Dialectic is an American born hip hop artist of Pakistani descent who has grown up and lived in Toronto, Canada ever since immigrating there at the age of 4. A rapper and poet, Dialectic commentates about current affairs and empire in his work.
We talk to Dialectic about his new work Stolen, reflecting on icolonoclasm, reparations, restitution and redistributing power.
What does Spoken Word mean to you and how did you build a connection to this artform?
My introduction to spoken word is interwoven with my earliest memories of Hip Hop. Obviously I came across mainstream rap music at an early age and it struck a chord immediately. But I do remember seeing a lot of def jam poetry session videos on Youtube around the time I was entering my teens and being absolutely taken aback by the different styles of poetry and the command that the likes of Saul Williams had over the audience with just the tone of his voice. It made me look at rap music differently yet opened my eyes to the similarities too. Knowing the likes of Kanye or Erykah Badu as musicians first was intriguing because I often wondered what differentiates them reading out poetry from a verse done acapella with no beat live on stage versus the studio releases they did?
There was absolutely a time where spoken word poetry and rap music were seen as two distinguishable artforms but particularly within the past few years it seems that with a lot more variance in mainstream rap music where by you see free-verse styles becoming an acceptable mode of delivery. I think of someone like Dave who is very poetic in his freestyle, longer verse songs. But having been heavily influenced by Omar Offendum, his use of Arabic poetry in his music especially helped me to normalize the use of poetry, particularly that which is distinctly from our own culture, to be incorporated into my musical forays.
Reading and listening to spoken word poets like Mark Gonzales or Anthony Anaxagoru gave me a healthy perception of the artform, leading me on to the likes of traditional poets such as Khalil Gibran or Nizar Qabbani and Allama Iqbal. I liked that contemporary spoken word artists were able to speak about basically anything that they wanted; because of what constitutes mainstream hip hop as a young artist you almost feel compelled to stay within certain lanes and subject matter in your lyrics. Although this is something which is beginning to change now perhaps. It's easier for artists to talk about their feelings too; growing up rap music didn't really have much of a space for this because it was viewed as feminine, weak or associated with traditional poetry.Yet when you go even further back, you see this wasn’t the case with rap music from the late 80s or early 90s; it was something that occurred as the music became an industry and was heavily corporatized with label execs determining the scope and direction musicians work would take.
Yet personally, to me rap music has always been deeply poetic and were it not for a simple boom bap beat much of my favorite artists' work would not be distinguishable from what we perceive as traditional poetry. The likes of Nas or Tupac were phenomenal because they routinely pushed the boundaries not just in terms of creating a compelling persona that stood out adjacent to their generational peers but particularly because of the topics they chose to address. Rhyming patterns aside or breadth of vocabulary, the way in which words in spoken form evoke feeling is consistent with the effect they have on a reader engaging with written poetry, right? So then why is one considered a superior art form and the other not?
I remember the rapper Akala making this point quite eloquently; as to why don't we see young artists, who're often berated and looked down upon, as Shakespeare's of their time? It's classist and frankly racist that rap music has been stripped of being held in the same regard because of it's heavy use of not just slang but overwhelming connection to Black culture and history in the United States. Yes, the language may be derogatory in instances but does that really take away from the breadth of emotion/ pain transmitted through music let alone it being a vehicle for communal self-empowerment against systematic violence as Black people in America have endured for centuries? Absolutely not. So for me, spoken word poetry as a byproduct of poetry and hip hop were still akin. Hip Hop is a radical literary movement against structural white supremacy if anything. I also wanted to create something as different to what constitutes a mainstream hit as could be; so I really delved into the poetic aspect for this piece. I didn’t restrict myself in any way when it comes to writing 16 bar verses or being confined to the traditional industry standard of needing to have a chorus for example. I wanted this to be a piece that freed me from any expectation as to what we view as normal and contemporary or that gives you ‘success’ within the industry.
We ourselves as Muslims or South Asians especially, come out of a culture where poetry was an intrinsically vital part of social and intellectual life for over a millenia. Coming into Urdu from Persian, the term for poet, shayar and shayari for poetry, are borrowed from Arabic where the root of the word itself means that which is felt; so if we perceive all art through this lens how could Hip Hop not be considered poetic too when it resonates so deeply and brings out so much from inside of people. I always strive to tap into that- to convey feelings and to help you catch a sense of what I feel inside.
