Art Heals – and Allows us to be Awed Again by Life

The rapper Barakah Blue seeks to spread positivity through poetry and music

Barakah Blue.

Sufism may be perceived negatively in Malaysia for its mystical practices, but American rapper and poet Barakah Blue is not afraid to spread Sufi spiritual teachings through his poetry and music. Penang Monthly caught up with the spiritual rapper-poet when he stopped by Penang earlier this year for his Barakah Blue Malaysia Tour 2017, organised by the Crescent Collective in partnership with the US Embassy.

People are curious about your stage name. Can you enlighten us?
I get that question a lot. “Barakah” means blessing in Arabic, and blue is the colour of sadness and melancholy. So the idea of “Barakah Blue” is sort of like a blessed sadness, and I like it. It’s a message that life is a beautiful struggle.

A lot of your work is influenced by the renowned Sufi poet, Rumi. Sufism is not perceived positively in Malaysia because it is deemed to be very mystical. Can your work change people's perception of Sufism in Malaysia?
It’s interesting because in America, people tend to embrace Sufism better than any other Islamic teachings. Sufism preaches spirituality and love; it emphasises the relationship between an individual and the Creator, and experiential knowledge – the mystical side of Islam. As a creative person, as an artist, I am more interested in exploring the mystical side of Islam and spreading its positivity.

How does Rumi’s work speak to you?
Rumi saw the beauty in our universe and our human experiences. For him, each one of us is like a grain of sand on Earth, Earth is like a grain of sand in our galaxy, and our galaxy is a grain of sand in our universe. And who knows what’s beyond our universe?

We are here as individuals, suspended on a blue-green orb in infinite space, with the ability to perceive and experience vast arrays of emotions such as joy, pain and heartbreak. It is so easy to forget how amazing our human experience is because we get numb to it – daily grinds take that all away. If you spend time with children, you see that every experience they have is new. A trip to the beach or to the playground down the block – these are amazing for them, but not for us. We’ve lost that kind of awe.

And that’s what’s amazing about Rumi: he’s reminding us to retain our childlike state of awe and wonder.

As an artist, what do you hope to achieve with your music and poetry?
I just want to put positivity out to the universe. Even if nobody listens to me, I will do it. This is what I love to do. If people connect to my work, that’s a bonus.

Art is a powerful thing. For example, when you watch a movie, you get to live the lives of the characters in the movie. You see things from a different perspective, and the way I look at it is, the broader the perspective, the better. You can see things from more angles. Society in the US focuses on what separates us, but artists get to break the barrier and put things into perspective.

Although we come from different religions, race, cultures, and nationalities, we all share the same human experience.

Art can also be a means to healing. There was a woman in her late 20s at one of my workshops, and you could just tell that there was a sadness about her. She mentioned something about her parents. I asked her “Where are your parents?” and she said her mom died. Then I asked, “Where is your father?” She said her father killed her mother, so he is in jail for life.

I just had to sit there at that moment, but I did not want to run away either. For me, it was like, I don’t have any answers and I can’t heal your pain, but I’ll sit here with you. She trusted me enough to tell me that. It may be idealistic, but at the deepest level, art can be a means for us to heal and come to grips with life. It allows us to be healers because your struggles either break you, or you become a healer yourself because of the lessons you learned.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi gathers Sufi mystics.

The tonality of the current world is a bit negative when it comes to Islam, and you’re a Muslim. Hip-hop is considered black music, and you’re a Caucasian. Being a Muslim in the US and performing hip-hop music, what are the challenges you face?
While I don’t experience any anti-Muslim sentiment that other people might feel in America, it is interesting to have feet in both worlds. For whatever reason, the current marginalised or targeted group in the US is Muslims. I spend so much time with the community, but I understand the other side too – people are ignorant because they do not know about the community.

I believe that people are good in general, but we are afraid of what we don’t know. It’s very easy to stereotype so you have to try to humanise or get to know a person. I do feel like I am an ambassador for Islam in the US. And when I travel outside of the US, I feel like I am an ambassador for my country; there are a lot of misunderstandings about Americans, too.

Which came first, your spirituality or hip-hop?
Seattle has a very vibrant music scene. We had Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and we also had Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones. By the time I came onto the scene, hip-hop was all the rage in the 1990s. I got exposed to Islam through hip-hop; a lot of the early hip-hop acts were Muslims.

Then I got into poetry, which was where Rumi came in. His words were overflowing from his state, his experiences, and I wanted to know more. That drew me into Sufism.

Do you think your audience share a similar experience through your work?
Hopefully they experience general positivity and good vibes. When I create art, there’s an intention to it. If I’m going to make a statement, it doesn’t have to be clear, but what’s important is the energy, the vibe. To me, music and poetry are things that need to be felt. If you read a poem and you understand it but somehow it doesn’t move you, the poem has failed. I can listen to a Malay song that I don’t understand but somehow the song can move me because music is a universal language.

What is your creative process like?
Usually, the first line that comes is like a gift – it’s sort of like opening a door. Once the door is open, I get to slip through and see what’s in the room. Then the rest of the poem just flows.

Sometimes I force myself to write as part of my discipline, but usually I wait for inspiration to come. It can come from anywhere or anything – from a book I was reading or something I was reflecting on or have an interest in.

What do you do when you get writer’s block?
I let go of it. I don’t feel pressured to write, and I’m OK with that. For me, the writing itself is not the hardest part; it’s the post-writing part such as the editing, the recording, strategising where to fit the pieces and the publication process that I try to put off.

What’s next for Barakah Blue?
As I get older, I enjoy mentoring young poets and creative minds through poetry and writing workshops. I am hoping to work on building an online platform for poetry. After my writing workshops some people still want to continue so the question is “how do we do that?” This online platform is a way I can stay connected with people I only get to see once a year. I am excited about that.

Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer. She blogs at www.sundayyellowcardigan.

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