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Saida Dahir’s Spoken-Word Debut Is A Powerful Love Letter To Black Muslim Women

Saida Dahir has never gone back to Somalia, her native country, which sits on the east side of Africa. But she knows exactly why it is endearingly called the “Nation of Poets.”

“A lot of people in Somalia write poetry about the war and about trauma and everything,” she enthusiastically says over the phone about the country’s centuries-long tradition with the spoken-word format. “Poetry is this thing that has been in my family since as long as time.” 

18-year-old Dahir originally emigrated from Somalia with her family when she was three and claimed refugee status in Salt Lake City, but her country’s tradition lives on in her work: Dahir penned her first-ever poem at just seven years old.

As she grew older, Dahir found herself at a crossroads with her culture as a black Muslim. “I was out of the norm for every single person,” Dahir says. Microaggressions and adversity due to her religion and race caused her to feel different.”I went through so much self-hate and so much doubt and wanted to assimilate to the surroundings.”

But things changed in the seventh grade when she decided to start wearing a hijab, a traditional head covering worn by Muslim women. “I could either hate the otherness that I had or embrace it,” she says of her decision. “I wanted to make sure that the representation that I had, that the future generations of the girls that do put the hijab on aren’t scared, aren’t worried, aren’t sad, aren’t getting bullied, because they know they have people to look up to.”

Dahir also began to reclaim the way she saw herself through pen and paper. Through spoken-word poetry, she examined her experiences growing up Muslim, female and black in a perdominantly white community in the U.S. “The stranger looks at me funny, like an alien, like some exotic creature that needed to be rescued from its dying habitat, but she didnt know was, I like the same bands as her,” she says in her poem “The Thing On My Head.”

One spoken-word performance even went viral, when, in 2018, Dahir spoke at the 2018 March Of Our Lives event in Salt Lake City. “How much longer do we have to deal with this sht?” she asked the crowd. “Blood pools as we watch innocent bodies get hit/ politicians claim it’s not guns but they need to just quit.”

Those experiences make up her powerfully emotive spoken-word debut, The Walking Stereotype, out Saturday, Aug. 17. The album is a way to bring her message of self love to young women who look just like her. “When I started writing poetry, I realized that there is so much darkness that comes with all these identities, but there is also so much light and so much hope,” she says. 

Dahir also utilizes her YouTube channel to connect with other young people like her, filming vlogs with tips and anecdotes around everything from fashion to college applications. 

The Recording Academy spoke to Dahir about her spoken-word debut, what her black-Muslim identity means to her, BTS and other music she listens to, and more.

Tell me about yourself. 

My name is Saida Dahir. I was born in a refugee camp in Kenya after the civil war in Somalia broke out. People were very disastrous to my family. We lost everything we knew and everything we had so we fled to Kenya. I was born in one of the little plastic tents in a refugee camp. By the time I was three we were finally granted a green card to seek refuge in the United States. So I moved to white town in Salt Lake City, Utah where I was out of the norm for every single person. That’s really what made me who I am and made me do things that I do.

What was your first experience with poetry?

Poetry is this thing that has been in my family since … as long as time. Somalia‘s known as the land of poets. A lot of people in Somalia write poetry about the war and about trauma and everything. I started writing poetry when I was seven years old after reading countless poems from my mom and my brothers and getting inspiration. The first poem I wrote was a very trivial … I think it was just a sappy poem, but that really sparked me to continue and to write about things that I’m very passionate about. That’s what brought me to where I am.

Did your family write poetry similar to yours?

Yes. I feel like all of my siblings’ poetry has been about social activism and movements and things that they want to see change in the world. I think we use our poetry as a way to inspire people and to inspire ourselves to really want to create change and to keep the feel of power in ourselves.

Sounds like your family has really empowered you. 

They have. They’ve inspired me. They’ve motivated me. They’ve really pushed me to excel in every single thing that I’ve done.

Why name your album, The Walking Stereotype?