In pre Islamic Arabian folklore the poet was considered a mythical figure who possessed great magical power and thus their influence was highly regarded as greatly impactful to those who heard their words- which is almost symbolic of the quite literal effect words can have. It's unquantifiable by any measure yet immensely powerful. That potential to inspire and imagine is infinite. We’re constantly tapping into this reservoir where the limits are endless to what we can construct collectively when it comes to imagination and the potential of what we can invoke in a person.
This makes it far more of a responsibility in terms of what we allow to pass through to those who engage with our work. It isn’t just for me to find meaning or fulfillment through but doing so knowing that I can have an everlasting and incalculable effect on how someone sees themselves or engages with the world around them because of my words. The relationship between artist and consumer is becoming more and more intimate in this age of social media; music particularly leaves an imprint on us. That we cry when we listen to certain verses or depend on listening to certain songs to pull us through certain moments in our day says a lot about that role it plays and what it can be for someone. I try to remember that and stay true to my responsibility as an artist to uplift and educate at every opportunity I get when creating.
Why did you create Stolen and how does it relate to the Muslim experience in the USA?
It was definitely written as a reflective piece in the aftermath of the uproar that occured across the summer of 2020 and the horrific murder of George Floyd. I didn't just want to tap into the revolutionary fervour that was sweeping across the world in that moment and calling into question police brutality; I wanted to attempt to convey why these instances of police violence kept (and keep on) reoccurring in an almost identical fashion in the United States namely but actually across Canada or the UK and Europe. And when we discuss policing as a set of discriminatory practices or the over-policing of Black and Brown people in white majority countries we cannot do so without speaking about white supremacy. So my intention was to provide a historical analysis in poetry form but in doing so to help others understand why these murders are the byproduct of historical phenomenons, of systemic oppression, that is definitely in continuation. That we have structures in place which uphold this violence culturally, politically and economically. That particularly when we look at the US we see a codified, structural ideology that not only permits cops to harass, brutalize and kill Black men, women and children but actually necessitates it. That these instances don't exist within a vacuum but have historical precedence and are a norm in such a culture and society that championed bigotry and normalized the most grotesque forms of racial hierarchies to the point where it once considered Black people who as slaves chose to run away from their enslavement- as being mentally ill. If we cannot see the interdependence and overlapping nature of this systemic violence historically and today, if we cannot understand what forces it- we cannot end it let alone contend with why it happens. So my main motivation was to trace this violence back to the origins of these societies like the US or Canada which were settler-colonial projects primarily built to preserve and maintain the dominance of whiteness in every facet of their functionality. That we cannot speak about the modern prison without understanding it's roots within the institution of slavery and what necessitated the constant monitoring, control and suppression of Black and Indigenous people within the US. That we have to understand how slavery never really ended but was sustained through the reformed prison system and so branched into a far more diversified mechanism of regulating and dominating Black life. That we cannot inquire about why Black and Indigenous people are still the most likeliest to be locked up or killed by the police across North America when these institutions and practices exist within the paradigm of states created upon a brutal expansionism that was permeated on clearing the land and ethnically cleansing it of these population groups if not repressing and exploiting them.
The title itself, Stolen, refers to this idea that I had. When I think of that video, of making the mistake of watching it, of seeing what George Floyd went through as the officer refused to lift his knee despite the pleas; of hearing him call out for his mother and then that painful final moment where his body gives way. I really thought about that final moment because it stayed with me. As if his whole body collapsed one final time. There is something absolutely haunting about this fact that he was suffocated to death. It's excruciating. The thought makes the hairs on my neck stand up; that someone had the life choked out of them quite literally. The expansion of the chest and the relaxing of the lungs; that's all that life really is. And in our tradition we believe there is a significance beyond the symbolic as to what that breath means. It's the most basic yet intense expression of human hood.
We watched George Floyd struggle with every dying breath. And so I recalled how in our Islamic tradition we're told of a time before we came into this world when every soul found themselves in the presence of God in the sea of souls; where Allah breathed a part of his Ruh into us- Nafas Ar Rahman- the Breath of the All Merciful. It was said that we were in distress in our state of non-existence and the Breath of the Divine brought us relief by bringing us into this dunya. By giving us life itself. Bearing witness to his Oneness as we were entrusted with that part of Him inside of us. Thus kickstarting the process towards birth and our coming into this realm- where we ourselves take that first breath still sustained, suspended and dependent on what was breathed into us- which is renewed with every breath we ourselves take. That very breath takes us through this life towards our ultimate return to Him.