[News] Mute Man Talking: Poetry Under Surveillance

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 6 08:37:39 EDT 2006



Amir Sulaiman of Uprising Records and Good Stuff 
Entertainment speaks frankly about the new witch 
hunt and being under federal surveillance as a 
Spoken Word artist, African American male and a Muslim.

“I consider America my country. This is beyond 
the sentiments of patriotism or pride. It is a 
matter of fact. My people have deep roots and a 
long history in this land. They have invested 
their blood in the soil of the South, in the 
factories of the North and the frontiers of the 
West. Upon the backs of my fore parents, this 
nation was built. My family’s history in this 
country precedes the White house, the Pentagon 
even the Constitution. America is my country.” – 
Amir Sulaiman, 
High cost of Freedom of Speech”

Cleverly hidden beneath the cloak of Civil 
Liberties, is the reality that thousands of 
citizens face: such a thing no longer exists. 
Vengeful lawmakers and politicians have hijacked 
the right we once called Freedom of Speech, 
replacing it with an agenda other than the 
public’s best interest. In a post 9/11 world, 
scores of innocent people have come forward 
retelling experiences of detainment, 
interrogation, “secret” hearings, and downright 
harassment. The most horrid of all, of course, is 
the imprisonment of hundreds of multiracial 
people in the Navy’s Guantanamo base, most of 
which are reported to be completely innocent but 
still without effective legal representation five 
years later. Amnesty International has labeled 
this as one of the greatest human rights scandals 
at the hands of the US government. Yet, by the 
same token, the world prior to 9/11 held similar 
injustices in the clandestine efforts of programs 
like COINTELPRO whose sole purpose was to 
infiltrate and dismantle what we have now come to 
know as the grassroots movement.

According to the ACLU, the government hastily 
implemented an expanded version of this country’s 
laws regarding surveillance of citizens. Both Hip 
Hop and Spoken word artists have a reputation for 
conveying the truth and in doing so, influencing 
the very disposition of their listeners. Although 
the truths of the world we live in after the 
tragic events of September 11th may have slipped 
under the emotional and political radar of most, 
some artists found creative ways to relate their 
outlook.  One such creative spokesman is Amir 
Sulaiman, whose appearance on Def Poetry in 
February 2004 both shocked and motivated his 
audience. Russell Simmons stood in awe of this 
fiery young speaker, commanding the attention of 
not only those on the set, but more importantly, 
the multitudes of poetry-goers watching HBO’s 
airwaves. Following the premiere of that episode, 
Amir Sulaiman and his family encountered frequent 
and intrusive visits from the FBI, inquiring about his “anti-American poetry.”

It didn’t stop there.

Amir sought legal counsel, but was still harassed 
with incessant phone calls, issued an invasive 
grand jury subpoena, and put on a government list 
that works in conjunction with airlines 
disallowing him to fly anywhere. In spite of all 
the harassment, Amir Sulaiman still cooperated by 
returning phone calls but to no avail – the 
federal agents didn’t give him the same deference.

“In a new world, wrought nearly insane with 
paranoia, I, simply by being Muslim, have become 
a threat. In an old world, still stuck in the 
muck of racism, I, as a young Black man, am still 
a threat. This fear is further compounded by my 
refusal to remain silent in the face of such 
blatant hypocrisy, thievery, and tyranny.” – Amir Sulaiman

While, he is neither a suspect in any criminality 
nor convicted in any trial, Amir Sulaiman and 
others like him are still being strategically 
profiled and methodically harassed. This tactic 
of intimidation may, in fact, worry, if not 
outright scare many, but not so with Amir, who 
fathers three and leads flocks of spoken word 
enthusiasts and Muslim youth. His poetic 
statements make those of Jadakiss, Kanye and even 
the Dixie Chicks sound like juvenile mumblings. 
Perhaps it is his rhythmic references to the 
military occupation of Iraq, the Israeli 
Apartheid in Palestine, White Supremacy in 
America or his plainspoken support of political 
prisoners like Imam Jamil al Amin (formerly H. 
Rap Brown). Amir’s album 
Man Walking (2004) took on a much more risqué 
tone in comparison to his first recorded CD, 
Cornerstore Folklore. And now in the year 2006, 
we look forward to the forthcoming release of his 
newest collection, Like a thief in the Night, 
where he was joined with Mos Def, Dead Prez, The 
Last Poets and the phenomenal songstress Goapele.

