Poetrygrams, privacy and setbacks

I hate calling myself a poet, in the way I always struggled with calling myself an artist (I still don’t like calling myself an artist). To be a “poet” or an “artist” means you have received a degree of instruction, or self-taught prowess, of a calibre that it can be disseminated. I don’t think I have that distinction at all. I can barely call myself a writer. It’s easier to create some space between myself and the act: I write poetry, I make art, both are more palatable in that they aren’t claims, they aren’t identities, but they are easily identifyable actions.

At some point, I had forgone this cautionary practice and – kind of arrogantly – started calling myself a poet. For what reason? I got a handful of likes on some poetry I threw onto my Instagram feed, and it fed my ego. I wrote more stuff, and threw it on my Insta feed, and got more affirmation. Don’t get me wrong – I cared about the poetry I wrote, and I took care in the writing process. I sat on poems until I was happy with them, for weeks and months at times. But at the back of my mind, I knew the medium I was writing for. I had a formula – no more lines than can fit the length of my phone, linebreaks so that there were no run-on sentences past the width of my phone, and squat enough that the poem could be easily squared and put up on Instagram. I was immediately limited to short bursts of prettily strung together sentences that, sure enough, were poems but by no means the best poems I could write. At some point, I had accrued enough poems that I could dedicate a separate poetrygram to my work, and I did. I felt wonderful about that – maybe I could find a poetry community for myself on Instagram. I could cultivate followers, get feedback, learn from the feedback. It would be a form of workshopping that I didn’t have access to.

A few months passed. Feeling somewhat dissatisfied still, after a few months of playing around with the poetrygram, I created a poetry WordPress blog. I felt wonderful about that again, but in a slightly wiser way. That was my first inkling of understanding. Once I started writing poetry specifically for the WordPress blog, I found that I became more experimental. I started playing with formats and styles, wrote longer poems, I created room for myself to expand into. All the little lessons I had stored away in the back of my mind in my miserliness after years of reading diverse poetry finally had a space to come out in. I was Silas Marner, and this endless space for growth and writing was my Eppie. I was a surprised at how different my poetry had become, within days – I wasn’t writing for a specific medium anymore, and, honestly, I wasn’t writing for the easy validation either. I hate admitting that the influx of likes made me feel better, more talented, but it did. But I never got the poetry community, the access to the world that I wanted.

But the WordPress blog brought to light a whole other issue. With the advent of the WordPress blog, I found the courage to submit poetry to various publications and reviews, and – well – I was knocked back onto my butt with an important realization: the poetry world rewards privacy. That is to say, you can’t publish stuff that has appeared online before in any form.

I reeled. I should have known this. Somehow, I thought a blog – an Instagram feed – I thought they didn’t really count as having appeared online before. What a weird combination of arrogance and self-deprecation. In the process of years of writing dozens and dozens of poems and subsequently uploading all of them to Instagram and WordPress, I had completely nullified 80% of the opportunities available to me; I had stunted my own ability to access a poetry community. (I say 80% here because there are definitely publications out there that take work that has previously appeared online.) All this in pursuit of the instant affirmation I got from one-click uploads and Instagram-savvy/SEO-friendly (hash)tagging. All because of my inability to appreciate poetry as a private pursuit.

I felt like crap. But it was a moment of much needed clarity. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for being humbled like that. The poetry I’ve written to this point matters to me. I parsed away little pieces of myself in everything I’ve written thus far, and I’m grateful that people got to see what they did – but I need to start from scratch now. I need to keep my work close to my chest, learn to actively workshop, learn to actually utilize the lessons I take away from the poets and poetry I read, to not cater to easy validation anymore. More generally, I need to care for my privacy. I’ve received a few harsh lessons in the part regarding privacy, and I don’t seem to have learnt anything. If not for my own safety, I should at least learn from the blow my ego – my ambition – has been dealt because of my own lack of diligance and easy susceptibility to memetically engineered cultures of art.

I’ve already taken down my poetry blog. I won’t be taking down my poetrygram. I think it’s important to face the physical manifestation of my arrogance head-on and learn from it. Removing the poems I’ve written so far from the face of the internet won’t help me much anyway. It’s also way too easy to pretend I never made a mistake. But, so help me God, I won’t be putting more content on there that hasn’t already been published elsewhere. I’m also going to stop making excuses and actually go to poetry workshops from now on.

I feel wonderful.

PS: I have…more feelings about Instapoetry than I’ve let myself disclose/discuss in this blogpost. There is a whole discussion about accessibility and democratizing poetry that I haven’t really touched on. This is not a commentary on making poetry accessible, just my experience with Instapoetry culture and the adverse impact it had on me as someone trying to be better at poetry.


Silk threads

It was your last smoke. You watched the cigarette smoke dissipate into – where? You always wondered that, a toddler on your grandfather’s bed, as you tried to catch the silk of it in your hands. Rafiki-deft, you would swing between the vines of your imagined mental jungle and craft paints and cackle gleefully as you prophesized the return of your king. You must have watched Lion King not long before.

