Muneera Pilgrim is an international Poet, Cultural Producer, Writer, Broadcaster and TEDx speaker based in the UK. She co-founded the Muslim Hip-Hop and spoken word duo Poetic Pilgrimage, and is a co-founder of Black Muslim Women Bike.
Photo credit: David Shadwell
Muneera conducts workshops, shares art, lectures, and finds alternative ways to tell stories, build community and exchange ideas. She considers Poetry as a methodology for exploring humans and is concerned with telling alternative stories. Muneera colourfully etches a poetic space of dialogue which is accessible to all regardless cultural boundaries. Rooted in spirituality she uses communication and art for edification and change.
We talk to Muneera about her experiences growing up in Bristol, being Black, British and Muslim and challenging narratives of gender, faith and race.
Do you think spoken word and poetry can be used as a tool for connection, care and empathy?
More than I think poetry can be used as a tool for care, connection, and empathy, I think poetry is a tool for care connection, and empathy. The fact that these things happen while engaging with poetry, is not coincidental, it is at the forefront of what poetry does. We are entertained because somewhere it resonates, affirms or moves us closer to knowing something that we did not know before, it is as a result of its power to connect. Poetry has been one of the three primary methodologies that has allowed me to interrogate myself, and draw closer to humankind and creation as a whole. And I think it is as a result of this connection in poetry, that it has been used in societies globally for centuries.
Your work explores topics of gender, faith, citizenship and heritage. What do you hope audiences gain from your work?
As connection is at the heart of what I do and why I do it, I would love for my work to connect with people. Even if not in the specificities of it, connection in the generality of the themes is a goal. I realised some of the themes are not themes widely spoken about in our society, and if they are, we don’t normally have inclusive nuanced conversations about them, so I would love for people to feel affirmed, and I would love for people who feel they are not frequently invited in to have these conversations, to feel they are witnesses. I also hope my work facilitates conversations.
You hold an MA in Islamic studies where you focused on Black British pathways to spirituality, migration, gender, and race. How has this knowledge influenced your work and practice?
My Islamic Studies MA allowed me to really see the way that the Quran and The life of The Prophet Mohammed PBUH, really looked at society and found solutions for the questions of the day. With that in mind I chose my focus, not because it was the most obvious thing to do, most of my class mates focused on finance, the science of the Quran or something more traditional. But this was a subject that I was interested in, and through that it allowed me to explore, aspects of social justice and community, which Islam naturally cultivates. A lot of the conversations I was already having either internally or with peers, but I guess an MA in Islamic studies helped me to feel legitimate in raising some of my thoughts around race, racism, migration and oppression in Muslim circles. Unfortunately there is still a damaging thought among many Muslims that some issues are Muslim issues while others are Black Issues, so injustice which happens to Black people is not seen as important even if it affects people in Muslim communities.
You also hold a second MA in Women’s Studies where you focused on the intersection of faith and spirituality, race, gender, auto-ethnography and methodologies of empowerment for non-centred people. Can you tell us more about how these ideas, themes and concepts have impacted and inspired your creativity?
This MA shaped a lot of my current practices, because what it allowed me to do was to think about poetry and story telling as a methodological approach to research. A way in which the subjects are not just observed, but actually became producers of knowledge, and centered researchers. They are the experts in the room, which disrupts this old colonial way of research where you have the “objective research” Often middle-class, white, and male, coming in to interpret all that he has learnt, with no acknowledgement with how subjective and steeped in colonialism and empire politics that these methods of knowledge production are. Since that point I have been working with organisations like IBT to explore this, and poetry as a practice for knowledge production. It is one of the things at the fore front of my practice.
You are passionate about community engagement and have experience delivering expressive based, purpose-driven workshops in women’s groups, community groups, schools, universities, campfires, and wherever humankind commune. Drawing from your experiences, how can art and creativity bring communities together and be a force for change?
There are so many ways in which art can bring people together and bring about social change. We’ve already talked about the whole connection thing, but it allows people to learn about each other. It can be used as an educational tool, sometimes I see poetry and art as info graphics, sometimes there are niches or complicated ways of explaining things, which are not accessible, but get the artist to come and some of that can become much more understandable. Sometimes I get commissioned, or invited by big corporate organisations to come in and sum up scientific conferences or to share the work of charities, and I think why am I here, what do I know about Aids, Malaria or Fintech banking, and then I realise am the infographic there to connect.
In terms of social change, we just have to look throughout history to see just how many movements and revolutions there have been, and in all these movements we see the role of the artist has been fundamental to galvanising the movements, telling the story of the movements and inspiring people when momentum is lacking. Art leads itself to that.
Bristol has both a radical and contentious history, has this impacted and shaped your work?
It is hard for a hometown not to shape where a person is from, and being born in the 80s to Jamaican migrants in a city with a vibrant Jamaican community and a city historical connected to the kidnapping of Africans and the lucrative business of plantations and enslavements, you have no choice but to be impacted by that. So, I would say a sense of community, collectivity, resistance, self determinations are some of the things being born in Bristol has afforded me, also an appreciation of music and art.
Can you tell us about the Power, Protest & Poetry project you recently worked on with Bristol Libraries?
The project came about as a collaboration between Words of Colour and Bristol Libraries. They were both a part of the BBC Novels that shaped our world project, and as a part of that, they had to pick themes and ways for residents of Bristol to engage with the themes and the novels. Being from Bristol and having had spoken about that contentious yet radical history of Bristol, they thought I was the right fit for the project. I curated and delivered 3 drop in workshops which culminated in a final event where the participants also had the opportunity to share. Of course the toppling of the Colston statue was a big part of the conversation. In terms of the connection between Power, Poetry and Protest, poetry has the ability to be a form of protest in the face of power, and it can also be a form of power itself.
As co-founder of Poetic Pilgrimage, can you tell us more about how this came about and the impact you have had on the audiences?
Fundamentally, Poetic Pilgrimage came about as the result of two girls who felt they were not represented, this was probably not at the forefront of their minds, but they knew they did not see themselves in the limited portrayals of young black women. Their friendship and eventually faith emboldened them to speak. One of the biggest impacts, I think is disrupting the narratives of what it means to be a Black, British, Muslim, and a woman, both individually and collectively.
How have you found the experience of being a black and Muslim woman in the creative industries?
For me being a Black, Muslim, Women in the creative industry, has been as complicated as being a Black, Muslim, Women in Muslim spaces. First to acknowledge that I have been here a while now so things have changed and I am more astute in terms of navigating this terrain, but there is still a slight expectation for me to leave one of my identities at the door; in some situations I am too Black, in others I am too Muslim, and in others I am too woman. But as I said being here for a while has also afforded me opportunity to say no if something does not feel right.
As a poet, how does your practice question and challenge ingrained attitudes and beliefs within the Muslim community, but also within themselves and Western society at large?
I don’t think that is a question that I can answer, my main interest is not to make art that will change, challenge, question and so forth, if it does that, great, but I don’t want to make a piece with that at the forefront. If anything that is for the curator to identify and say, “ah Muneera Pilgrim does this, let me book her”. For me personally approaching art with anything other than my thoughts, research if needed, and curiosity, makes it feel a little disingenuous.
How can spoken word and poetry impact the future of Islamic art and culture?
I think poetry will continue to impact Islamic art and culture in the way it always has. It is something that is not unfamiliar to Islam, it has always been here, from Hassan Ibn Thabit, to Rumi, to Sukina Pilgrim, Rakaya, Fetuga, or Saraiya Bah. It has always been here.
For more information check out http://muneerapilgrim.com/
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