Rap, Poetry, and Activism

Poet Mab Jones offers a personal reflection on the new album of activist spoken word, Imam Sis We See You, which was recently created by a collection of Welsh artists in an act of solidarity with the Kurdish hunger strikes.

Last weekend, in London, I took this photo. It shows a procession of Christians, bearing some kind of shrine to the Virgin Mary, along a road between Chalk Farm and Camden Town. My picture shows some priests and what looks, to a non-Christian like me, a higher type of priest – a deacon, maybe, or perhaps a bishop. They are parading directly in front of a graffiti mural dedicated to ‘grime lords’ – artists from that particular musical genre – and the faces there, in relation to the procession, seem somehow like a shrine in and of themselves.

This got me thinking about the importance of certain voices in our culture; those that are ‘paraded’ and those that we revere. Those that we listen to and those we do not. In a way, the songs I heard on that London parade were the ones who are, for me, ‘obscure’ – I know more about modern music than I do about hymns. And, it’s true that those ‘grime lords’ create songs that are incredibly popular. More popular than hymns? I don’t know. But, certainly, they influence and inspire people, and those, primarily black, voices are as important, and as much a part of our culture, as the predominantly white ones I heard in the procession. 

Grime grew out of earlier musical styles, such as garage, jungle, and hip hop. To my understanding, hip hop, even more than grime, is something that inspires people hugely, and has become a movement in which black and white are, these days, very much drawn together. I personally don’t identify as being a part of that music / culture, but the people I know who do live it in their souls as well as their bones. I think that what they do is important; I see rap as the most popular form of poetry in the world, these days, and, quite often, it seems to be at the forefront when addressing socio-political concerns.

Rufus Mufasa is a poet, activist, and musician who works within the realm of hip hop. Last week she got in touch with me and asked if I would like to contribute a poem to an album of work she and her partner, rapper and producer Jamey P, were putting together to draw attention to the hunger strike that was undertaken by Imam Sis in Newport. This week, the strike proved successful, and the human rights abuses (specifically, the imprisonment of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan) it was aimed to draw attention are finally being looked into. You can read more about the hunger strike in this article by BASW and more about the album so many rappers, singers, poets, etc. came together on in this article for Wales Arts Review.

Rap, as I said, often seems to be at the forefront of these sorts of issues. Rap artists write about wrongs, because they want to right them. A powerful social conscious perpetrates this realm and those who work within it. It isn’t that other forms of poetry e.g. poetry written primarily for the page, doesn’t address such, but what I have noticed in my 12 years as a poet is that ‘page poets’ have only more recently, in a very general sense, been more inclined towards writing poems that are overtly political. ‘Stage poets’ (poets who write more for performance / to be heard, and who tend to be more rhyming and rhythmic in their writing and reading aloud) have always been more about politics, in my experience, and in this I include the hip hop form known as rap. I think that rap should be more acknowledged as a form of poetry rather than looked down upon or viewed as ‘alternative’, by the way. These concerns are central, and rap, by addressing them, places itself as central, also.

In this case, rap and the associated hip hop spirit was the impetus for a wonderfully diverse album in which many unique voices came together in aid of a common cause. In the words of Carlos Williams, from his book ‘The Other 99 T.Y.M.E.S: Train Your Mind to Enjoy Serenity’: “Hip hop music… is one of few that unite fans of all colors, races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, ages and genders.” It even expands to unite people who are not working in that realm and its related forms, such as myself, and other poets and performers who feature on the Imam Sis We See You album.

Vital, unpretentious, honest, and energised, this album speaks not just of the injustices of those suffering in earnest but is testament to the fact that rap / hip hop is an expansive and inclusive genre which can bring people together in support of a common aim. Every contributor to the album put aside their artistic differences and even work in order to unite in this way. I know that Rufus feels that everyone is equal in this endeavour but I, personally, also feel that some people take a leadership role when it comes to collaboration involving many people. There needs to be some pivotal person or persons on whom the whole project can ‘hang’ and who can undertake the necessary lead when it comes to the basic task of pulling everything together. This time, hip hop practitioners Rufus Mufasa and Jamey P were the ones who generously gave their time and energy to this role.

Many of the tracks I have listened to on this album speak directly from the heart, straight to the heart of the listener. Perhaps this is what unites those in the photograph I mentioned above, then – that both hymns and hip hop (or grime, in that case) have the power to do this. What causes connection can depend upon the background and demographic of the listener, perhaps. For some, a grime or rap song may be a ‘hymn’; for others, a religious work may be little more than an empty incantation. I do wonder, though, if it is a coincidence that, shortly after this album was released, Imam Sis was successful in his strike aims. Words and music have the most amazing power to inspire and to influence, and the poetry we call rap, since it finds an affinity with so many people, perhaps even more so.

These collected works to, about, or otherwise relating to someone who chose action when words were being ignored, are incredibly powerful. Through them, we really do ‘see’ Imam Sis, and this vision is shared, then, with every listener. Imam Sis We See You is an extremely inspiring collection of diverse voices in aid, essentially, of those whose voices were ignored. Saint-like denial, by one man, has resulted in this album of hymns. Listen to it, and then see, for yourself.



Mab Jones is a “unique talent” (The Times) who has read her work all over the UK, in the US, France, Ireland and Japan.