Skin Deep meets Jamal Mehmood

Written by Skin Deep

23.08.17

A few months ago, we spoke to poet Jamal Mehmood about his newly released debut chapbook Little Boy Blue. The collection, the title of which is inspired by a Nina Simone song, is a combination of poems intended for the stage and ones intended for the page. Meditating on his childhood, coming of age and family life, Mehmood takes us through a journey of pain, self-discovery, and growth. Here is our interview with him about his past, current, and upcoming projects.

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Skin Deep: Whose poetry chapbook are you really excited about right now?

Jamal Mehmood: I’m really looking forward to Momtaza Mehri’s new chapbook. She is a London based poet whose work is coming out as part of an African poetry collection called Sugah. Lump. Prayer She’s definitely someone that’s going to go very far, and I’m fortunate enough to be sharing a stage with her in a couple of weeks.

SD: It’s always great to be able to share the stage with people whose work you respect, and it’s even better when you get to share your own work. Your own chapbook, which was recently published, has been described as an eclectic collection that deals with family, nostalgia, identity, and so much more. If you were to describe it in your own words, what would you say the collection is about?

JM: That’s a pretty good summation! I think there is a real danger, especially as a poet of colour, to fall into the trap of writing solely about identity. It would have been much easier for me to market the book as a response to the clichéd question: ‘What’s it like to be Muslim in the UK in the present moment?’ I would have gotten more sales. I also know that if the cover of the book had been of me holding the Union Jack in one hand and the Pakistani flag in the other, it would have reinforced the expectations that people have of the type of writing that poets of colour do.

I purposefully chose not to do that because I wanted the collection to stand on its own merit. There are poems that deal with identity, immigration, and culture, but if you look closely, you’ll find that they are not the majority of the book. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with writing about those themes; in fact, there is a whole genre called ‘diaspora poetry’ dedicated to that type of writing.

Red T-Shirt, baseball jacket, car © Mahtab Hussain - You Get Me_

SD: You do borrow certain elements from diasporic poetry, for instance, one can’t help but notice that nostalgia is something that features quite heavily in your work. Why do you always circle back to nostalgia, and is there anything that you find particularly appealing about it as a literary sensibility?

JM: People have often asked me, ‘Why are you always thinking about the past?’ The truth is that I’ve always sort of found nostalgia to be quite instructive. It’s less about trying to recreate the past and more about rediscovering things that are still worth thinking about or aiming for. For example, remembering or thinking about a time when I was closer to my family and spending more time with them and wanting to recreate that now isn’t necessarily nostalgic as much as it is aspirational. I don’t think that is romanticising the past, but it is recognising that that was a really good thing that is missing now. So let’s try to get there again. I don’t think I’ve fallen into sentimentality – I hope I haven’t.

SD: Over the course of the last year, there have been a number of works produced by South Asian British writers, artists, and photographers that meditate on what it means to be South Asian and British in the contemporary moment: Mahtab Hussain’s series You Get Me? and Riz Ahmed’s mixtape Englistan. What do you make of these works and how do you think they add to or complicate the narrative of immigration and multiculturalism in Britain?

JM: I met and interviewed Mahtab Hussain and was drawn to his work because it centres on a segment of the South Asian community that you never get to see beyond a thirty-second news clip or a documentary piece about Islamophobia. No one treats that community as worthy of being the subject(s) of fine art. Young, Asian Muslims from inner city London, Birmingham and Nottingham – those kinds of voices tend not to engage with the ‘art world’. Mahtab spoke about how difficult it was to get some of these guys to sit for him, but once they did, the conversations were incredible.

Mahtab is of Kashmiri origin if I’m not mistaken, and he told me that when he was in the gyms trying to shoot some of these guys, they would ask him, ‘What are you doing bruv? Who brings a DSLR to the gym?’ Eventually, when they got to talking about where Mahtab was from and they found out that he is from Kotli, which is an area near Azad Kashmir, they started laughing. They said things like, ‘My man is going on like he’s from Lahore!’ The way they saw it, art was not something Kashmiris did. Like, that’s for the Lahore kids.

What’s more is that the faces and places in those photographs reminded me of places I had been to and people that I had spoken to. I am really grateful that Mahtab took nine years out of his life to put this work together because it’s so powerful.

Riz’s mixtape had some really good production on it and the track Benaz was really powerful and unexpected. He’s someone who’s been able to complicate and represent what it means to come from, and to be able to reconcile, two different cultures. I’m happy that he’s being recognised for his work more now. He’s definitely put in the work.

Eyebrow tracks, white vest and baseball cap © Mahtab Hussain - You Get Me_

SD: You write about community, particularly within the framework of the ‘Muslim ummah’. Yet your chosen ambassadors are neither politicians nor religious scholars; rather, you have a great affinity for Muslim rappers like the Narcycist and Yasiin Bey. Could you speak a little bit about what their works mean to you?

JM: When people tell you their hip-hop origin story most of them will start with something like, “My big brother gave me my first Biggie album” or “My friend saw me listening to Slipknot and gave me a Wu-Tang Clan album to listen to instead.” But I don’t have any stories like that. I came to hip-hop straight up through the internet (throw up the rock to LimeWire). I had to find the music myself!

