Empowering Edmonton Through Spoken Word: A Conversation with @Knowmadic

Ahmed “Knowmadic” Ali is a community organizer, public speaker, youth worker, Somali refugee, and full-time father who has dedicated his time to enabling and empowering diverse communities within Edmonton. He’s the city’s poet laureate and the co-founder and current artistic director of Edmonton’s only spoken word collective: Breath In Poetry. His words echo throughout the city and serve as inspiration for all who listen.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Ahmed in his home city to chat about his passion for art and education, as well as the inclusive creative community he’s found in Edmonton. He had a lot to say, and we savored every word.

Photo by Nicholas Yee

How did you first get into spoken word, and what did you most connect with in regards to the medium?

I first started spoken word back in 2009. I had always written poetry, but I had never performed it. Growing up, I never wanted to be identified as one thing. I hated categories — like, you’re a student, you’re a Muslim, you’re African. I didn’t like that. I wanted to be a comedian, an actor, a public speaker, and spoken word encompasses all of that. The first time I performed, it felt really enriching. In stand-up comedy, you’re either funny or you’re not, and in theatre, you have support from either a director or a company, so you get opportunities. But in spoken word, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you have — if you have a voice and creativity, you’re good to go. Everybody’s valuable. Your voice is as unique as the seven billion people who live in this world, so whatever you say is infused with some level of uniqueness. In all honesty, I believe that poetry is magic ’cause the act of bringing something out of thin air with the vibration of vocal cords somehow creates images in your mind that make you feel something. It’s magic.

How did you transition from writing poetry to performing spoken word?

My parents moved back to Edmonton from Somalia in 2008, and at that time, I had been living in Ontario. To clarify, I was born in Somalia; my family moved to Italy when I was four; we moved to Edmonton when I was eight; I moved to Kitchener, Ontario, when I was nine; and then I returned to Edmonton with my parents in 2008 — a lot of moving, I know. When we returned to Alberta, I attended university, and that’s when I met my wife (my girlfriend at the time). And so, during that time, I told her that although I was attending university, it wasn’t my thing. I loved creative outlets, and back in Ontario, I did a bit of stand-up and theatre, and I had mentioned to her that I was feeling — for lack of a better term — depressed. That’s when she told me about this poetry thing that was going on, and she suggested that we go check it out. So, we went to the poetry reading — it was called the Killer Blinks and was put on by the Edmonton Poetry Festival — which ended up being 60-second poems performed by roughly 100 people. It’s like go and get out. It’s fast, but I went for it and stuttered throughout the entire reading. So my girlfriend went up and asked: “Hey, can he read it again?” So they let me read it again, and it was encouraging because it reminded me of what my father would always say, which is: “Struggle is the recipe that makes life’s soup taste better.” That first time was awesome. I loved it. And there, I met my good friend Titilope Sonuga, who’s also a poet, a writer, and an actor, and she said: “Come out; we’re starting this poetry thing.” And that’s where it began.

Photo by CreativeMornings Edmonton

Would you say that’s when you first connected with the creative community in Edmonton?

It was. That was my first initiation into Edmonton’s arts community, and the beautiful thing about it is that it’s unlike similar communities in places like San Francisco or Toronto, where there are established organizations deeply rooted in the cities’ funding and networks. So, for somebody who is new, trying to create space or trying to become recognized is challenging because there are so many people who are already doing a lot. But Edmonton is a pioneer city. If you’re a nobody, it’s okay! Everybody has an opportunity to start here. And no matter the organization, no matter how professional they are, everybody is willing to give you advice and support. And that’s the beautiful thing. I was able to grow because there are a lot of gardeners here, metaphorically speaking, who are always willing to contribute to your success. It’s weird — it’s an Edmonton thing. It’s like, if you succeed, all of Edmonton succeeds. We have that mentality. We used to be called the City of Champions because of the whole NHL thing, and people have talked about removing that, but in one of my poems, I talk about how we assist each other in opportunities and in our goals, so it’s still technically a city of champions. That’s what I love about Edmonton — that network.

Do you think that influenced how you developed as a creative?

Yeah, I was able to thrive in Edmonton based on my networks. Not only do I write poetry and perform spoken word, but I also volunteer a lot and sit on a lot of boards. I sit on government and community boards and visit correctional facilities, so I make sure that I diversify my involvement in community, which then spreads the accessibility of the poetry that I write.

