September 14, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Taking the mic 

Amir Sulaiman doesn't ask for the freedom to speak

"I'm into moving language, being moved by language; utilizing language, bending it and twisting it, and finding new ways by which to approach it in order to bring light to whatever subject matter I'm speaking on."

That certainly is a mouthful. But Rochester native Amir Sulaiman would have to have his mouth full of language to get the recognition he has been receiving of late. The poet, writer, and educator, who has made his way from Clifford Avenue and Penfield to Oakland, California, has published a book and released two CDs featuring his brand of poetry, politics, and hip-hop.

Sulaiman's politically conscious work began taking form while still a pre-teen, immersed in hip-hop culture. "Actually, I started off emceeing before I was considered a poet, as I am now," says the spoken word artist. But soon, his focus shifted to a less musical art form. "When I started writing poetry in the mid-'90s, I started off doing poetry at Java's [Café]."

Writing and performing is where the difference lies between poetry and spoken word. "Essentially, they are the same thing," explains Sulaiman. "It's just that poetry isn't necessarily said out loud, it can just be written. Spoken word necessitates that it is spoken."

His work has linked him to such notables as writer and activist Kevin Powell, who invited the performer to open for his State of Black Men in America Tour Kickoff in Atlanta. He is also sought after as a public speaker, and he gives presentations and workshops in between his teaching, writing, and recording.

The self-proclaimed poet and spoken word artist's CD releases feature him reciting his pieces both with a musical background and a cappella. There are also tracks with recordings of discussion sessions Sulaiman has had, complete with crowd reaction. It sort of gives you a glimpse of what it's like to be at one of his readings, as the vibe of the venue is captured and replayed in stereo.

His next disc, Like A Thief In the Night, is due out January 3.

"This album is more about victory," he says. His last effort, Dead Man Walking, showcases the struggle of the oppressed man (the title cut), the affectionate heart ("Live Life Love"), and the sexually violated woman ("Bluest I"). It differs from the forthcoming Night, which represents "the time for the socially and spiritually aware, awake human being to take a position of influence in the arts, politics, et cetera."

Sulaiman takes this role upon himself with his poetry, even if his captive audience doesn't share the task personally. "Many people recognize my voice as their own," he says on his website.

His own voice, however, led him to a national stage. After getting his B.A. in English at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Sulaiman moved to Atlanta and began making a name for himself amongst the local circle of awake human beings. Some of these folks recorded him speaking his word and sent the video to Russell Simmons PresentsDef Poetry. The video caught the eye of the show's producers, who invited him to perform at a taping.

The August 2004 airing featured Sulaiman's now-infamous piece, "Danger," which appears on Walking --- "infamous" because it didn't sit too well with Uncle Sam's boys.

"Several FBI agents came to see me, my [family and friends], and the school at which I teach," Sulaiman says. "They asked: 'Is Amir trying to spread Islam through hip-hop? Is his poetry anti-American?'"

A grand jury issued a subpoena for a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers of Sulaiman's students, and he was placed on the FBI's "no fly" list. He took action with language.

"I wrote a public statement called 'The High Cost of Freedom of Speech,'" he says. This statement, published on his website and elsewhere on the web, outlined his position on what he feels he shouldn't have to ask for.

"The Most High has invested speech in me," he affirms. "So, I've already been given my right to speech. It would be a form of humiliation for me to have to ask [the government] for my right to speech. They are neither in a position to give nor revoke my right to speech."

In the wake of the statement's publication --- it has also been circulated at public events --- the heat on the wordsmith has dissipated.

"As we share our stories," he says, "it makes it more difficult for them to move in secrecy." But his controversial work was hot enough for a repeat appearance on Def Poetry. Theshow invited him for another taping, which aired this summer.

Sulaiman views the entire event as motivation to reach people by refusing "to remain silent in the face of such blatant hypocrisy, thievery, and tyranny."

His distaste for the powers that be, however, is sometimes misconstrued as advocating violence. While he refers to "winning the fight," instead of a guns-in-the-air, fists-to-the-face approach, he advocates fists in the air, words in the face.

Since taking time off from molding young minds, Sulaiman has been waving his fist at podiums, speaking at events and conferences. His pen is never too far away, though, as he's been writing in preparation for Like A Thief In The Night.

"This album will be the first of it's kind," Sulaiman says of the forthcoming release on Word Records. "It's the first album on this record label created specifically and exclusively for spoken word artists."

The American-born Muslim's spirituality is a major contributor to his drive.

"Islam plays an integral part in my work," he says. "It's really the foundation, the basis, and perspective by which I approach all subject matter."

But he doesn't look at his art as religious.

"I don't think you'd call it missionary poetry. But, understanding the language of religious prophets has colored my speech," he says. "Between that and hip-hop is where I find my home for writing."

This residence likely lies on the borders of both Poetryville and Hip-Hop Land, as his work often walks the thin line between the two.

"It mixes a lot of spoken word and hip-hop, just lyricism," Sulaiman says. "But, there are some things that, no doubt, you'll say 'it's poetry'; some things, no doubt, 'this is just [hip-hop].'"

The orator is optimistic about things to come. With his third release in its finishing stages, he speaks positively of "our victory." "I've been writing about the awake souls taking the reigns," he says, "and enjoying and utilizing their inevitable victory that cannot be turned away."

Sulaiman says he feels victorious when the voices he echoes begin to speak words of their own, twisting and bending their own language in their own light.

And so goes this man, walking like a thief in the night, armed only with a mouthful to keep the high cost of freedom of speech down, until it is truly free.

Amir Sulaiman can be seen on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, Season 5, Episode 7 on HBO (check your local listings), or you can get more info, buy CDs, and download pieces on his website,

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