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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?