Photo by Nicholas Yee

How did you get involved with all of those?

It all started with one thing, one poetry show. My friend Titi invited these members of these boards to come check out what we were doing, and afterward we collectively founded this thing called Breath in Poetry, which is a space for poets to visit regardless of how professional or unprofessional they are, regardless of their background, regardless of what they do. We wanted to provide an opportunity for them to grow. So, from there, people started inviting me to contribute to the Palestinian Solidarity Network, the Sikh Community events, Interfaith, and mental health organizations because, in my poetry, I try to encompass all of that. For me, it’s about what my father would always say: “You’re up on stage for about three minutes per poem — leave people with something. Don’t rob them of their time. Gift it to them, because we’re in the present, so whatever you’re saying should have some merit and a lesson.” For that reason, my poems are swear-free; they’re meant to include and educate, to take knowledge and share it. “Knowmad” is a play on that — I’m herding words instead of animals.

How have you seen the creative scene in the city grow and change since you first got involved?

It has become, and is still becoming, a lot more diverse, inclusive, and accessible. The Edmonton Arts Council and the Heritage Council are striving for that. One thing that I appreciate about them, and the city as well, is that they’re active — proactive, in fact. They’re not waiting for things to happen; they’re consulting the community, even with regards to the city’s future plans. They consult the indigenous community; they consult the students; they consult the seniors, the youth. They’re very inclusive in their approach to creating new stuff. And that’s where I’ve seen the creative side of the city really flourish since I’ve been here. There are a lot of younger people in positions of power as well, who are friends, who are artists, who recognize the importance of the arts. In schools today, art is not valued as much as it used to be, but that has been supplemented by the Arts Council and the Heritage Council, which focus on community and community growth — but not just as, “We’re a funding body; come get money.” It’s more like, “Hey, what we see you doing is great. How can we help you?” It’s a very communal thing, and there are no loose ends; there’s continuity. The city and the Arts Council work together constantly. So, for example, in the future, if the city’s ever creating a park or a bridge, they’ll contact the Arts Council so that there’ll be art involved in that project as well. There’s a lot of support. Art is welcomed and valued here, and even the government of Alberta is thinking about the Day of the Artist, which is extremely important. So that’s what’s changing: art is valued now and artists are respected.

Photo by Nicholas Yee

How have you seen the creative scene in the city grow and change since you first got involved?

It has become, and is still becoming, a lot more diverse, inclusive, and accessible. The Edmonton Arts Council and the Heritage Council are striving for that. One thing that I appreciate about them, and the city as well, is that they’re active — proactive, in fact. They’re not waiting for things to happen; they’re consulting the community, even with regards to the city’s future plans. They consult the indigenous community; they consult the students; they consult the seniors, the youth. They’re very inclusive in their approach to creating new stuff. And that’s where I’ve seen the creative side of the city really flourish since I’ve been here. There are a lot of younger people in positions of power as well, who are friends, who are artists, who recognize the importance of the arts. In schools today, art is not valued as much as it used to be, but that has been supplemented by the Arts Council and the Heritage Council, which focus on community and community growth — but not just as, “We’re a funding body; come get money.” It’s more like, “Hey, what we see you doing is great. How can we help you?” It’s a very communal thing, and there are no loose ends; there’s continuity. The city and the Arts Council work together constantly. So, for example, in the future, if the city’s ever creating a park or a bridge, they’ll contact the Arts Council so that there’ll be art involved in that project as well. There’s a lot of support. Art is welcomed and valued here, and even the government of Alberta is thinking about the Day of the Artist, which is extremely important. So that’s what’s changing: art is valued now and artists are respected.

Photo by Nicholas Yee

Has the poetry scene in Edmonton grown since you got involved?

It has grown tremendously! A lot of people didn’t know that these spaces existed, and now, we’re striving to make sure that these funding bodies continue to support them. I say this all the time, but, in my honest opinion, lack of information is being underprivileged. Information is the most important component. If you know something’s happening, then you get to choose whether you want to benefit from it or not. So we’re getting the word out.