The background behind the album title is very funny. You probably can’t know from the phone but I’m Muslim, I’m black, I’m a woman, I’m a refugee. I have so many different stereotypes and so many different marginalized groups that I’m a part of. One time I was mentioning this to one of my friends and he jokingly said, “Bro, you’re like the walking stereotype.” That has really resonated with me because I really am the embodiment of so much hatred and so much destruction put on the groups that I’m a part of. I ran with that phrase and I made a blog called “The Walking Stereotype.” That was my Instagram name for awhile. I knew that if I would ever do anything like this that that would be the name that I would make it [with]. There’s so much that I talk about in this album, and it’s not just one group that I talk about. I talk about every single group, all of my stereotypes that I walk in every single day.

What you said just now, that you embody so many stereotypes, sounds heavy but you sound so light when you talk about it, like you don’t let it get to you.

Mm-hmm. It was heavy for awhile. It was so hard for me to claim it and to really find myself. I went through so much self-hate and so much doubt and wanted to assimilate to the surroundings. When I started writing poetry, I realized that there is so much darkness that comes with all these identities, but there is also so much light and so much hope. And there’s so much power that comes behind them and culture and history. So when I talk about who I am, I have to be so happy because I would not want to be anybody but who I am. That’s why that phrase [“walking stereotype”] it doesn’t bring me sadness. It brings me so much courage because … a lot of people are a walking stereotype. We can all be walking stereos together and we can use that as our shield against the world. 

You’ve been through all these experiences. What made you decide to want to make an album?

Like I said, I’ve been writing poetry for so long and I would just read them to people and that was that. I would record them but I would never post them anywhere or would never have a YouTube dedicated to it. There is so much power that comes from writing things down and sharing things and having them in a manifested form, so I knew that my poetry was something I didn’t want to keep to myself.

I didn’t want it to be something people read because my poetry doesn’t sit on the paper. You can’t just read it because when I say it, there’s certain phrases that I emphasize or there’s certain parts that I slow down. It’s like music basically but it’s not music. It’s words, but the melody and the rhythm of the words that I say, it’s what makes the poem. It’s what gives it that mood. That’s why I decided that the best place would be not a book, it wouldn’t be a post. It would be me, my voice, my genuine reactions, and an album was the greatest way to do that.

To reclaim something for oneself can be a huge process. It takes a lot of reflection and you have to deal with a lot of pain in order to first face it and then decide, “I’m going to change this narrative.” Do you remember the moment, or maybe it was a series of moments, where you decided, “I want to do this for myself. I want to reclaim my story. I want to love myself”?

I think the first moment that I had that realization of changing my narrative is when I started wearing the hijab. The hijab is the cloth, the scarf that a Muslim woman wears. I started wearing that when I was in seventh grade. Up until that point I was very assimilated to the American culture. I was a very American child but as soon as I put the scarf on, I was different. I was other. I could either hate the otherness that I had or embrace it.

It took so many years and me learning and me moving and countless microaggressions and countless adversity that was thrown my way, but at the end of the day I wanted to make sure that the representation that I had, that the future generations of the girls that do put the hijab on aren’t scared, aren’t worried, aren’t sad, aren’t getting bullied, because they know they have people to look up to. Then things just started escalating on the news … a couple of years ago with the Muslim ban and with the hatred towards a bunch of the stereotypes that I had. I knew that poetry was the way that I was going to use my voice and change the narrative. So I started writing poems about politics and about laws and about things that I needed to see change. I think that me expressing myself is what helped myself learn who I was.

Having listened to your album, I really felt like it was this love letter to yourself, but the more I hear you talk, I feel like this is almost a love letter to the Muslim black woman.

It really is. It’s a love letter to every single person that looks like me because they need the love too. They don’t get that love in the media. They don’t get that love in the press. They don’t get that love in the history books that are written. So we got to love ourselves.

Anything else did you want to achieve with the album?

I think what I want to achieve with the album is to show people that look like me that there’s so much talent behind your words and so much power that your words hold. I don’t know how to sing. I don’t know how to rap. I don’t know how to do all of these things that people use to express themselves. I don’t even know how to draw. I know how to write and I know how to express myself in English and in so many other languages. I think that there is power behind people’s words and every single person has that talent if they write things down, if they speak up, if they express themselves. That is where the true power comes from, your words and how you use them. 

