Read our dozens of interviews with creative entrepreneurs and artists from around the globe - about their exciting, fun, sometimes arduous, and even challenging processes - creating work that impact their communities.
When I met poet and teacher, Safia Elhillo, I immediately thought: here is a woman who looks like my niece but embodies the wisdom of my old, serene, wise grandma. How the hell is she only 23 years old? Safia has occupied more zip codes in her years on the planet - from Egypt to Switzerland - than some do during a lifetime and conveys a level of maturity, humor and intelligence far beyond her years. Despite claims of having an "immigrant girl complex" due to her pick-up-and-leave upbringing, Safia seems to know exactly where she belongs and has shared the stage with iconic artists from ?uestlove and Black Thought of The Roots to the late Gil Scott-Heron and poet Sonia Sanchez. She's also published a book of poetry via Well & Oftenentitled "The Life and Times of Suzie Knuckles" which she describes in part, as 'a girl-meets-boy story with a colorful supporting cast of deceased rappers and complete strangers.'
I met the lovely and supremely talented Safia to chat about the similarities between Cairo and New York, teaching poetry to kids who don't claim English as their first language, and the bullshit role of the suffering artist.
Tell us a bit about where you’re from and when you began developing a love for poetry.
Where I’m from is the most complicated question. My family is from Sudan and that’s my go to - is that I say I’m from Sudan - but I haven’t actually been there for more than 6 months at a time. I have this immigrant girl complex where I don’t know where I belong, I’m in limbo. When I’m in America, I’m Sudanese. When I’m in Sudan, I’m American. I am trying to exist in that hyphen, Sudanese-American.
My dad worked for the UN with refugees so they would put him in a conflict zone and send my family to whatever country was nearby and safe. So while my parents were together we were kinda chasing [him] around the world. I was born in Maryland and lived in Tanzania, Egypt, England and Switzerland. When I moved to NYC for school, I just stayed.
What made you stay in New York?
I’ve actually been trying to figure that out because I’m not sure if it’s because New York is the only place I’ve ever really lived as an adult. I knew I wanted to go to NYU because of this program they have where you can design your own major. And actually, New York and Cairo have this kind of energy - it’s really charged and it’s what I respond to. I’m quiet and kind of a hermit so if I’m in a quiet place there’s no balance. I don’t feel like I have any external energy to feed off of. New York gives me the energy to get up and get my life. I like that it challenges me to find my own balance, it’s not a peaceful city. You have to make your own peace.
I did an oral history project my senior year where I interviewed a bunch of people from various Diasporas about home and what it means to live in a Diaspora. My mom’s interview was really great. She was saying, ‘I made home’ and I like that idea, that you’re in control of where you feel most at peace and you get to make that for yourself, wherever you choose. I like that New York is loud and chaotic because it shows that I am able to carry home inside of myself and make that peace in myself even in a place like this.
You have such a rich upbringing that I’m sure informs so much of who you are as a writer. Do you only write poetry?
I wrote a lot of papers in school and strangely enjoyed it. Generally, I’m very afraid of prose. I don’t trust myself with it.
What do you mean when you say you don’t trust yourself?
You have to say what you mean in prose and I don’t know how to do that. In poetry you get the luxury of the smoke screen where you can say what you want to say to the best of your ability and it’s up to the people reading it to interpret it. People tend to think we’re [poets] a lot deeper than we are. I loved reading as a kid and I knew I couldn’t speak English but I could read it. When I first got here I had a really thick accent. My introduction to English was through literature so I’m much more comfortable writing than I am talking. When you write you get to write it exactly how you want to before someone else gets to see it. That’s my favorite thing about poetry, the smoke screen.
My grandpa was a poet – he writes poetry in Arabic. He didn’t pursue it as a profession but even to this day, in the middle of a conversation, he’ll just break out into verse. My aunt also writes poetry and she studied playwrighting. She was kind of the artist role model in the family and the first person I saw who actually made a career out of it. Everyone in my family is artistically inclined but tends to go the sensible route. My aunt did really well and it was nice to see that my family always celebrated her work. That made me feel it would be ok for me to go down that route if that’s what I chose to do.
