Power of the Griot: An Interview With Mohamed Tall

By Vanessa Taylor

Drawing on a rich literary and musical heritage, spoken word has become a staple within Black communities. The legacy of spoken word is a continuation of ancestral stories, a genre that sprang from a multitude of inspirational points and it has assisted the creation of many others itself. To track and celebrate the artistry, legacy and power of words within Black communities, from spoken word to the griot and beyond, Sapelo Square spoke to Mohamed Tall, Baltimore’s 2017–2018 Youth Poet Laureate.

Tell me about yourself. Who are you? What originally introduced you to, and inspired you to pursue, poetry?

I am the current Baltimore city Youth Poet Laureate, 20 years old. Avid sneaker enthusiast. I don’t really think anything introduced me, or inspired me, to pursue poetry; I feel like it was something that was already in me. In West Africa, we have the culture of the griot or the storyteller. I…come from that same bloodline of storytellers, people who exist to preserve the narrative of the people.

You are the first Muslim youth poet laureate of Baltimore. How’d you get to that position? What does it mean to be a poet laureate?

For me, being the first Muslim poet laureate meant a lot of sacrifice and a lot of self-reflection. It wasn’t my first time competing for the position and I lost the first time by 0.2 points. So, coming back the second time, it was like [a] redemption and it meant more this time, because my mom was sick. She had just been diagnosed with cancer. So, accomplishing that, was like a signaling moment; in the darkest day, it was light.

It also means being a cultural and artistic ambassador for my city. I’m in the kind of position where my face is on posters in the library and it’s like, “Who’s this kid? What’d he do? Why you?” It’s a source of light, because I’ve been hearing so much bad about the youth and my city, so being the Youth Poet Laureate is another way to get the truth out.

There’s a lot of stigmas around Muslims that I have to navigate. Whether that’s, “Oh, are you from the Nation?” or “What are you?” or “Are your parents Muslim? When did you convert?” I think understanding all [of] those microaggressions and trying to work against it, trying to represent a different narrative, goes back to the idea of the griot. Their purpose isn’t only to preserve narratives through stories but through the very person [who] they were. That in and of itself helped tell the story; the griot knew what everybody was. Like James Baldwin said, the poets and the artists are the only ones who know the truth about us.

Who, past and present, have been some of your biggest creative influences?

Amir Sulaiman. Lupe Fiasco. James Baldwin. Denzel Washington. Lorraine Hansberry. Hannah Sawyerr. Sadiyah Bashir. Jacob Mayberry. Slangston Hughes.

Amir captivated me really young with the story he was trying to tell and I felt like he was telling my story. I felt like I could trust him; I believed what he was saying. When I began to write and perform, I knew that anything I wrote, I’d have to believe myself. That was what drew me to him. He believed what he was saying, so that made me believe what he was saying, and I took that same mindset into my art. I made it a conscious decision to completely embody my work, whether I’m performing or just speaking to someone.

Lupe, basically, is the reason I became smart. I used to listen to his music and I’d stop the song to go look up every single word. The song “Dumb It Down” drew me to him, because it encapsulated every reason why I love Lupe. They’re telling him to dumb it down and the whole song he’s completely over everyone’s head. He’s like, “Yo. I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing this for me” and I took that from him. Even in the poems I write, “Oh, why are they centered around Black people? Suffering? Blah, blah, blah” and I’m like, “Cause that’s my story. That’s what I’m writing about.” Lupe didn’t dumb it down, so I won’t dumb it down for you.

I feel like, at one point, everyone I admire was where I’m at and I’m just trying to get to where they are now. I just follow their stories and try to take their advice, wherever it applies.

Black youth are the heartbeat, bones and flesh of the art world. And of the world itself. I feel like we are the culture; everything we do, everybody else wants to do.

What is the role of Black youth within the arts? How do you contribute to embodying and supporting [others within] that role?

Black youth are the heartbeat, bones and flesh of the art world. And of the world itself. I feel like we are the culture; everything we do, everybody else wants to do. Whether it’s in fashion, the way we talk, or the way we carry ourselves — it’s real. There’s something enchanting about the creativity of Black youth that draws the world to us. And there’s something fresh about it, too; like, it always feels new, but it always feels right. We continue to challenge the boundaries that have been placed before us and I think that’s what makes our work so daring. We’re willing to take it to a place that other people aren’t willing to explore.

What have been some of your defining moments as a poet?

Performing at ICNA [Islamic Circle of North America] in 2015 and DC MIST [Muslim Interscholastic Tournament] in 2015; becoming the Baltimore youth grand slam champion in 2016. Winning my first “Louder Than A Bomb” competition as a coach my freshman year of college — that was 2016. Going to Brave New Voices in 2015. Doing a Social Justice Poetry tour in 2014. And, becoming [Baltimore’s] Youth Poet Laureate of 2017. Oh, and I did a Ted Talk!

A poem of yours, “Do The Right Thing” became a protest chant in its own right. How do you view the connection between oral traditions/art as a whole and protest?

I’ve always thought that art was at the forefront of every revolution and every moment. Artists are the vanguard of social movements and we possess a unique ability in which we disguise the truth, yet make it apparent. And, we make it attractive and something that people want — we just introduce people to what they already knew they needed. Or what they already had, but didn’t know they needed.

They say that history is written by the victors. As long as we continue to tell our own stories, we’ll never lose — that’s how artists keep the revolution alive.

After this interview, Mohamed’s mother Sister Aisha Sherif passed away after battling stage four stomach cancer. If you are able, please donate to assist the family cover funeral expenses and hospital bills.

Mohamed Tall is Baltimore City’s current Youth Poet Laureate and the 2016 Grand Slam champion. He is a former Baltimore City Poet Ambassador, as well as the two-time DC MIST spoken word champion. Mohamed has been the opening act for Native Deen, the former National Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway and Congressman Elijah Cummings. He has also performed at various venues throughout the country such as the Johns Hopkins Health Symposium on the Prison Industrial Complex, and the annual ICNA-MAS convention that takes place at the Baltimore City Convention Center. In 2015, Mohamed began working for DewMore Baltimore, a nonprofit organization addressing social justice issues as well as civic engagement through poetry. During the fall, he acts as a teaching artist in Baltimore city middle schools. A current Political Science major at Morgan State University, Mohamed plans to establish poetry workshops in different masajid across the country. Mohamed believes that art is at the forefront of every revolution. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @freshcutmo.

19510485_10211619443855905_6849194475272266932_n (1)Vanessa Taylor is a freelance creative based out of Minneapolis. She is interested in using a multi- disciplinary approach to achieve social justice, from on-the-grounds activism like co-founding the Black Liberation Project to finding accessible ways to educate community with writing as a way to make sense of it all. She is currently a fellow of Muslim Wellness Foundation’s Deeply Rooted Emerging Leaders inaugural cohort.

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