Without doubt, it is the likes of Amir’s 
influence that challenges blind patriotism and 
naïve obedience to the system and what he calls 
“The Beast.” For decades now, this same system 
has effectively suppressed the voice of dissent, 
particularly in urban communities, home to 
disaffected individuals and political 
displacement. What Amir symbolizes is a 
modern-day personification of the Civil Rights 
era, a figure born to our generation but 
fostering the sentiments of our elders; 
sentiments that are fervently imparted in his 
workshops, a service he offers to any organization interested.

“So what are they going to do with a man with a 
heart like Turner, a mind like Douglas, a mouth 
like Malcolm and a voice like Kris? That’s why I 
am not dangerous, I am danger. I am not angry, I 
am anger.” – Danger, Dead Man Walking (2004)

One thing is certain: the silencing of Amir 
Sulaiman will take a lot more than handcuffs and 
steel bars. It will take all the fascism they can muster.

Q:  Who are your main influences, including those 
beyond the profession of poetry?

A: Some of my influences are from the Black Arts 
Movement of the Sixties and Seventies. People 
like Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez certainly 
influenced my craft. However, Hip Hop lyricism 
was more influential than these poets, as I 
learned of the poets of the BAM long after I had 
begun writing when I was a boy. Even more than 
Hip Hop the language of the Qur’an, even in 
translation, colored my speech and gave me the 
high concepts with plain language.

Q: So, with that said, do you feel that it is the 
poet or musician’s obligation to provide critical 
analysis of our society to his or her listeners?

A: I believe it is the musician’s obligation to 
be sincere. That is all. If he/she is sincerely 
about justice then he must speak on it. If he is 
not sincerely about justice I’d rather him not 
pretend. Rumi didn’t speak much about social 
injustice but his very personal poetry in turn 
inspired a socially invested artist such as 
myself. Everyone has a role. We don’t have time for pretending.

Q: Who have you had the blessed opportunity to work with?

A: I have been blessed to work with some 
phenomenal artists; some known and some unknown. 
Of the known, The Last Poets, Mos Def, Talib 
Kweli, K’Naan, Chuck Treese many of the poets 
from Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry cast. 
Masha’Allah, (by the will of God) I’ve been blessed.

Q: Can Spoken Word and Hip Hop affect social change?

A: Spoken word and Hip Hop will bring about the 
change when the artist in the genres becomes more 
sincerely invested in the cause of the people. If 
this happens – a sincere unwavering investment – 
then the change will be irresistible.

Q: Your poetry has transcended inner city limits 
and become a voice for oppressed people globally. 
Is this what you mean by “Bearing the Cross”?

A: Yes, my investment is in this Ummah (global 
Muslim community) and in the cause of the human 
being everywhere. That is what my work is for. I 
feel honored and privileged because to bear the 
cross is not much different than carrying the flag.

Q: Why do you think intelligence agencies have 
historically and still do target and harass certain artists?

A: Because we can cause change and they know in 
their hearts that my power far exceeds their 
power. Although all I have is a mic and they have 
a billion dollar intelligence budget with planes, 
choppers, guns, computers. And the artist just 
talks or sings or writes. I can imagine it’s frustrating for them.

Q: How did 9/11 and its legislative aftermath change this?

A: Mostly, it just gave a legal front to a 
behavior that has been going on for years. This 
broad blanket surveillance is not new, now its just legal.

Q: By your own definition what are civil 
liberties, what is free speech and how have these been perverted by the state?