You mentioned that you’ve been writing since you were seven. Has this album been the accumulation of all your writing throughout that time? 

The first poem that I wrote in that album is called “The Thing on My Head,” which is a poem about how I started wearing the hijab. I wrote that poem when I was in seventh grade so this is an accumulation from poetry from when I was 14. How old are you when you’re in seventh grade? I think 13, 14. So a good portion of my life is on that. A good portion of the life that I remember and the life that I lived and the experiences I have since I started writing.

It’s basically your sonic debut. 

Yes, this is. I’ve never done anything like this before so when I heard the GRAMMYs wanted me to interview me I was like, “What?”

Did you reach out to someone to record the album or did someone reach out to you? 

The record company that I did this album with, they found one of my poems on YouTube that I did at the March for Our Lives. That poem went viral and so they asked me if I wanted to record that poem for another album and I said, “Sure.” So I recorded that poem for an album about gun violence. Then a couple of months later they were like, “Why don’t you just do a whole album by yourself because you have such powerful poetry?” I was like, “Okay, sure.” And that’s what I did.

One of your poems is about Parkland. What inspired you to write about the tragedy?

I wrote that poem the day of the Parkland shooting. I found out about it and I got home and I was so distraught … It was a normal thing. It’s a normal thing for us and I was a junior in high school, I had tests to worry about, I had my grades to worry about, but I was immobile because the only thing that was there was just the fear. The fear of going to school and of not coming back. So I did what I do when I’m in situations where I’m so heavily burdened by society, I wrote a poem that day. I’ve never written a poem in one day before. That was the first poem that I sat down and I wrote the entire thing and I still have not changed it at all because it was the true expression and the true feelings I was feeling that day. The anger and the fear and all of that just boiled down to, “What I can do to make sure that that never happens again?” Then I read at the March for Our Lives and the reaction that I got in the crowd was so many people that said they could relate. There’s nothing better than when you can … people can relate to your emotions.

How does it feel for a total stranger to connect with you?

It’s what inspires me to do everything that I do. When I read a poem and after someone walks up to me and says, “No one has ever expressed that before in the way you did and I agreed with everything that you said. It’s been something that’s in the back of my head,” it really just makes everything that I do worth it. If I’m putting people’s feelings into words and I’m sharing them and they hear it and they just are like, “I get that,” that just is the best feeling in the world.

You sound like a very confident person. Were you ever scared to share your stories with the world?

Yes, I was terrified. Like I said, seventh grade was the pivotal year in my life. The reason why I did the things that I did is one of my teachers, he knew that I wrote poetry and that I never read any of it. He told me that he was going to force me to read a poem at our talent show or he would fail me-

Oh no.

I was like, “Oh no.” I was so terrified and I signed up to read a poem at the talent show. I didn’t want to do it but I didn’t want to fail the class. I knew he was joking, he was not going to fail me, but I decided that this would be an incentive. I went up there and I read a poem and I got a standing ovation. I was just a shy girl and to get that standing ovation was just like, “This is crazy, people like what I did. People like what I wrote.”

Then I, of course I was terrified every single time I’d get up onto the stage. I’ve also walked off a stage and been yelled at and called “terrorist,” but I don’t think about that. I think about how when I’m on stage, what change I could make and how I can keep the ball rolling.

Is there anything telling your story has taught you?

I think something that telling my story has taught me is that there is so much power behind just being who you are. It’s so easy to just think that you can be who you are but it’s so hard when the world is so [full of] hate and the world is so exactly how it’s supposed to be [with the] status quo. To just say, “No, I’m not going to do that,” and just express yourself in every single way that you are and just to love yourself, I think that’s incredibly powerful.

The term “refugee” has been all over the news these last few years. People are defining it in different ways. What does it mean to you?

I think it’s hope. I think that word means hope. Being a refugee means leaving everything you know, everything you love, your culture, your religion, your background, your language, your food, your home, your family, in the hopes for something better. That’s what my family did and that’s what the people at the border are doing right now. That’s what the people in Syria are doing right now. They know that they’re leaving everything they have and their whole universe because they know that something’s better and something is waiting for them. When they do arrive to those situations, they’re either loved and welcomed or they’re pushed out. 