Do you view sensibility and art making as separate things?
I think so. I’m kind of spoiled because this is what I do for my job and it’s also what I do for fun. I’m getting my MFA in poetry and I teach high school students. For some reason, that doesn’t make sense in my head. I grew up thinking that the job wasn’t the fun thing. So I think I’m still holding my breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Art is considered to be this outlet where you go to decompress after a hard day. I have this phrase: ‘if my outlet is my job then what is my outlet?’ If I start to write because it’s what I have to do then how honest is my writing?
Talk to us about teaching. What is that experience like for you being a poet and artist and working with the students?
I teach at two high schools and one is an international high school. One of the high schools is a high school for new immigrant and refugee youth who have been in the US for four years or less. And they are all new English speakers. I love the language and the syntax that comes out of translation-ese English. I think that’s what inspired me to start writing. The way my mom and grandma would say something when they thought it in Arabic first and then translate it would come out sounding like a poem. I get a lot of that in my classroom. The kids will write an expository statement and it will come out sounding like a poem because their sense of syntax – there is a little bit of distance because they don’t know this sentence is supposed to be structured like this. It gives them freedom. One of my students said the other day ‘tired eyes show there is war inside of you’ and we weren’t even talking about poetry. She just said that as a statement. They’re awesome.
I was on the NYU slam team [competitive spoken word poetry] for four years and before that I was on the DC team and then I coached for a year after that. It was probably one of the most humbling things I’ve done because it taught me not to push my aesthetic on people. My job is not to teach a bunch of kids to write how I write or to like the poems that I write. It’s really about getting to know someone so you know their strengths and how to bring that out. It’s not about me, at all. That’s hard to come to terms with in the beginning and it was great for my own writing too. Whenever you’re around other writers who are doing different work from you it introduces new points of views and new ideas that help you as an artist.
Is there a specific routine you have for your own creative process?
I tend to do most of my writing late at night. I keep a little notebook with phrases and words I overhear that I like. So because I have this phrase bank always available, when I sit down I don’t feel like I’m expected to write a poem from scratch. If I still feel stuck, I’ll read a poem by someone I love or just a piece of writing. I’ll refer to one of my books and re-read a passage and it’s get me re-excited about language.
Sometimes when I’m really lucky, I won’t need to go through the notebook. There will already be something there. The book is mostly for the days where I don’t feel I have something ready and I need to go back. It’s like a cheat sheet.
There seems to be this ease to the way you work. What do you think about the notion that artists need to be suffering to produce art. Is that a necessary part of the process?
That’s what worries me. The official title to my major as an undergrad was ‘Poetry as a Tool for Therapy.’ I was worried that I was kinda being a hypocrite about it. It got to the point where I didn’t know how to write if I was in a good place, at all. Writing became something I did when I was sad. But when I’m happy, I’m too busy being happy. It’s not so much like that anymore. I think of it as a discipline and as a craft. I am branching out and doing more research-based poems where I don’t always have to write about how unhappy I am in my relationship or whatever.
You mentioned you were on a slam team. Was that present with the poets? The idea that it was important to channel your pain into compelling poetry?
I think there’s this culture in slam where you get rewarded for being the most wounded. That was worrisome to me. It was my responsibility to be wounded and I wouldn’t get better until I had documented it and gotten something out of the experience. I was capitalizing off of my own fucked-up life which is not healthy and not conducive to healing. I feel like I had to take a step back and be like, I’m not going to pimp my own sadness. Now that I have removed myself from that competitive environment, I don’t feel the need to exploit my own sadness. If I’m feeling bad my first thought is not ‘oh, I should totally write about this.’ Now I just let myself be present and go through it. It actually makes it easier to get through. I don’t feel the need to wallow in this place until I get a product out of it.
How does that play into romantic relationships?
