Not “Just Another Towelhead”: A Globalist Q&A with slam poet Hamda Yusuf

Hamda Yusuf (Photo by Ansel Herz)Meet Hamda Yusuf: She’s 19, she’s a local slam poetry champion, and she wants to be the US ambassador to Somalia.

At the Youth Speaks! Poetry Grand Slam last month, most of the poems performed on stage were punctuated by supportive hoots and shouts of, “Youth speaks!” from the packed crowd, culminating in rowdy choruses of applause. But only a few poets earned multiple sets of straight 10s from the judges.

One of them was Hamda Yusuf.

Incredibly, only ten years ago she didn’t speak English. Her family had just migrated from Somalia.

Today she’s a 19-year-old UW freshman pursuing a degree in international studies. But she already has a wealth of global experience under her belt, having lived on three continents.

After advancing through the preliminaries, Yusuf took the opportunity at the Grand Slam final to evoke ancient Somali traditions and stoke the crowd’s indignation at Islamophobia. What set her apart, though, was the earnest humor and moments of mundane Americaness mixed into her poetry—all delivered with a sublime confidence.

I met with Yusuf over bagels at a campus cafe, where she discussed the history and process behind her poems, including the disturbing Seattle-area incidents that inspired them. She said she dreams of becoming an ambassador to Somalia.

There’s little doubt that for her, it’s a dream within reach.

Read on to learn why and watch video clips of her poetry at the Grand Slam. To support Youth Speaks! and the Grand Slam finalists’ trip to Chicago, donate here.

Were you already writing poetry before you became a slam poet?

My dad was into Edgar Allen Poe and a lot of the classics. I doubt he thought that I would start doing my own poetry. I never really liked the classics very much. Then I read Walt Whitman and fell in love. Because he did freeverse and I was like, ‘I can get into this. I can really connect to this.’ I started writing poetry that didn’t necessarily follow a structure and that led me eventually to spoken word, where you do your own thing. And I love that.

Were your parents at Town Hall when you became a national finalist? Will they come to Chicago?

I’d rather they didn’t! But, they might. They’re very supportive.

I’m Somali, and they call Somalia the nation of poets because back in the day, and even now, a lot of the battles happened with words before they happened with swords. That’s a weird thing to explain. So my dad wrote poetry. My mom writes poetry. My aunts and uncles write poetry. But it’s all very traditional—in Somali.

I speak Somali, but I don’t think I can pull off a poem in Somali. So they were very supportive in terms of, me carrying the torch and transcending different cultures, transferring the tradition into English and back and forth into Somali.

It’s too bad Somalia isn’t more known for fighting battles with words. People here are always like,”Use your words!” to kids, but it doesn’t seem to apply to larger conflicts. Did your parents emigrate from Somalia?

Yes, in 2003. From Hargeisa, which is in the north in Somaliland, the safer part. It’s semi-autonomous—basically governs itself. We traveled around a bit, “country-shopping,” to figure out where we wanted to settle down. Which had the best opportunities. We came here for education. I have four older brothers who were already college age.

How do you view Seattle’s treatment or reception of Somali Americans?

I think Seattle’s great about being open to cultures and having that diversity. More so than a lot of other places. I mean, it can always be better. Just having that thought of, “Oh, Seattle’s great. No one is racist and nobody does this,” I think that’s hindering. Because there are people who believe that, “Somalis are taking jobs” or “they’re illegal” or “violent.”

And I think that’s still a big problem. Maybe Seattle has too big of a reputation of where we’re blind to seeing the inequalities that exist, because they do.

I’ve always wondered and been pretty skeptical about whether Seattle really deserves that reputation. Because overall it seems like, if you choose to see it, it’s a very segregated city.

It is. I mean, some parts of West Seattle are very dense in that there are a lot of Somalis living there. Then you’ll cross the street and it’s like, all white people. It has to do with income inequality and other issues that are embedded in the city, and in any city really.

How do you get the inspiration to write?

I get a lot of my passion and inspiration from things that happen to me. The piece that I did at Town Hall, Just Another Towelhead, was from an actual thing that happened to me where I played on my high school varsity soccer team.