My family was not loved and welcomed but we were not pushed out. We were indifferent, but now people are being pushed out. There’s never been love. Once we can figure out how we can solve this problem and greet people, because no one is going to … No one understands that no one’s going to leave everything that they have if they’re not pushed out, if they’re not killed, if they have no other options. I think once we realize that, we can figure out how we can solve this refugee problem in the world. No one just wakes up one day and is like, “I’m going to cross the river. I’m going to walk barefoot. I’m going to not eat for a couple of weeks for fun.” It doesn’t work that way.

Is there any poem in your album that means the most to you in any kind of way? If so, why?

I think the poem that has the most meaning towards me is, “Oh, Somalia.” I’ve never been to Somalia after the war. When we fled to Kenya I came immediately here. I wrote that poem because I really have never gotten the opportunity to love my homeland. One day I will, I will go back and I will visit. I have that poem for now and whenever I feel homesick of a home that I’ve never been to, I read that poem and I think about it. One day I’ll be in Somalia, hopefully, and I’ll be able to read that poem while I’m there. That’s my goal.

Has not knowing your homeland affected you?

I think it’s affected me because growing up I was too white for the Somalia kids and then I was too black for the white kids. I never really knew myself. I didn’t speak Somalia fluently when I was growing up and a lot of the Somalia kids I knew would make fun of me. Then I would get made fun of by the white kids that I was with. It was very disheartening because I never had that safe haven and that safe space. When you’re too black for the white kids and you’re too white for the black kids, where do you go? You have to make spaces for yourself.

That’s why I try to learn so much about my culture. I study more about my culture than people that live there probably do because I don’t have it accessible to me. It’s not at the touch of my fingertips so I have to try tenfold just to get that experience of my … calling my place home.

There’s this thing Billie Eilish said in an interview. She said something along the lines of, “People underestimate the power of a young mind.” Do you agree?

I 100% agree. I’m at this this conference right now with so many young people. They’re geniuses. They are so revolutionary and so innovated. They have so many goals and things they want to change about the world. So much optimism. If we were just heard out, if we were just listened to, if we weren’t just called, “Oh, they’re just kids. Oh, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” we could bring so much to the table. If we don’t have a voice, we’re just going to talk. We’re just going to be disruptive.

Jeremy Jemmott, who worked with Gil Scott-Heron, worked with you on this album. How does it feel to have someone of that caliber work with you on this project?

I love the Black Panther Party and I love “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” When they told me that he was going to be on the album, I literally was in shock. He’s an amazing, an amazing, musician. Just knowing that the power and the history behind his art and his talent with my words, it just proves that it’s inter-generational. We’ve been fighting for causes, we’ve been fighting for the things that I’ve … I’m talking about in these poems, for years and years and years. And it shows because when he was drumming back then we were going through the same sht. 

What other music are you into?

I really love soul music. I’m a big K-pop fan. A lot of people don’t know that.

Who’s your favorite band?

I love BTS. I love good rap music. It’s funny because rap music is literally poetry. When I tell people that, they’re really confused and I’m like, “No, you’re favorite rapper is in fact a poet. They’re just putting the beat behind it.” Some of the songs on my album have a beat behind it and so I’m basically a rapper.

You’re attending UC Berkeley in the fall, which is really famous for its student activism. What are you most looking forward to there?

I’m really looking forward to be able to be in a college setting. I’m a first generation college student so I know that that is a very heavy burden, but I’m really excited to continue this for the generations after me. Having one person in your family be a college graduate just keeps the ball rolling and rolling and rolling. I’m really just excited to learn more and to grow and to find out what my purpose in life is through the academia aspect and just learn.

What kind of career you want to pursue? Do you want to continue being a poet?

For all my life I wanted to be a journalist, and then I wanted to be a lawyer for a couple of months and so that’s what I applied to all my colleges through. Now I think I’m going to go back to journalism.

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