• Amy Toledano

In Conversation with Spoken Word Artist Aizaz ‘Aiz’ Hussain

Aizaz Hussain – firstly congratulations on having recently had your first-year anniversary as a spoken word artist. How are you feeling?

Thanks for having me! I am feeling very blessed to experience a full year of this incredible artform. I have several friends who were never able to make it to twenty-three and achieve their dreams, so I am doing this for them as well as for myself. May they all rest in power. It seems crazy that, as a kid, I felt discouraged to speak up so recently I made a highlights video to thank everyone who has supported me to get to where I am today. I couldn’t have done any of this without them!

How did you get involved in poetry and spoken word? Can you tell us about your experiences with BBC World News and the Asia House Poetry Slam?

I got involved with Spoken Word very sporadically. As a kid, I hated poetry but living in South London, I was always exposed to that type of rap through Garage and early Grime culture. In my first year at Loughborough University, a friend nudged me onto the mic at a poetry event called ‘Speech Bubble’. I’d written a semi-autobiographical poem called ‘Life’, but I wasn’t quite ready to admit that the piece was based on me or my life in London. After a couple of difficult years and the deaths of a few friends, my mental health deteriorated. I attempted to commit suicide on my twenty-first birthday, writing a sort of explanation or goodbye which became my poem ‘Death’. I had no idea it would go viral. I received so many kind messages from friends and strangers. People opened up to me about their own experiences with mental health. It gave me a new perspective. Poetry literally saved my life.

Performing for the BBC and in the Asia House Poetry Slam in 2018 was extraordinary! I stumbled across Spread the Word and Asia House’s Poetry Slam after graduation and submitted my poem, ‘Death’. I wasn’t really writing or focusing on poetry but I found it jarring that there wasn’t much Asian representation in mainstream British arts so I thought why not! Out of nowhere, I found myself in the Slam Final. I didn’t really know any professional poets at the time – I just about knew of Kate Tempest and Benjamin Zephanniah. When the BBC offered to feature my poetry internationally, I accepted because I thought if only one other young Asian out there could benefit from my words, it would be worth it. I had no idea it would go viral! Over 125,000 people witnessed my story on BBC. It was broadcast to BBC World News which reaches something like 99 million viewers per week! I began to accept my role as a ‘poet’ when the BBC Asian Network got in touch too and I went on the radio a few times to discuss my work, my journey and why talking about mental health is so important.

You regularly return to difficult themes in your work such as death and mental illness. In ‘Death’, you say, “You can’t help other people if you can’t help yourself first.” Why do you think that’s so important? How do you think poetry can become a form of therapy for people?

I learnt the hard way that self-love and self-care are vital. We need to spread more love and positivity around the world. We need to learn to receive love and not think it’s selfish to look after ourselves.

Recently, there has been a lot of debate around the idea of poetry as therapy. Of course, poetry should not replace professional therapy or counselling but, at the same time, not many people can afford professional help so writing and performing can become their way to express their feelings. I was lucky enough to receive therapy at university but I couldn’t afford it after graduation when I really needed it. It was around this time that I really discovered poetry so I can empathise with both sides.

Your poetry feels so relatable and simultaneously so specific to growing up in London as a second-generation Pakistani immigrant? How do you find those different aspects of your identity interact in your work?

I often feel like there’s virtually no representation of my culture within our Western-mainstream. It’s fantastic to see my African & Caribbean brothers and sisters gaining the success they’ve been due for a long time, but there still seems to be a divide and stigma around British Pakistanis and Asianness. My dual heritage definitely forms a unique identity I now choose to embrace. After years of being conditioned to think that mental health is taboo, I now feel able to speak up about my emotions. My writing has evolved since I started but it remains rooted in personal poetry. I’m a product of my environment which has involved becoming a voice for the voiceless until they find the strength to speak up for themselves so you’ll will never hear me shy away from raising awareness on issues like knife crime, racism, austerity, mental illness which many people in my generation believe are side-lined by the mainstream media.

You’re an active supporter and performer in the spoken word scene across London. You’re South London-born but regularly perform all over the city, have performed across the country and internationally and recently toyed with a trip to Germany. What do you think of London’s spoken word scene, how does it compare with scenes in other parts of the country and beyond?