A: I do not invest much time in learning the law. 
There are good people who do and I take advice 
from them. As far as I am concerned my right to 
speak has been given to me by Allah (God). So it 
would be a means of dishonoring myself to go to 
the agents of this government and ask them for a 
right that has already been given. My right to 
speak cannot be taken away, it can only be 
surrendered. I am not in the business of surrendering.

Q: What was your experience like with being under 
surveillance and what sort of emotional toll, if 
any, has that taken on you and your family?

A: My family and I believe in Allah. Our work is 
in line with the commandments of Allah. After 
this, fear is foolish. The power that I pull from 
and the power that they, FBI, CIA, whomever and 
wherever they pull thier power from are 
incomparable. The threat that they place in me 
and the threat of God upon them is incomparable. 
Perhaps we should interview them about the 
emotional toll. Here is my question: As you know 
there is an angel on your right shoulder and an 
angel on your left shoulder, you have been under 
24 hour surveillance your whole life. Do you fear 
Allah? Do you fear being counted among the 
tyrants and oppressors? What is the emotional 
toll of being part of an organization that 
harasses and kills those who speak the Truth? I, 
Amir Sulaiman, am not afraid. They have a greater right to fear than I.

Q: What are your thoughts on The Dixie Chicks’ 
and Kanye West’s political statements?

A: As I am sure they would agree it was their 
responsibility. Although they are not Muslim and 
probably never heard the Hadith (prophetical 
saying); they saw an evil act and wanted to 
change it with their hands, since they couldn’t 
they condemned it with their tongues, and hated 
it in their hearts. And as we know, that is the 
weakest level of faith. Using wisdom is always 
better than not using it. Wisdom is honey that 
sweetens whatever you mix with it.

Q: How do non-Muslim fans react to your conviction with regards to Islam?

A: They respect it. Sometimes we, the Muslims, 
play down our Islam thinking that the non-Muslims 
will like us more or respect us more. It is the 
opposite. The way of Muhammad (peace be upon him 
and his family) garners respect wherever I go.

Q: On the album Cornerstore Folklore you revealed 
a great deal of empathy for women and the 
struggles that we face. Where is that compassion 
coming from, given its rarity in our society and 
especially in the Hip Hop generation?

A: My mama. She is the one most responsible for 
my Deen (way of life), my conviction, my life. 
Secondly, I find Muhammad (peace be upon him and 
his family) especially sensitive to the needs of 
women and I like to be on his Sunnah (example).


Q: Are you concerned that Spoken Word is on the 
verge of becoming commercialized just as “Rap” music has?

A: It will. I don’t doubt that. But that does not 
mean there will be no room for sincere artists. 
“The Truth has come and falsehood has vanished 
and falsehood by its nature is a vanishing thing.”

Q: Having grown up in the Hip Hop generation, how 
would you characterize the changes we’ve seen in our Art?

A: The people’s hearts have become harder and 
more disease ridden and it shows in the art we 
create. We have a lot of work to do.

Q: Coming from the perspective of a writer and an 
educator, how do you feel about the illiteracy 
rates in the Ummah (global Muslim community) and 
more importantly about the virtual illiteracy in 
the urban communities across our country? How 
might we encourage the youth to become more 
literate and well read with hopes that they find empowerment and liberation?

A: Subhan’Allah (Glory belongs to God), I wish I 
had an answer to this problem. I don’t know where 
to start. The school systems are so toxic and 
backwards it is hard to find a starting point. My 
best option is [like] the saying “each one teach 
one.” Tutor, start small schools, home school. Do 
whatever you can to educate our children. Wa Allahu Alim (And God knows best).

Yahsmin Mayaan Binti BoBo, a community activist 
of 9 years, writes freelance articles about 
culture, music, politics and spirituality while 
living in Oakland, California. Currently, she is 
an undergraduate studying for a degree in 
Political Science & International Relations. 
<mailto:Yahsmin78 at yahoo.com>Yahsmin78 at yahoo.com.

The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
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