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Poet Saida Dahir On 'The Walking Stereotype'


Saida Dahir from Salt Lake City is a student activist who uses spoken word to explore her place in America and the world. On the eve of her high school graduation, she recorded this poem.


SAIDA DAHIR: "The Walking Stereotype" - I found myself. I call myself this. It's a metaphor for my existence in this peculiar place called Earth. As a black Muslim refugee woman, I've shattered glass ceilings. As a black Muslim refugee woman, I defy expectations. In a world that is so quick to rip you apart, you have to find yourself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was from a poem called "The Walking Stereotype" from an album being released this weekend. Saida Dahir joins us from KQED in San Francisco.

Welcome to the program.

DAHIR: Hi, thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, it's a pleasure to have you on the show.

Why did you call your album "The Walking Stereotype?"

DAHIR: Well, the name "The Walking Stereotype" has a lot of different meanings towards it. It came from a joke my friend once said because I do have a bunch of different marginalized groups that I'm a part of. And she joked and said, Saida, you're basically the walking stereotype. And from there, I really coined that term to mean everything that I am a part of being black, Muslim, a refugee, a woman and really defying what society has said I can do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you choose poetry as the medium of your activism?

DAHIR: Well, Somalia's known as the nation of poets. Every single person in my family writes poetry and has a way of their words. So when I was a kid, I just started writing. And from there, it really evolved to more political poetry. And from there, it became protesting and really using my voice to talk about what's happening in our media and in our politics.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you take me back to sort of a moment when you decided you had to use your voice to address what you were concerned about?

DAHIR: One moment that really woke me up was after the Muslim ban was announced and Trump said that one of the seven countries would be Somalia. And that's the country that I came from. That's a country that if this ban had been put into place 15 years ago, I wouldn't be here, wouldn't be on the radio with you. You know, God knows where I'd be. And so in that moment, I knew that there's people back home that don't have the opportunities that I do, that never will. And I had to. I had to be the voice. And I had to speak out. And I had to make sure that every voice was heard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your poetry's incredibly personal. And so I want to play a poem now about you wearing the hijab. You have said that it was the biggest decision you ever made. And this is your poem about it. Let's take a listen.


DAHIR: The thing on my head. Excuse me, she asked, why do you wear that thing on your head? Such a simple question but such a complex answer. Thousands upon thousands of replies rushed to the tip of my tongue. I squeezed my mouth shut so they all won't rush out. All the answers colliding into one until they formed a new language. I looked at her, and she looked at me. We wait in silence until somebody speaks. The silence lasts so long I can start to hear the nervous twinkle in her eye.

I was only 14 years old when I wrote this poem, and it was really transformative because it was the first time that I was looked at weirdly in the street. Before then, you know, being a black woman, I was already outside of the box. But putting the hijab on was just a screaming signal to the world, like, look at me, you know, I'm different. And for a 14-year-old girl, there's nothing that they want to be that's different.


DAHIR: I like the same bands as her. We both wore the same fragrance of perfume. We shared a common interest in reading.

And so I knew that this poem was something that I wanted to write for the other girls that would just start wearing the hijab, for people that didn't really understand it. And it was just way of me to vent. Because when I'm in those emotions, I turn to poetry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've got to collaborate with Jerry Jemmott, the bass player of one of the most famous spoken word artists Gil Scott-Heron. In 1970, he released "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," of course. Here is a bit of your track, "Justified..."


DAHIR: In America, a black person is twice as likely to be killed unarmed by the police. Can't you see we traded our chains for a different kind of leash? We're afraid for our brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces...

Working with Jerry Jemmott in this poem was very eye-opening because he did amazing works for the civil rights era and all of the Black Panther Party and all those groups. And we are 50 years down. And I'm still writing poetry about the same thing. And so when I listen to "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" when I was 13, 14, I never would have expected that I would be in a situation where I would have that platform. But it really just goes to show that we're in this for the long haul. And we're going to continue and continue and continue until we break all the chains and we're free.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're off to UC Berkeley in the fall.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Congratulations.

DAHIR: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are you going to study?

DAHIR: I'm thinking of studying journalism and maybe dabble in a little law, really just try and mesh between the two and show that words are powerful but then the concrete change that happens every single day is also very important.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Saida Dahir. Her debut poetry album is called "The Walking Stereotype."

Thank you very much.

DAHIR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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