We traveled to Bainbridge Island for our season-ender. They weren’t very courteous or welcoming. There isn’t a very significant Somali or Muslim community on Bainbridge Island. Pretty white.

There was just an obnoxious crowd. It was all bad. At one point, they were chanting, “towelhead!” I wear a headscarf as I play. So, that was not good.

I went home. It was very upsetting. I write poetry, I suppose, to get all that out. I’m not a very angry person by nature. So I wrote the piece and I cultivated it over the course of a year or so before I even performed it anywhere. The first time I did that poem an 80-year-old woman—she was white—came up to me and said, “That spoke to me.”

I was so blown away, because I didn’t write that piece with her in mind. I was like, ‘ok, I’m sold. I’m going to keep doing this. This is great.’ If one person can relate to what I’m talking about, I feel like I’ve done my job.

So I get a lot of my inspiration from things that happen to me. Passions that I have. A lot of my poems are political, and politics is one of my passions as well. I guess it goes back to the old adage: you write what you know.

You said there have been other incidents, smaller ones or perhaps on a more individual level. I remember in one of your poems you talked about the airport screening process as well.

That’s like every day, or every time you travel. I usually say that jokingly: my name puts up flags in an airport. But it’s true. They say it’s a random screening. But it’s not really random if you get picked up every time.

One time I flew back from San Diego to Seattle and I got stuck at the airport because I had tea leaves in my backpack. I was explaining to them that they’re tea leaves and ended up missing a flight.

Does that discourage you from traveling or does it just run through your mind and make you more apprehensive? That’s a really obvious question.

Yeah [laughs], it definitely does make the entire process more uncomfortable. And I’m already an uneasy flier. So you feel as though you’re not allowed to look nervous because people will look at you and think, “Why is she nervous?” It’s just something you deal with and hope that you won’t miss your flight.

I mean, I know a three-year-old who’s on the no-fly list. All because—I don’t remember his last name but his first name is Jihad. Which already is unfortunate, because people associated that with bad terrorist things. But it’s really just a regular name.

People on the no fly list—they can’t challenge that, they don’t know why they’re on the list, they don’t know when or why they were put on there. A lot of people don’t notice it because it doesn’t affect them. But then you meet people who are not ever going to fly because of that. If you’re going to go to a different continent, how are you supposed to get there without an airplane?

You also have a poem about Rush Limbaugh. Was he inflicted on you, like you were passing by a radio store and heard his voice? Because you don’t seem like the type to listen to Rush Limbaugh.

It’s kind of funny. My dad has this semi-serious rule at home that no one’s allowed to watch Fox News. But we do because it’s, I dunno, a funny channel to watch. Limbaugh comes on the news all the time, because he says outrageous things. That’s another poem where it’s symbolic—Limbaugh is a nice name to grab because he talks a lot and is very loud.

Have you been back, or do you have any plans to go back to Somalia? And looking back, did you and your family make the right choice moving to Seattle?

I haven’t, but I do plan on it. My plan is hopefully for next summer, to go back and see family. Go back home.

It’s definitely been a good decision. We’ve been here about ten years. Three of my brothers graduated from college, one of them is getting his masters, my sister is in university, I am too.

It’s been a great decision. But hard, too. I don’t have many extended family here in America. Except for that uncle. So it’s like, we’re the lone post in Seattle.

There’s a Somali population here.

Yeah, there’s a huge Somali population here. Which is great. It’s always bizarre. Because my dad was an accountant in Somalia. And so he’ll run into people that he recognizes and they’ll be like, hey, you worked on my finances. He’s had that happen a couple times. It’s strange—such a small world. We live really close to this family that were our neighbors back in Hargeisa. Totally random. We’ll just see them in a Safeway or something and be like, “Hey!”

Do you encounter a lot of misconceptions about Somalia?

Definitely. I’ve had people ask, “Why would you want to go back? Why would you want to leave America?” I mean, this is a great place, with freedom and democracy. But it will never really be home in my parents’ eyes.