I feel like I don’t write about love when I am in a relationship. When I am in a relationship and it’s good then I’m too busy being in a good relationship to write about it. It’s only when things aren’t good that I feel like I need to use this outlet. Ideally, when I’m in a healthy and happy relationship then I communicate freely with my significant other. When I’m not as happy, I’m not as inclined to express myself and then that builds up and I begin writing. I’m in a very happy relationship so I haven’t been writing many love poems because I don’t want to be the asshole bragging about my great relationship. No one cares. [Laughs]
That also sounds self-fulfilling. If I believe I need to be in a dark place to create good work then subconsciously, I might want to get to that place to produce that work.
Exactly. I studied trauma a lot so I felt like I was being this big hypocrite. The whole idea to heal from trauma is to finally be able to express what you’ve been going through so you can kind of leave it behind and keep it moving. I felt like I was re-triggering myself over and over so I could get back to that place. That was the only place I felt like I could make good work out of. The good news is that it’s not true. The poem doesn’t have to be about something sad or horrible or traumatic. Subconsciously, I thought the poem had to be dramatically bad to be worthy of poetry, which is kinda bullshit.
So now I’m in a pretty happy place in my life and no one wants to hear a poem about how I’m gong to yoga consistently [laughs] but it’s pushing me to look outside of myself for material. I’ve been dong a series of poems on this old Egyptian love singer. I’m doing a Frida Kahlo series – that kind of thing. I can't get behind this idea of talent. I think it's a springboard at most, and means nothing without work and practice. I am more likely to be compelled by someone who practiced enough to reach a certain point than I am by someone whose talent automatically puts them at that point. Basically, work ethic over talent, every time! There is so much interesting stuff out there and I can be ok and also be writing. It’s less of a self-involved process, which is cool.
Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s like there’s this collective narrative for artists/creatives that implies you must be miserable to produce great work.
In any kind of art there is this myth of the tortured genius and that is who you need to be to create compelling work. I used to mentor this girl who wrote this line I never forgot, ‘honest poets are never happy people.’ And I really believed that for a while but I don’t think it has to be like that. I think it’s more reflective of your creative ability if you’re able to produce good work that isn’t braggy when you’re in a happy place. It doesn’t have to be a happy poem. I don’t need to write about the great banana bread I made. I understand that - but there is a whole world out there I’m allowed to write about. I don’t only have to write about the deepest darkest corners of my soul. I’ve done that already.
American artists have often found a particularly welcoming audience throughout Europe. From early Jazz performers in the first half of the 20th century to independent Hip Hop artists in the 1990's, it's often the case that non-charting musicians support their craft on the international circuit. While Hip Hop artist Akua Naruis adamant that Cologne, Germany is just a base for her meandering travels and an incessant tour schedule, there's no doubt she has benefited from that musical base.
In 2011 Naru released her debut album, The Journey Aflame, on German-based Jakarta recordsand followed up with a live-band interpretation of many of its songs the next year with Live & Aflame Sessions. Currently working on her next project, which will feature a special guest in the form of famed drummer Bernard Purdie, Akua took some time to speak with Project Inkblot about her perspective as a writer, a recent confrontation on the road and Hip Hop's global relevance.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is your being an American artist based in Europe, can you talk about how that lends itself to a different perspective or set of opportunities?
Of course it’s a bit different here, there are a lot of opportunities for artists to tour in Europe, I would say on a much larger scale. People here are willing to support artists that are not signed to major record labels, they just gotta like the music, you know? And I think that this is the reason why a lot of artists in the states [that] might have had a record out ten or fifteen years ago know that they can come to Europe and do really well just performing in different cities country to country. And in many ways it’s been great just travelling city to city and performing. I mean in terms of where I’m based, I don’t know if it really matters, I like Cologne a lot but I travel a lot. So it’s just that, it’s a base and because I’m here I’m able to be in other places [as well].
This may be a loaded question, but going to a place like Zimbabwe or going to Amman, what’s it like going to these places where a lot of Hip Hop artists don’t end up touring?