In 2011, we became Canadian champions of spoken word — Edmonton beat 22 teams from around Canada, which got us a name. So, more artists started coming out this way. In addition, more of our artists are traveling now and performing in other places. This year, the Canadian Individual Slam Champion was a woman named Lady Vanessa Cardona, who’s a Columbian from Edmonton. She came here as a refugee. And so now, people who had never had an opportunity to speak before are being recognized, and because of that, we’re partnering with places like the Art Gallery of Alberta. Instead of the art gallery saying, “Why aren’t we getting more people from diverse communities?” we’re bringing diverse communities to the art gallery through spoken word shows. And so that’s what’s changing — the accessibility is there, people are aware that we exist, and we are aware that they exist.

Are there any creative events coming up that you’re most excited about?

I’ve been working diligently to bring a spoken word festival to Edmonton, and I’m currently in the process of creating that. As Edmonton’s poet laureate, you have to lead a lot of legacy projects, and mine are focused on getting Edmonton’s name out there. My main project is establishing an international artist residency between the British Council and the Edmonton Arts Council. I’ve done work with the British Council before — I’m a registered vendor with them and have traveled to both Sudan and Wales. Through those trips, my name was spread, and I was able to visit more places, and I recognize the importance of being seen. And so, I want to bring an artist from London, England, here to work on some of the literary and spoken word festivals and send one of our artists there, so that we can let London know that we exist, and vice versa.

Where do you see the creative community in Edmonton going?

I think the community is getting ingrained in everything that is happening — including politics. Art is everywhere, and artists are being welcomed to the table now. For example, the city asked me to write a poem that encompasses that notion, which in itself is a beautiful thing. And since art is being valued now, it’s the perfect time to become a self-employed artist, especially in Edmonton. It’s the perfect place to start ’cause your income doesn’t strictly derive from the art itself; it comes from people who believe in artists. And those people are here. Nobody makes it anywhere by themselves; it is by a network of people who believe in you. I have a wordplay that I say: “An artist’s soil is their community. If they’re not growing, they’re in the wrong field.” Edmonton is fertile. And this will only continue. We’re going to have more artists who are independent, and we’re going to have more opportunities for those artists. In fact, I was speaking to a huge development company here who are looking to create an artist space, so they reached out to us. Things are changing. People are recognizing the importance of public art. Sure, some people are still like, “Why do we need public art?” And I’m like, “The world’s greatest monuments are public art.” The pyramids, Stonehenge — they’re public art! They’re how we remember culture and society. We’re recognizing this now, and it’s superb.

Photo by Nicholas Yee

You touched on this when you said that you always want to give something to others when you perform, but do you have an overall message to your work?

One hundred percent — positivity and optimism, or whatever you want to call it. That’s what my work always leads to. In one of my poems I say, “We are nothing more than matter made of Earth and time, and in a matter of time this body of ours will go back to Earth and it won’t matter because in a world where legacy is the only thing you can leave behind, it’s not when you enter your grave or when the last memory of you fades that you truthfully die. After all, there’s a reason why God shaped this Earth like a honeycomb: it’s so that we may never forget to just be.” And so, my idea is to communicate the fact that there are billions of people in this world — it’s a museum — and when you bring yourself, you put art in this museum, and people can appreciate you. We are all a collection; we are all an anthology of poems. We’re all the same book, but we’re on different pages. So, my mentality is that we’re the same. Don’t look for differences; value the similarities. People aren’t against you; they’re for themselves. Don’t make it personal. You succeed when other people succeed. It’s about having a communal, positive outlook.

This world is very sad right now, and I think that the only way to approach it is to be positive because in reality, the world is neutral. How we interact with it is what makes it positive or negative. If this coffee is sitting here and I’m drinking it and it helps me do my job, this coffee’s amazing! If this coffee spills and burns you, it’s bad! So, the coffee is neutral, but how we interact with it matters. And so, what I try to get across to people is that you control how you view this world. You have the power to determine what this world means to you. Don’t let anyone else tell you that you’re Black, you’re Muslim, you’re gay, you’re straight — no, you define that. You’re the paintbrush; this world is a canvass. Paint.

Photo by Gades Photography

Is there anything that you want people to know about spoken word as a medium?