And even for me. Because aside from education and jobs, we don’t have much of a family connection here. So it always feels like I could get up and leave at any point and it wouldn’t be a huge loss.

My dad—most of his family were nomads. Some are still nomads. A lot of people don’t know about the nomadic traditions of Somalia, and how they’re still out there—like, tons of them. So, just to be able to go back and be with family, speak your mother tongue, eat food, and see the traditions. I definitely feel that living here, I’m losing a lot of Somalia. Especially my language. It makes you anxious to lose your mother tongue slowly, as English is replacing it.

A lot of people don’t see that. They see Somalia as scary and—Mogadishu, civil war, the famine, and pirates and terrorists. That’s all people really know. They don’t see it as a place of traditions, the people, the nomads, the language—and a lot of the history as well.

That was what was cool about the poetry slam, and your poetry in particular. I felt like you were making things that aren’t traditionally at the center of American life sort of centered. Normally folks here don’t see those places or things as central. Part of the whole project of the Seattle Globalist is to try to show that this place isn’t central to a lot of people—it’s just one star in a big constellation.

Yeah, that was the cool thing about the slam. As people were doing their poems, you felt like you knew them. That’s what I love about their poetry. Regular poetry is nice too, but doing slam you get the emotion behind what the poet is trying to say. It definitely taps into a sense of empathy that you have.

Your poems were hilarious at times. Not to hate on the other poets at all, but it was kind of a relief from them at times. Were you always a jokester?

People say I’m very sarcastic. Sometimes you need humor to bring up a very important point because people don’t like being lectured at. I feel like if I got up there and said, don’t call me a towelhead, no one would listen.

I had another piece from another situation, where I was called a “sand-nigger” in downtown Seattle. I said it in a piece and everyone was so uncomfortable, and then I matched it with a joke. And people were like, “Oh, ok… it’s ok now…” Because yeah, people do feel very uncomfortable… I talk to myself a lot in my room. I do my pieces to my posters.

What kind of posters do you have in your room?

I have a lot of posters—I don’t think there’s any white space left. There’s a poster of Kramer, from Seinfeld. I couldn’t watch it for a month after he went on that racist rant, but I’ve accepted it, because it’s such a good show. Two Beatles posters. A bunch of music: the Decemberists, my favorite bands. I have a big Morrissey poster on my ceiling. A lot of Star Wars. And Spock, on my door.

Sounds like you’re a geek.

That probably came across in the towelhead piece, because like, my kinda Friday night is a Star Trek Next Generation marathon. People ask me, so do you really watch Star Trek? Yes! You don’t even know.

That probably crosses over into people’s misconceptions of what Muslims are, what Somalis are. People think that Somali Muslim girls are timid, don’t really speak unless spoken to.

Whereas, I’m not a loud person. But I’m never afraid to speak my mind. I’m pretty comfortable with strangers. People see that as, “Whoa, didn’t know you watch Star Trek. Because you don’t seem like the type. Or I didn’t know you listen to The Smiths.”

Will you focus on Somalia in terms of international studies at UW?

The program here doesn’t have too much—like, I would loved to focus on third world development or something like that. But my plans are probably to do Peace Corps after college and then hopefully work for the foreign service.

I guess my dream job would be to become the Ambassador to Somalia.

That would be pretty cool. Ambassador Hamda Yusuf.

That would be cool. Has a nice ring to it.

Anything else you’d like to share with the world?

I would encourage people to go to open mics. I’ve heard some of the wildest poems there, where I’ve been thinking about them for months afterward. Youth Speaks is a great program. There’s so much insane talent in Seattle. It always feels like the first time I’ve been to an open mic, every time I go. I just blows me away.

Youth Speaks Seattle holds Open Mics every first and third Sunday of the month, including THIS SUNDAY. More details here

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Freelance journalist Ansel Herz reported from Haiti for two years for Inter-Press Service and Free Speech Radio News. His work has been published by ABC News, the New York Daily News and Al Jazeera English, among other media outlets. Ansel is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism.

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