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Hip Hop & Sufism - A Quest for the Divine, Baraka Blue

Baraka Blue is a poet, author and musician from Seattle, Washington. In addition to releasing multiple studio albums, authoring books of poetry, and performing internationally, Baraka Blue is a prolific educator with a master’s degree in Islamic Studies from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

He spent a number of years studying with traditional spiritual masters in Africa, Turkey, Asia and the Arab world. He has performed and taught all over the world, including at institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

In 2018, Baraka Blue founded the Rumi Center for Spirituality and the Arts which provides online courses to seekers from anywhere in the world. He is the host of the award winning podcast Path & Present, which features conversations on spirituality in the modern world. He lives in Seattle where he is the director of Wasat, an organization that builds community through spirituality, arts and culture, and service.

We talk to Baraka about hip hop, Sufism and finding the ‘poetic eyesight.’

Can you tell us about your background and your journey into poetry?

All praise to the Real, who brought forth all of existence from nothingness and granted being and perception and selfhood and made that selfhood a sign and made all that is perceived by those with perception a sign to awaken them to the Truth. And peace be upon the Ascended One, his noble family, his honorable companions, and all those who follow his path of light. Ameen.

I was nurtured in an environment of art and creativity and gravitated to music and poetry from an early age. I grew up in Seattle, a city with a history of musical innovation and creativity (Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Quincy Jones are some of the most well known) and I had a number of musicians and singers in my family going back as far as family history can be traced. Early on I was drawn to Hip-Hop music and lyricism which was something that I devoted myself to in my teenage years. It was through Hip-Hop lyricism that I fell in love with the power of language and poetry. It really gripped me and I felt an insatiable pull to explore the texture of language, imagery, metaphor, rhyme pattern, slant rhyme, near rhyme, internal rhyme, rhyme scheme, narrative and storytelling, verse, syllable, meter and rhythm, tempo, free verse, stress, color, quantity and pitch of each syllable, breath control; really anything to do with language in general and especially spoken language; this became a type of obsession of myself as well as a number of my dearest friends who I grew up making music with. But more than the forms that language could take, I was interested in the meanings that could be conveyed; the power of language to transport or to transform or to open up one human to the inner world of another. How subtle allusions in single lines can sometimes convey more than an entire library… the inseparability, in poetry and songwriting, of what is said from how it is said… the fact that, if you understand what is said but are not moved to feel what is being conveyed then the poem or lyric has completely failed.

How do hip hop, spoken word and poetry relate?

They are all the same thing to me.

How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages and how you find inspiration?

Often a line will come. Or a pressing state will come that will demand itself to be expressed. Honestly, even though I have taught writing for a number of years, it gets more mysterious to me the more I try to convey it. Which only increases my love and awe of this artform. Inspiration is a great mystery. Many of the mystics have written about it. But to theorize is to abstract from the experience so most have remained silent or sufficed themselves with subtle allusion. The tongue is the organ that both tastes and speaks, but it does not taste and speak at the same time. There are things which transcend the rational mind's ability to conceptualize or grasp. These are the best and most lofty things in life: love, experiential knowing, intimacy, spiritual states, experiences of the sacred. “You can not be taught to smell the ocean, you must go yourself to the edge.” There are aspects of ourselves and our world that don’t care to be understood or categorized in ways that diminish their profundity and beauty. Of course, there is a degree to which poetry is a craft. One has to work at it like one would work at weaving or painting. There are tricks of the trade, there is apprenticeship, there is a long period of preparation before one is ready to sit behind the loom or the canvas oneself. But there is also something about the deepest elements of language and inspiration, experience and expression that transcends, paradoxically, anything that we could say about it or anything one could teach. You can learn it. But it can’t be taught.

Why is poetry such a powerful art form and how can people connect to it?

Perhaps because it opens a window to the inner dimensions of our subjectivity; poetry is like a cold plunge into consciousness itself. Each human being is an ocean of unfathomable depth–even if we aren’t used to diving too far beneath the surface of our selfhood yet. I often think of poets as deep sea divers who go into the depths and then come back up to the surface to share what is down there; it reminds those of us who have forgotten how to dive, who we really are–“[we] contain multitudes,” to quote Whitman. The Arabic proverb, “whoever knows themselves, knows their Lord” comes to mind. If people connect to themselves they will connect to poetry. And, in turn, poetry can help them connect to themselves more deeply.