People think spoken word always has the same level of tone. But it doesn’t, and it’s not always about rib cages — there’s a lot of humor in it. I would say, if that’s what you think spoken word is, diversify ’cause there’s slam and there’s spoken word. Spoken word is storytelling. It’s poetry that is taken from the page and brought to the stage. It’s performance. I would encourage people to speak their true self and to diversify the types of poets they’re listening to because our perspective is shaped by our experiences, and we don’t always experience the same thing as everybody. Learn more about spoken word and where language comes from. Often literary folks and academics are like, “Oh, no — ‘bootylicious’ and ‘fleek’ — why?!” But they don’t understand the oral language. Before anything is written, it’s oral. And language constantly changes. “Eyeball,” “elbow” — Shakespeare made these words up, but now they’re normal. In how many years from now will people be like, “‘Bootylicious,’ ‘fleek,’ what’s wrong with those?” Language changes — we need to accept that and stop assuming that spoken word is for “those hip kids” or people who aren’t academics. Anybody and everybody has the capacity to be a spoken word poet and spoken word poetry can be whatever you want it to be — period.

Is there anything that you want people to know about Edmonton?

Yes! Edmonton is a great city and I’m not just saying this because I live here. In all reality, if you appreciate art, we are a festive city. We diligently celebrate the diversity of art, the diversity of cultures, and the diversity of religions. We strive to welcome each other. Edmonton is an inclusive city, a welcoming city, a growing city. It’s a collective city. It’s united. It’s beautiful. We have the longest and largest stretch of urban parkland in North America, and Banff and other beautiful and inspirational places aren’t too far away. The city provides the perfect opportunity for you to take in a lot of different countries, a lot of different cultures, and a lot of different parts of Canada. And don’t think it’s just cowboy hats and cowboy boots — come through. You’ll see dashikis and kufis, too. Don’t assume that Edmonton is a certain way. Yeah, it snows. But there are brothers here; there are sisters here. We are now the gold rush of art. Now is the perfect opportunity if you want to be involved in curating art or directing the way art is made in our city. You can become a flourishing artist here. Come through. Come enjoy it.

Photo by Nicholas Yee

Is there anything else you want to add?

Even if you don’t come to Edmonton, just travel — no matter what. Traveling is important. In Somali culture, we say: “You’re not knowledgeable until you travel.” Because how do you know what the world is if you’re stuck in a box all day? The more we travel, the more we appreciate the places we know. Whatever or wherever home is, it becomes your compass, the standard by which you measure everything else. A lot of the people who are bigoted, who are racist, who are closed-minded have not and do not travel across cultures, communities, or cities. They don’t — it’s a fact. I can promise you that. Because the people who vote for these hateful people are people who live in rural areas and don’t have the opportunity to leave, so they identify with old cultures. Human beings love comfort and we love to have a certain frame of thought — we don’t want to leave that, no matter how right it is. But the older you get, the more you settle into your philosophies, and that’s dangerous. So, for example, I went to Somalia in 2003, and I saw what real struggle was. Before I left, I thought I knew what it meant to be hopeless — no! I saw starvation; I saw struggle on a level that was beyond assistance. There was no government housing, no food banks. It made me think, How do I as a Canadian complain about that? So, when I returned, I was optimistic. Travel gives you a point of reference. So, knowing that I had these things in Edmonton, I realized that I wasn’t struggling or suffering. Things could have been a lot worse. And so that point of reference is valuable.

So, I encourage you to think creatively, step outside of the box, and go travel. Empower yourself as an individual and then showcase the capacity that art has to change lives.

Back in 2011, I wrote a poem called “I am Africa” and somehow, that poem ended up being taught in Kenya in a refugee camp. Somebody contacted me saying, “Hey, did you know your poem is being taught here?” I was like, “First of all, how do you even remember me? Second, thank you for telling me this.” And then they connected me to the teacher and I was just so grateful — I had no idea this was happening. So, your words travel too. Your art travels. And being dead isn’t a physical thing; it’s a memory. If your art can live longer than you can — like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Shakespeare — then you’re never dead. So I say, leave a legacy. Do art. Be something — but most importantly, be yourself.

To view more of Ahmed’s work, visit his website and follow him on Instagram.

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Hailing from the foothills of Northern California, Kacie is a writer and an editor who's worked on everything from quarterly surf magazines to art books, novels, lookbooks, city guides, and shoddily printed zines. She's a bit of a story junkie, but we forgive her for that. To view more of her work, creep her website and Instagram.