View Full Version : Meet Toronto's little poet man

Ibn Abi Ahmed
06-08-2009, 07:46 PM

Meet Toronto's little poet man

Regent Park 12-year-old writes poems that make adults cry and other kids stand up and cheer

Daniel Dale

Mustafa Ahmed wears sneakers, jeans and T-shirts. He has close-cropped hair and a gap-toothed grin. He is 12. People tend to give him standing ovations.

He writes poems about poverty in Africa, where his family is from, and poverty in Regent Park, where he has lived his entire life. He writes poems about the value of education and the importance of trust. He writes poems that make white adults cry – this is what happened at the Hot Docs film festival – and other black students jump to their feet and clap.

That is what happened at a Nelson Mandela Park Public School assembly in the fall. Mustafa, who specializes in spoken word, performed "A Single Rose," a pleading poem about life in Canada's largest housing project. Students stood and cheered. Teachers gaped.

By himself? He wrote that?

Yes, insisted his Grade 7 language teacher, Marjorie Malcolm. By himself.

But then, back in class, she decided she had to make sure. "I didn't want to look like an idiot," she would explain later.

"She just said, 'Are you sure you wrote it? Are you sure?' " Mustafa says. "I said, 'I'll write one right now.' And I wrote one during the period. It was called 'Sick and Tired.' I remember the beginning. It was:
I'm sick and tired
'Too fat,' 'too skinny'
Look into the TV, and
That's the definition of beauty?"

Malcolm had no further questions.

MUSTAFA SITS IN the public library just outside Regent Park. He has a soft voice and a distant gaze. When he is making a serious point, his brow furrows.

He goes to mosque. He is popular, and he likes to play basketball and sing R&B. He also likes rhetorical questions, metaphors and similes. "The thesaurus is my best friend," he says. "It's always there."

It takes a village to raise a poet. Mustafa, an honour student, is encouraged and ferried about by teachers Malcolm and Elizabeth Schaeffer. Accomplished spoken word artists, some of whom call him Little Poet Man, have given him advice. His father, Ahmed, a Muslim social worker, has heightened his awareness of societal ills.

And he has been heavily influenced and inimitably mentored – encouraged, comforted, disciplined, mocked for occasionally nonsensical rhymes, castigated for any hint of a growing ego – by his sister, Namarig, 23, a Ryerson nursing graduate who runs a leadership program for Muslim young people.

Namarig inadvertently turned Mustafa into a poet three years ago. Searching for a way to get him to behave in school, she turned to verse.

"I was like, 'How do I talk to him? How do I make him understand that there's some things he's doing that will have huge implications for him when he gets older?' So I wrote him a poem, just me talking to him – and he replied back in poetry," she says. "We ended up having this poetry battle back and forth. And he kept going with it, and he's taken it to a whole new level."

Though his RhymeZone.com-augmented vocabulary is large, his wordplay clever, he is not quite yet a linguistic wizard. His chief gift is a preternatural understanding of the world. Like Craig Kielburger, who founded Free the Children at 12, he is a prodigy at empathy.

He has written poems about a teary woman on a bus, about the people of poor countries, about violence against women. He writes because he has to: words come to him at all hours, in all situations, begging to be rapidly recorded, rhymed, rehearsed.

"Sometimes," he says, "I feel like I have to get home, fast, and have to write, before I forget the thought."

He has performed at assemblies, at high schools and at university student events. In May, his commanding performance of "A Single Rose" at a Hot Docs screening of Invisible City, a documentary about Regent Park, received a rapturous standing ovation.

Oscar-nominated director Hubert Davis invited him to appear at Hot Docs after hearing the poem at a screening at Mandela.

"I thought it was so insightful," Davis says. "And it felt really raw, and honest. ... Being so young – it was very moving, seeing him there speaking from his heart, very talented, so eloquent."

One of six children from a devout family that emigrated from Sudan in 1992, Ahmed has, unlike older siblings, never had to eat only one meal a day. He has two parents at home. But he has not escaped the problems that have long plagued Regent Park.

To watch him on stage, captivating as he projects and gestures, is to be touched by conflicting emotions: happiness at his talents, sadness that a Toronto 12-year-old is writing about what he is writing about: "living in the ghetto, living in poverty, living in an area where people think nothing good comes out, an area they say has no potential, that's so corrupted."

One of his friends has told him he might deal drugs. One of his poems laments the troubles of his older brother. Though he loves his community, he lives among the deprived, the typecast, the victimized.

"I don't think people really understand," he says. "That's one of the reasons I do write. So they can understand, they can know, they can learn. The real reason to do poetry is so they can hear my voice."

Davis and Mustafa's teachers believe his message can make an impact. Namarig is more skeptical.

The qualities that makes him special, she says, also prevent admirers from truly hearing him.

"I think it's just, 'Oh, wow, a 12-year-old kid. Who can write. From Regent Park.' I don't really know if they hear what he's saying. I can definitely say that they see him and hear how he's saying it, but I doubt they hear the words he's saying."

The poet himself thinks his message might be strengthened, not weakened, by his age. Still, he is weary of being a novelty simultaneously applauded and ignored. In "A Single Rose," he writes:
"I used to be 7
And last year I was 11
And I'm hoping that with the increase in age
Ears that actually listen surround me as I stand on the stage."

He thinks he wants to grow up to be a psychologist or a scientist. He knows he wants to grow up to be a better spoken word artist.

For now, he is content to be a 12-year-old with a request for you.

My strategy is to reach out to anyone's hand
At least letting them know that I'm willing to understand. What's yours?
Remember, last year I was 11, and I'm not 7.

Don't let me be the single rose in this run-down park.

Excerpt from "A Single Rose" by Mustafa Ahmed

...about the ridiculous injustices everywhere
About how most don't seem to be aware
About the different avenues to help out there
About how we can start by showing we care
About, about, about
God, do I have to shout?
About, about, about the fact that their cries and tears are so loud and clear
That I fear how our hearts appear
When we all hear
Their severe
And sincere


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06-08-2009, 07:56 PM
Alhamdulillah, somebody needs to get the little guy a dictaphone. Alpha hve u asked him for a donation yet bro :D

06-08-2009, 09:11 PM
:sl: MashaAllaah Regent Park was where I used to live, man I loved that place even though it was real dangerous to live in. It's gotten worse as the years have gone by.

Talented kid. :)

Here is performing a poem: http://www.thestar.com/videozone/646346

06-09-2009, 10:45 AM
Aww mashaAllah!! What a kid! He's gooooing places, I think, inshaAllah.

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06-09-2009, 06:10 PM
mashallah very smart kid he reminds me of my youngest sister she writes alot of poetry and spoken word too.

06-15-2009, 02:39 PM
:sl: That could be me..:p

08-03-2009, 03:15 AM

I read 'A single Rose' a while back and wow it is amazing, MashAllah!

What I love about his style is he doesn't romanticise the facts. He simply says what needs to be said, clean cut and to the point.And yet he is a wonderful imagist. And the subject matter of his poems.... :skeleton:. Let me just say I take my hat of to him for braving it out and taking a stab at political poetry, one of my favourite genres, no doubt.

Kudos to him!


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