I mean, each place is different. It’s really great, it really continues to bring to my attention how amazing Hip Hop is. Like, I’ve been places where I’ve seen people where you would think there was no point of connection, they might be older or younger or they look totally different or they speak a different language, but they could rap the same song that I love, whatever song it is. Breakers, poppers, lockers, graffiti artists. I was in India a few months ago and I was teaching some Hip Hop workshops and I also gave a few performances, and just to see, you know, just to work with these women on writing their own rhymes and telling their stories. To see how they came into the workshop and the kind of performances they delivered as we were leaving this workshop, it’s just amazing.
Who would have thought that Hip Hop would have become so global? When Erykah Badu said it’s bigger than the government, in many ways she’s right. It’s really great, it’s powerful, it’s amazing to see how this culture has given voice to so many people, and to be able to connect with these people in their space, in their world and to be able to share my gift, it’s a dream-come-true for me. And it’s one that I don’t take lightly. It’s the grace of God, there is no way to describe how it feels. And also I think to represent the women in Hip Hop it makes it even more powerful.
I think it’s kind of a tired topic at this point to think about the lack of female emcee’s and maybe that’s because that’s a conversation that needs to emphasize the exposure of female emcees rather than the lack of them.
You’re right, it’s not about the lack of women but about the kinds of exposure that women Hip Hop artists are given, that’s really a good point.
I read that you and your band were recently confronted by a group of people in Romania, can you explain what happened?
It was in Hungary. Well actually the show was in a city called Cluj in Romania and it was awesome, we sold the place out, I think the maximum capacity was a thousand and they let in an extra 350 people, a lot of them had come a distance to come to the concert. I was really honored, it’s a great feeling to be an artist and to know that people are listening and will go to that extent to see you live. Like what else could you [ask for] as an artist? So I was already on a high from that and we were on our way back and, like I mentioned, we had stopped in Hungary in a rest area and I didn’t realize that we were being confronted by Nazi’s. I mean, these were people that seemed to be aggressive and they were chanting something that I didn’t understand. But I had just thought that they were celebrating a soccer match because you know people over here go crazy over soccer, so I just didn’t think twice about it although when we rolled up the way that they looked at me was kind of strange but my head was somewhere else, I wasn’t thinking about it.
And then as the situation started to unfold—you know I’m from the States, I remember growing up and seeing the Ku Klux Klan assembling outside of a supermarket, but I didn’t grow up where we were familiar with the whole Nazi language, of course they have the same premise that skinheads and the Klan [do], I mean, you know they operate from the same foundation. Some of the gestures [and] some of the language they use to hurt and to threaten and to imitate, it was foreign to me, I didn’t know that that’s what they were doing, I didn’t get it until a few minutes later when the people who I was with had made me aware of what they were trying to do and then it was really clear because they started to come to stand outside of the glass and started staring through the window. It was very clear then of course what their problem was and they wanted to aggress some of the people I was with.
And it was just—you know as much as I would like to say it didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t be telling the truth and it’s important for me to be honest. Normally I wouldn’t post anything personal online but I thought about it for a few days and thought 'no, let me share this experience that happened to me' because a lot of people are in denial of very explicit and obvious situations like that so of course they’re going to be in denial of racist incidents that are a bit more subtle. Yeah, I was really hurt by that. It’s obvious that we can’t go anywhere that we want to go. And as the situation escalated I wondered if the police would have supported us and to what extent with the story that I’m telling. So I’m grateful that we were able to get out of there without it turning into something more.
I think it speaks to the fact that the work that you and other musicians and academics do is still incredibly important.
Absolutely, whether or not this situation happened or not, you know what I mean? There are definitely instances that happen everyday, some not as extreme as that one, that reveal to us that we have a lot more work to do and that make me grateful to know that there are people in the world—there are musicians and some scholars—who are trying to make changes, that are trying to forge social justice in institutional change and it’s definitely necessary, it’s urgent and it’s important. I wasn’t really shocked unfortunately. We don’t live in a world where we’ve accomplished as much as we would like to think we have, we got a lot of work to do. So I wasn’t really surprised, I was hurt by it to be honest, but I know that there are a lot of fascist movements and there are a lot of people who don’t want progress.