Can you share your path to Sufism and how has this impacted your life and creativity?

In my teenage years, given my infatuation with language and poetry and music, I imbibed all the music and poetry I could from every language, culture and tradition I could. At a certain point I was really open to all genres and types: I would listen to Andean flute music, aboriginal didgeridoo, Gregorian chant, jazz, folk, West African music I loved, classical Indian music, Latin American folk music, bossa nova, hip-hop in languages I couldn't understand, I got really into Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and qawwali music at one point, really whatever. And likewise with poetry, I read poetry from various times and places: Pablo Neruda, Rilke, Blake, Basho, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Hafez… But it was really Rumi who stood out to me. I felt that I had found the most exquisite articulation of the human experience in him. Everything I had felt he had expressed in language; and I felt he was inviting into an even deeper experience. He captured the profundity and majesty as well as the subtlety and beauty that exists in every detail of existence, in every breath; he saw it all as a type of language communicating the same unity.

That was my door to Sufism and to Islam more generally, which I found to be a universe of meaning that unlocked the soul’s potential to journey in the imaginal realm; Sufism really opened up the cosmos for me and gave me a map of how to journey within it and through it. So my creative and my spiritual path have been interwoven strands ever since then.

In the world of poetry, why is Rumi and Sufism so popular?

There are many reasons. I have written about this elsewhere. But, I think it comes down to the fact that it taps into the universal yearning of the human soul for a transcendence that is also named Love. That yearning for a love that is present with everything and through everything precisely because it is beyond everything, yet closer to every thing than that thing is to itself; it gives breath to all things. There is that dance of transcendence and immanence that we, in our deepest selves, sense is the true nature of the cosmos and our own consciousness. It's all interrelated, it's all full of awe, and it's all made of love. Rumi gives voice to that. Sufism is the path to that.

What can people learn from Sufism?

How to walk through the door in their heart that opens into Love’s Reality.

You also teach courses on Rumi and Sufi poetry, what can people gain from this experience?

On the surface we are speaking about writing, but in reality it is about cultivating a way of seeing–opening the eye of the heart.

Who are your favourite poets?

Rumi. There are others I like very much, but to me he is in another category altogether.

Can you share one of the works you have written you are most proud of? Why did you choose this piece?

The first one that comes to mind is called A Station Called Patience. I wrote it in a hotel room in Malaysia a few years back. It was an exploration of the Divine Name as-Sabur (The Patient). That Name always intrigued me. You have to live some to understand that Name… all the Names, to be sure; but to me, the poem gets at some of the mystery of struggle, difficulty, and suffering, which is such an inescapable aspect of life. No one doubts their own pain. One of the greatest gifts you could give someone is insight into a way of more gracefully relating to and orienting themselves toward their suffering. I believe the wisdom traditions are precious mines in this regard.

There is a quality to people who have endured great hardship with the quality of patience, in the spiritual sense–not simply waiting, but real patience–as the poem alludes to. There are people who have arrived at the station of patience and been fully fermented by life. They are no longer just grape juice. They have become wine! These are the great ones that humanity celebrates. This poem is an ode to that fermentation, you could say, and to the fermented.

A Station Called Patience

there was a station called patience

that few had attained

most got off before that stop

and only knew it in name

those who basked in the sun

but didn't care for the rain

were perplexed at those few

who remained on the train

paid them no mind, and were blind

to the secrets they knew

like, the brightest color hides

in the deepest of blues

opposite the direction

most people pursue

there is a station called patience

only known by a few

it may not have the bright lights

or the games that amuse

but its beauty exceeds

everything that they knew

while, the other stations always

looked shiny and new

this station stayed simple

just hidden from view

those who found patience

seemed to find it by chance

perhaps fell asleep on the train

and woke up in its trance

maybe a dream they had seen

where the question was asked

"is there more to this place

than appears at first glance?"

some were forced there

when the cost of living was high

or the struggles and the troubles

had chased them inside

but those who entered her tavern

and drank from her wine

found the place they called patience

was a station divine

for what looked to be ruins

to the ones that passed by

as they scoffed, or they pitied,

those living inside

patience' people looked back

and they pitied their pride

which veiled them from

what only patience could reveal

or could hide

patience is a trust

the other stations refused

it infuses and transforms

mortal vision anew

"patience" is not merely "waiting"

though, they're often confused

patience is a station

you awaken into

once you know the one

for whom patience is due

you see a mysterious relation

between patience and you

like a long lost memory

that finally came into view

you see that patience

has been patiently waiting

for you.

