Rafeef Ziadah: Storming the culture borders

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Rafeef Ziadah launched her album of collected spoken word poetry put to music at Toronto's Concord Cafe late last fall. She performed a few selected poems to an audience of friends, fans, musicians and of course Palestinian political activists. On Ziadah's anticipated debut album Hadeel, you'll find a selection of 10 poems that established this Palestinian spoken word artist's reputation as a political poet in Toronto over the past six years. Her work is accompanied by a diverse range of musicians, adding a new layer of depth to the work.

 

If Palestinian spoken word artists like Suheir Hammad and Remi Kanazi write their poems in New York, influenced by hip hop rhythms, Ziadah's spoken word looks at the Palestinian experience through a different prism. Her poems have more of an Arabic feel and, influenced by Toronto's Caribbean dub poetry scene, focus on storytelling and music more than rhyme and metaphor, as she explained to me in Toronto: "I was introduced to the dub poetry aspect and storytelling in Toronto. The New York tradition has become more about rhyming and hip hop, the Caribbean tradition holds onto the beautiful storytelling aspect and I do want to tell a Palestinian story, that's why using Arabic words is so essential."

Ziadah creates rhythm through repetition, inflection and emphasis throughout the album. The opening piece "Shades of Anger," set to a backdrop of thick energetic instrumentals, gives you your first taste of Ziadah's style and tone. A political artist, she doesn't mince words or seek euphemisms for the "apartheid wall" or the Israeli occupation of her homeland. But Shades of Anger no less than the other poems is a work of art, not a political essay. Her style is narrative, not didactic.

Arabic is omnipresent in Ziadah's poetry, from the pronunciation of names you're used to hearing anglicized and mispronounced ("Gaza," "Ahmad") to lines of songs, reminding us that it's an inherent part of the artist. In "Cry" we hear Ziadah singing in Arabic for the first time. It's a haunting reminder of the spoken word artist's main power, that of language.

"Montreal Subway" balances artistic expression with communication. The listener is allowed to hover slightly above her words, floating on the Arabic-inflected, sometimes child-like voice, but never drift far enough to lose the substance of the story. At times full of tragedy, other parts of "Hadeel" are not without an acerbic wit. In her poem "Savage," she quips about Israel's settlements "...can I have a phone number or a fax for you God? Don't know when God became a real-estate agent and decided to promise away other people's land..."

But the real power of the album is when the witty thrusts and stories give way to the poet's painting of a picture, as in "Savage":

"Can't you see? The colour of my skin is the colour of the soil in Palestine. Every rock in Jerusalem knows my last name, and every wave hitting the Haifa shore is waiting for me to return..."

Ziadah is no stranger to breaking taboos. Whether she's introducing herself to an anti-war rally of thousands of people on Bloor Street in the winter, taking to the podium to deliver a lecture on women in Palestine, or taking the stage to drop a spoken word poem, Ziadah, 30, tells her listeners that she is "a refugee from Occupied Palestine, soon to be Free Palestine."

Ziadah hopes that Hadeel -- named for a young girl who's family died in an Israeli air strike in Gaza -- will elicit strong reactions as well.

As a political artist, she believes the communicative side of art is too often neglected in the poetry scene:

"We are encouraged to think that poetry shouldn't make sense and shouldn't move people to action, it's simply self-expression for the sake of art itself. Not to say that artists shouldn't be true to themselves, but when I'm on stage I am not providing a product for consumption, rather a story and a way to connect that story to the audience. It's finding that balance between what's inside you and what message you want to put out and putting it in a way people can relate to and understand."

Ziadah has no illusions that mainstream record labels like Virgin is going to take up a Palestinian spoken word artist. But she doesn't think the record labels have a lock on audiences anyway.

"The industry itself is shifting under the feet of those who control it, mostly because of technology. I can't travel to Palestine: Israel won't allow Palestinian refugees to enter, much less return. But if I make a CD and put it online people can hear the entire thing over there. It has been incredible to get messages from refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine talking about the poems

My CD is available online for people to listen. If they want to download it they can pay. A lot of artists are going to that model. You want people to hear it, and if they want to support they can buy it."

This is not your typical business model with a focus on making money, which Ziadah says is "not impossible, but really hard," and "but from the perspective of someone wanting to communicate an urgent message to listeners, it makes more sense to have people share the poems freely."

But despite having a pair of day jobs, Ziadah insists on clockwork organization. "You should try your best to at least break even. Its essential to support the artists who are supporting you. In my case it meant working hard to get a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, having a plan for studio time, musician time, taking the project seriously.

"Some people have this idea that artists aren't supposed to be organized. But you are working against the current and trying to make something happen where you're being told that political art doesn't have space in this society any more, that if you don't look a certain way as a woman, you can't be on stage, and if you're not part of an industry or signed up with a big label you're wasting your time. To work against the current takes organization and a deep commitment to the message your speaking."

Ziadah is not currently touring other cities to promote her album. Instead she is eager to write new material and perform more frequently in Toronto's spoken word scene. Fans can get the details and dates of her upcoming performances from her website.

Hadeel can be heard and downloaded at rafeefziadah.ca.

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