At that time, the Muslim connection wasn’t important for me. I’d been listening to hip-hop for a while and it isn’t something that I was looking for within the genre. I first came across Yasiin Bey through the Black Star album and then found more of his work through scrolling through YouTube videos. It wasn’t until I heard Mos Def’s song Travellin Man in which he says, ‘Insha’Allah I’m coming back to you’, that I was like ‘Woahhh, he just said insha’Allah on a song, like, you can do that man?!’ It was the language I use at home! And, aside from that, the quality of the music was great. It went beyond the novelty of someone being Muslim and relating in that regard.

SD: Both Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) and Narcy are politically conscious rappers, which is something that unites the two artists, beyond their being Muslim. There’s that track by A Tribe Called Red called R.E.D, featuring Yasiin Bey, Narcy, and Black Bear, where they’re wearing niqabs and driving through security checkpoints. It’s a political choice that they are making to produce music that always makes you think.

JM: It’s not a dogmatic kind of hip hop. They both really care about their message, whether it’s in their music videos or in their interviews. Do you remember when Yasiin Bey underwent force-feeding to bring attention to what prisoners in Guantanamo were going through? He could have made a PSA or written a song about it, but he actually went through it himself. I respect that.

I first came across Narcy’s stuff through his Hamdulillah song. After that, I went through the rabbit hole of his mixtapes, went and saw him perform in London twice and actually got to meet him after one of his shows. Aside from his use of violins, which just hits you, he has managed to craft this new international identity that isn’t defined by borders.

Shemagh, beard and bling © Mahtab Hussain - You Get Me_

SD: We’re going to shift gears a little bit and ask you about the work that you do when you’re not writing poetry. You’ve spent the past five years working for a charity that deals with refugees called Restless Beings, which aims to provide a ‘voice [for] the voiceless’. In a lot of ways, being a writer and poet is the ultimate expression of ‘voicelessness’. Of course, there are a lot of problems with assuming that ‘refugees are voiceless’; perhaps we’re just not listening. But it is worth asking: what is the place of art and artistic expression in your advocacy work, and are there ways in which you think art has been used effectively to promote the voices of refugees?

JM: I’ve always separated my work with Restless Beings from my poetry. When the organisation was started in 2008, no one knew who the Rohingya were and no one was talking about Ala Kachuu kidnappings in Kyrgyzstan. These communities weren’t on the radar of the Amnesties or the Oxfams of the world, so this idea of ‘voicelessness’ was a reaction to these communities being overlooked.

I do think that whenever there is a crisis, there is always an attempt by artists to respond – some are more effective than others. When M.I.A released her song Borders (which Narcy did a great remix of) she received a whole lot of backlash for using refugees in the video as part of the background, which I understand. At the same time, we never want to discourage people from talking about the refugee crisis.

I’m not saying every artist should be making work about this crisis or that crisis, but if there is no one responding to what’s happening then that’s really worrying. You can’t just sing love songs all the time and you can’t just have protest songs all the time. I think artists have a certain social responsibility. Someone like Nina Simone is a great example of how one can use their platform as an artist at a specific historical juncture to shed light on issues that are very timely, like she did during the Civil Rights era.

SD: It’s funny that you use the example of Nina Simone because your book is actually titled after a song of hers.

JM: She’s really a special artist. There’s something about her and her sound that I can’t put my finger on. She’s something else. I wrote a lot of my work while listening to her music, but none of those pieces made it into the book. So I felt like I had to somehow pay homage to her. Her first album was called Little Girl Blue and I decided to flip that and make it Little Boy Blue as a nod to her.

SD: Finally, is there anything you’d like to give a shout-out to? We know you’re working on a documentary…

JM: This is a Skin Deep exclusive, I haven’t told the world about this in any shape or form… I’ve recently convinced my grandfather to be part of a documentary project that looks at the migration stories of South Asian grandfathers.

There’s currently a lot of work being done around decoloniality and immigration, but these kinds of academic terms mean very little to my grandparents’ generation. I want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, to know more about what it was actually like to make the journey. What was the journey? I want them to speak about the feelings they were going through in a language that is theirs. They might not know the terms that are currently in vogue and used to make sense of decolonisation or care about the think pieces we’re all retweeting, but they’ve actually lived it and have a lot to say that would inform our activism, art, and sense of self. I’ve always found it incredibly humbling to speak to my grandparents about their lives. Many people my age don’t do it enough.

SD:  When can we expect the documentary?

JM: I want to start filming this year and will be interviewing my grandfather after Ramadan (in late June). In order to get him to agree to it, I had to reassure him that immigration wasn’t gonna come knocking on the door if he told me the whole story. I understood what he meant though. I would imagine other grandparents might have similar concerns. He appreciated why I wanted to make the film, though.

SD: How can people contribute to or support your project, or maybe even send their grandfathers your way?

I haven’t yet decided whether I’ll be crowdfunding it. Regarding sending grandfathers my way, that would be really useful. Folks can get in touch with me via twitter (@_jamalbhai) or through my website (www.jamalbhai.com). I’d love to talk to more people and gather more stories.

Portraits courtesy of Mahtab Hussain