What has been the most memorable reaction to your poetry?

This is a good question. Let me think about this. My mom when I wrote the poem To Mothers. She was deeply moved and in turn I have seen how others are moved by that poem. It taps into something so deep in the human experience. I used to not like to recite it because it was too emotionally vulnerable to me. But, seeing the way people responded to it inspired me to celebrate that vulnerability and embrace it.

Another memory that comes to mind: One of my teachers when I recited a poem to the Prophet, peace be upon him, visibly went into a very intense state of ecstasy. I know it was due to his love of the Beloved and wouldn’t attribute it to my poetry, but it was memorable nonetheless, and fills me with joy when I think about it.

How do we learn to develop ‘poetic eyesight’?

It starts with paying attention. Stilling oneself. Purifying one’s heart and intention and connecting one’s heart to the Creator of forms and meanings. The Sufis speak about the “eye of the heart.” Other traditions call it the “third eye.” There is a type of inner perception that can be cultivated through contemplation and through the removal of the veils of the ego and its qualities. There are a family of technical terms in the Islamic tradition that relate to the cultivation of presence and awareness: taqwa (God-consciousness), hudur (presence), khushu’ (reverence), shuhud (witnessing), muraqaba (introspection), muhasaba (retrospection), ihsan, as the Prophet defined it in the hadith of Gabriel: the cultivation of a type of witnessing of the Divine or at least witnessing of the Divine witnessing.

I see the spiritual path and the poetic or creative path as more or less synonymous. Our true nature is inherently creative because we are creatures created with the inherent ability to reflect and to manifest the Names and Attributes of the Creator; many of these names relate directly to creativity: al-Khalaq, al-Bari, al-Musawwir, al-Khafid, ar-Rafi’, al-Dhahir, al-Batin, al-Qabid, al-Basit. The majority, if not all, of the Names point us to the relationships of Allah with the created order, and so, indicate various facets of Divine creativity. The ability to be “qualified by the Divine’s qualities” is fundamental to the Adamic essence: “and He taught him all the names.” Learning, and embodying these Names, to the extent humanly possible, is the spiritual path.

Of course, there can be a type of creativity ascribed to those who don’t cultivate their spirit. A type of ego generated, lower vibration, or as my friend Amir Sulaiman has called it, “base chakra” art. But I think of true creativity as hollowing oneself out to allow the divine breath to blow through you–to use Rumi’s reed flute analogy. Art will always reflect the vessel it passes through, to be sure, but the creative path is about continuing to polish and cleanse the cup of one's being for all that is poured. There is a reason that poetry is the art form of the mystics and contemplatives in the world’s wisdom traditions–it's the language most suited to conveying the sublime and ineffable. To write poetry is to allow oneself to be pregnant with meaning and then give birth to this expression that grows within your being. There is a sense that it is of you, but another sense that it is through you.

What can poetry teach us about ourselves?

There’s a lot that could be said about this, but the words of Thomas Merton come to mind:

Many poets are not [true] poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by the circumstances of their individual lives.

They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint ...

Poetry can be a means to self-realization, self-awareness, self-discipline, it can allow you a door into yourself that might otherwise have remained closed. It allows you to remember there are other rooms–whole cities and continents in fact–within yourself that you had forgotten.

What are your future hopes and aspirations as a poet?

We have a new book of poetry coming out soon, inshAllah. It is a bit different than previous collections in that we put a lot of time and effort into, not only the poetry, but the presentation of the book itself. I’ve been working with an amazing team of artists, designers, bookbinders, and calligraphers to create a book that is itself a work of art. InshaAllah, with the release of that book we will do a book tour in North America, Europe, South East Asia and the Middle East. After the long isolation the last couple years I am very much looking forward to connecting with loved ones all over the world and sharing the art we have been working on.

I also have been getting a lot of inspiration from the courses at Rumi Center where we have been exploring creativity and the spiritual path through courses and writing groups–it is a really amazing group of people who have come together from all over the world who share a deep love of spirituality and the arts–and inshaAllah there will be more opportunities for growing the community through retreats and in person offering.

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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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