, that Usaama is sharing his own experiences as an ethnic minority, and finding that so many others relate.
“Somebody from Iraq messaged me to say ‘I’m so happy there’s people like you speaking our stories’. I found out a video about me winning the Hammer and Tongue national slam had been posted on AJ+ (an online news and current events channel run by Al Jazeera Media Network) because some random kid had seen it and messaged me on Facebook to say it had inspired him. When you perform a piece like See Something? Say Something and you get a middle aged white lady saying ‘I’m so glad you’re saying this’, it’s very inspiring.
“You know like when you believe in love so hard and it actualises, and people love you back. It’s like – this is what matters.”
Usaama Minhas is a performance poet, rapper, and trained actor. He was raised in Lincolnshire and now lives in London. Usaama was crowned Hammer and Tongue National Champion at the Royal Albert Hall in January 2018, and was long-listed for the Out-Spoken Prize for Poetry in 2017 and 2018.
Usaama has been featured on BBC Asian Network, AJ+, and other media outlets. He has performed all over the United Kingdom, and started out his poetry life in New York at the prestigious Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the Pyramid Club.
His new mixtape, Forgot About Rap, will be released in April 2018.