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Wali Shah wrote his first spoken word poem after a run-in with the cops. Now, he’s the voice of a generation

Wali Shah wrote his first spoken word poem after a run-in with the cops. Now, he’s the voice of a generation
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Two months into the pandemic, Wali Shah put a call-out on Twitter offering teachers a free poetry workshop for their students, and within a week the spoken-word star and former poet laureate of Mississauga had booked an entire month of sessions. Working with kids from grades seven to 12, he wanted to share that writing is more than just a tool for self-expression, that it can both bring joy and help one cope. “People spend thousands of dollars on counselling, and if you have the resources, that’s great — but these kids don’t,” Shah says. “What they do have are their phones or a pencil and a piece of paper. Anybody can sit down and write a poem or write a story.”

Poetry was a big part of Shah’s own transformation as a teen, after his grade 11 English teacher at Cawthra Park Secondary School handed him a copy of rapper Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose That Grew From Concrete.” He loved rap music and had played around with the form, but reading Shakur prompted him to write his first spoken-word poem. His teacher invited him to perform it in class. Shah still remembers how nervous he was: the paper shook in his trembling hands. Yet he got a standing ovation from his peers — and earned 100 per cent on the assignment. “That really changed me,” Shah says. “I realized that I had talent and I could do something with that talent.” A decade later, Shah is elated to have built the rarest of careers as a full-time poet and speaker with a debut novel on the way.

Wali Shah, the former poet laureate of Mississauga, says that poetry is a much more accessible art form than its rep might suggest.Luis Mora

Deciding to live a creative life wasn’t easy for Shah, however. Born in Lahore and raised in Mississauga, Shah and his family struggled financially as new immigrants. That meant his parents worked constantly, leaving Shah and his two younger siblings to their own devices. “I was always trying to keep myself busy with something, and that something often ended up leading me to a lot of trouble,” Shah says. Trouble meant getting into fights, school suspensions and a run-in with the cops that landed him in the back of a police car. He wasn’t engaged in class, and he didn’t feel like he could speak with his parents openly about the challenges he was facing. “Growing up in a Muslim and South Asian home, [we didn’t] talk about things like dating or masculinity or mental health,” Shah says.

While completing his degree at the University of Toronto Mississauga, Wali Shah thought he might become a teacher, so he contacted schools in his community and offered to share his story and his poetry. "The kids loved it because it sounded like rap music ? they could relate to it," he says.Luis Mora

Poetry became the tool Shah used to deal with feeling lost between two worlds. His first spoken-word poem was about the night he was arrested. In university, he didn’t consider writing a career option at first, yet he started to stray from the heavy expectations on him, bucking the stereotypical pressure immigrant kids feel to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. While completing his degree at the University of Toronto Mississauga, he thought he might become a teacher, so he contacted schools in his community and offered to share his story and his poetry. “The kids loved it because it sounded like rap music — they could relate to it,” he says. “This was before ‘culturally responsive pedagogy’ was a mainstream term. I was 18 or 19 and doing the work and not getting paid. I did it because I was passionate about it.”

Wali Shah performed after a keynote speech by Barack Obama and has participated at WE Day, where he met Kendrick Lamar, a hero of his.Luis Mora

People started to notice. Shah was called in to talk at more and more schools, and, eventually, organizations like the United Way added him to their speaker roster. That led to even bigger opportunities, like becoming Mississauga’s poet laureate in 2017, performing a piece after a keynote speech by Barack Obama and touring the country as a WE Day performer. It was at a WE Day event that Shah met Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar. “That was a really big source of positive reinforcement in my life, that someone like Kendrick Lamar would actually stop and talk with me and just kick a freestyle at the end of [our conversation],” Shah says.

Shah also counts poets from Toronto as inspirations. Two years ago, he had the opportunity to perform with Rupi Kaur, who, he says, is a huge influence. “I really love and admire her work,” Shah says. “Seeing a young South Asian woman from Peel make it out gives me hope that I can make it out too.” Kaur, the bestselling writer and illustrator who was crowned the “Queen of Instapoets” by Rolling Stone, is one of many young people who fuelled a renewed interest in the form by posting short, accessible pieces on Instagram. But the sustained interest in young poets has proven it isn’t just a social-media trend: last month, Amanda Gorman was the latest poet to move millions as the youngest ever to share a piece at a presidential inauguration.

"I realized that I had talent and I could do something with that talent," says poet Wali Shah.Luis Mora

For Shah, it’s an exciting moment to see someone like Gorman take the stage as part of a larger movement of poets from different backgrounds reaching the masses. For him, it means kids today have the chance to see themselves reflected in a way he couldn’t. “People are paying attention to diverse voices,” Shah says. “This is our time.”
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