Is that something that motivates your writing?
To be honest, I’m just writing. Of course I’m a Black woman, me being a woman and me being a Black woman has a lot to do with my identity and how I see the world and that comes across in my writing and in my message, my perspective and my ways of thinking [about] and being in the world, absolutely. I don’t know if I’m positioning myself, I’m not sure—I would have to think about it—I’m just writing what’s important to me and addressing issues that are important to me first.
And I guess that in me understanding that these issues are important to me they’re important for me to communicate for myself for other people who identify as I [do] might relate, and people who don’t might relate as well. That’s the beauty of creating art, it reminds us that we’re human, you know? And that we see ourselves in other people’s work. To your question, I’d have to think about how I’m framing myself, I don’t know if I’ve yet built a frame, you know. When I sit down and say iI want to write this,' I’m just interested in writing and communicating something first, I’m not meta-analyzing in the moment that I’m creating.
Hearing you talk about it and in your music it’s obvious that you really love writing.
Absolutely. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. If you let my mother tell you she’d tell you, I don’t know how I learned to read, I’ve always had just a natural love for reading, writing and literature. For as far back as I can recall, having memories, recalling events, they always involve me writing, reciting, recollecting, you know, and just putting it down. I’ve been doing it my entire life and I hope that I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life because it’s something that brings me great joy.
Well leading from there, you’re working on some new material. I guess you were working with Bernard Purdie in the studio, that’s crazy. So can you talk a little about what you’re working on and then just having the opportunity to work with people like Bernard Purdie or Angelique Kidjo or ?uestlove?
To answer that question, it’s very short, it’s a great, great honor. To me as a poet, as a writer, sometimes it’s difficult for me when I have to accept that I don’t have the words to describe something, it hurts, but I don’t have the words to describe that. All I can settle for is to say that it’s an honor and I’m really grateful, I thank God. It’s an honor to be able to create and work with people that are legendary, amazing artists, it’s a great honor.
To answer your question about Purdie, I’m working on my new album and he is a special guest and I’m very happy about that. So that’s what that’s about basically. It’s awesome.
I think some people will see Bernard Purdie and get excited immediately and others may not know him but will be able to appreciate the work that he’ll provide.
And I think that the people that don’t know him, they’re not conscious of it but they do know him, they’ve heard him, you know what I mean? If you listen to “O.P.P.” [by] Naughty By Nature or I could write a list of tracks where his beats, his drums were sampled, if you listen to Hip Hop music, you have heard him. So maybe they’re not conscious of knowing him but they do know. He’s a legend.
Your last album was really centered around the live music and interpolating some of those tracks for a live band, I would guess that the new album is going to feature the band as well?
I can’t tell you too much Jay [laughs]. Well I’ll just say for myself as a writer that you can be sure that the narrative is still going to be progressive, political, honest. Musically, it’s going to be Hip Hop of course. There are going to be some live elements as well, I’ll just say that. It’s definitely not going to be that when you listen to the album you’re going to think 'what?' You know, it’s kind of just like the next logical step. But definitely there will be some live influences on the album.
Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, I know you’re busy and in a different time-zone, so obviously we’ll be looking forward to the new album, whatever approach you’re taking with it.
Thank you for listening, it really is a great honor to know that people are listening because when I sit down and write I’m not thinking about the people, not to sound selfish, but when I sit down and write I think first about myself and being honest and true to the story that I need to expel and it’s about me first. And to know that when I’m being my most honest I could connect to people and that this could be a story of truth for other people, that’s a great honor. Just to know that people are listening, paying attention and following, that’s the highest compliment for an artist and I really appreciate you for that.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Originally from Western Massachusetts, Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. In addition to Project Inkblot, Jay also writes for HipHopDX, OkayAfrica, and the print publication, Applause Africa. A graduate of Temple University’s Philosophy and African-American Studies departments, Jay focuses on Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Latin records and the stories behind their creation. Questions or comments about this interview? Hit Jay up via Twitter.