LARGE UP SOUTH LONDON!!!! Mitcham reppin’. Seriously though I’m very fortunate to be working in London’s creative industry. It is the biggest melting pot of the best talent I have ever seen. This city’s Spoken Word scene is phenomenally welcoming and diverse. I’m thankful for the opportunities and feature sets it has given me, including the likes of JolyLicks’ ‘Sip + Rhyme’ workshops and N’Calma’s ‘Worlds Words’. I’m thankful for the friends and family I’ve made. Every event is different with a unique vibe, and you genuinely do find a home in various spaces across all corners of London. Chocolate Poetry Club and Off The Chest have a more intimate vibe, BYOB and BoxedIn garner fantastic audiences within their respective Boxparks, and events like Mind Over Matter explore important issues. There are so many more amazing events that I love and could shoutout but I’d be here for days.

London is its own bubble but I’ve been fortunate enough to perform across the country and headline events in cities like Liverpool and even perform in Asia. As much as it may feel like, our liberal capital city is not always representative of the wider world and we need to consider immersing ourselves in sharing culture with people elsewhere. Learning about each other’s similarities and differences is the way to unite people. Social media has allowed me to learn and experience the truth of people I’ve never met before. Interacting with people through Instagram live-streams has been a great way to expand my network and hopefully the wider scene, and yes, one of those live-streams led to an invite to explore the German poetry scene! Representing the UK on a European road-trip would be a dream.

What advice would you give to people who might want to get involved in poetry and spoken word whether it is as a fan or a performer?

As a fan, start telling more of your friends and family to come to spoken word events. Follow poetry accounts on social media. Tell people to spread the word. For whatever reason, the majority of our society is still sleeping on massive poetic talent that’s being shared (often for free) and it’s a shame because it is such a loving community. The only way to elevate our scene into the fully-fledged industry we know it has the potential to be, is to take a little bit of time out of our lives to support other artists. Listen to WordSpoken Podcast for a great introduction to the scene. You’ll often find someone you can relate to and you’ll wonder how you didn’t find them sooner.

If you want to perform Spoken Word and/or share your own Page Poetry:

1) Do it. Don’t ever be afraid to speak your truth. A poet’s job is to expose our feelings when we can’t articulate them, when we find it hard to tell someone how we’re feeling in more than just a few words, in order to put a mirror up to ourselves both personally and societally. I resigned from a company and job I loved because I wasn’t getting enough time to create the poetry I believed in. Follow your belief.

2) Try not to create in order to seek validation from others. You’ll find that your art has changed drastically in terms of authenticity and intentions. You should always create for yourself first, above anything and anyone else.

3) Show love. Stay humble. Dream big.

Of course, COVID-19 has put a temporary lockdown on all in-person poetry events. How has the poetry scene tried to adapt to these times?

Lockdown is a great shame but of course a necessity. I hope everyone is continuing to take care of themselves, their loved ones, those most vulnerable and our key workers. The poetry scene has been fast to adapt to the crisis and come together in a beautiful and organic way through social media and video-calls. Obviously, the current situation often infiltrates the poetry we post, but there are also many of us writing and talking about things that help us escape from our current reality. Established/upcoming poetry events have taken their heartfelt open mics to worldwide platforms like Zoom and Instagram and there’s the live-streams and social media challenges. The creativity has been flourishing and it just goes to show how inclusive and connected the scene has always been and will continue to be.

Any plans for future projects whether it’s virtual/in lockdown, or once we’re all allowed out again?

I may have a few tings in the pipeline *eyes emoji*

In all seriousness, I’ve not been thinking too far ahead with the current situation. The week quarantine began, I was going to host my first unique poetry event so I’d love to get that started again! Recently, I’ve been appearing on podcasts, featuring for virtual live gigs and messing around with music to compliment my poetic style. It would be cool to hit a studio after lockdown and record some art for a debut project - if anyone would like to collaborate, don’t hesitate to hit me up!

The main future project I can guarantee is giving my poetry family a massive hug once we’re all allowed out again. These are the same people I had seen week in and week out, so believe me when I say it’s been too long! If you know me, then you’ll know I’m all about spreading positivity to make this world a better place. No doubt, I’m working hard to create another year of more blessings for myself and us all, collectively.

Aiz – thank you so much for talking to me and I wish you all the best in your career!

Thank you – it really means a lot.

Leah x

📩 For bookings / commissions / collaborations or enquiries, contact Aiz at: aizazhussain.work@gmail.com

Watch Aiz’s Highlights Video here, and Aiz’s BBC feature, interviews and his ‘Life’ and ‘Death’ poems here.

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