You asked him if clouds were made of cigarette smoke. He laughed, and you asked if Allah was made of clouds too. He said Allah was made of light. You wondered why the two couldn’t be reconciled.

You still thought Allah had a bit of cloud to Him.

Nicotine-lunged, you exhaled. Your grandfather had passed, breathing God with every light. The silk poured forth from your lips like a wayward libation, a thread between today and yesterday.

It was your last smoke. You watched the thread break on its way heavenward and smiled a secret smile. The clouds shifted to show a glimmer of sun, and you heard your grandfather tip his head, and Gold Leaf, toward you.

How Hamilton ruined my life

Note: At the time that I am writing this, I have hit about 1600 words. To retain my sanity and to keep some sort of end in sight, I’m going to keep my deeper analyses limited to Hamilton and Burr (and even within those constraints I am forced to limit myself: these characters are so layered and complex I would have to devote a book to their full deconstruction. …I’m a little tempted to do just that).


My friends have been talking about Hamilton for a long time. And by talking about it, I mean gathering in groups at parties and singing songs from the play together as if in some sort of rapture. I was always interested in listening to the soundtrack eventually, but I have a bad habit of putting things off until I’m forced to do them; inevitable, I fall in love with whatever I’m forced to do (see below).

Jemma messaged me, saying “You have to listen to Hamilton as soon as possible.”

It was a Saturday afternoon, I wanted to veg out for a few hours, the alternative was playing Stardew Valley and totally losing my soul to it (again): it was as good a time to start listening to the OST as any. Ten seconds into the first song, I sent her a message back saying “already losing my shit.” (…like I said…)

I don’t exactly know what kind of expression I had on my face, but I imagine it must have been a little alarming. I was sitting on Adam’s bed. He was busy playing a video game while I was listening to Hamilton. At some point he turned around to check on me, did a double take, asked what was wrong and I just responded with “I’m having a religious experience.” It’s that good.

Now if rap, hip hop and R&B aren’t quite your speed, you might have a hard time letting the music itself resonate with you. But it’s the ensemble, comprised mostly of people of color telling a story of a country that has historically seen racial tensions, and academia and scholarship of a primarily monochromatic palette, that should really capture your attention; if not even that, it’s the narrative of the story doing history justice and shedding light on a forgotten Founding Father and just some really dang clever writing.

Important: I’m not American, and I know little about American history before the 20th century beyond a cursory familiarity with its founding. This musical has made me emotionally invested in long-dead historical figures. It’s a travesty.

In any case, I was straight up crying by the time “Satisfied” rolled around. It was around then that I realized this play was far more than just a fun (hah, so I thought) musical about history for me. I know I’m an emotional person – I cry at the drop of a hat over most things, particularly fictional works (you can ask basically anyone who has watched a movie with me, or watched me read books). But Hamilton touched me in a way that left me feeling like I had the wind knocked out of me. It was the spiritual equivalent of my eyes widening in realization. (Pretentiously) so much of Hamilton’s own experience resonates with me.

There’s a line in “Satisfied” where Angelica Schyler asks Hamilton where he came from, and his response is, “Unimportant, there’s a million things I haven’t done.” When I first heard that line, it made me hold my head in my hands. I was openly sobbing throughout that song. I often say I’m an easily satisfied person, and I suppose I am: all I need is good friends, good conversation, fulfilling work and I am content. But that song reminded me that true satisfaction is service, it is the pursuit of knowledge to the point of exhaustion – and for me, it is “Writing like it’s going out of style.”

And I think that’s why Hamilton struck such a chord with me. It is the story of a man who built his life from the ground up out of a hunger to be something, to do something, to stand for something or die trying; it is the story of a man who realizes that living is much harder than dying, but it is worth it so long as you live for a cause. It is the story of a man whose passion and drive nearly destroys him, and in many ways does destroy him when he has to choose between love for family and public service. It reminds me of my own fears and the human mortality of ambition.

The future excites me but often leaves me feeling grave. I cannot imagine a life where I live only for myself. I was born to do “a million things” and I am terrified there is not enough time. What do you pick when it all matters so much? Is pure drive enough? You can stand up for the right thing but not have people rallying behind you until long after you’re dead.

Is glory in life the reward? Or is it the legacy you leave behind?

And what if you become the villain of the story?

“Non-stop,” the final song of the first act, has me grinning and/or near tears for eight entire minutes. It is an exhilarating song for those of us who are relentless in our desire to work for the greater good. It is both anthem and counsel, a rallying cry and a warning: Hamilton is both soothsayer and harbinger, and that dichotomy is frightening and awesome.

Hamilton was a war vet, a politician, an economist, a lawyer, but through it all he was a writer and the most prolific of writers at that. Though he resisted it at times, writing was his strength and it was what propelled him from the slums through to New York City when he was a broken young man.

“Alexander Hamilton embodies the written word,” said the play’s creator (and Hamilton himself) Lin-Manuel Miranda [paraphrased]. That theme is echoed in the play itself, particularly in “Non-stop,” when Aaron Burr and the Company demand of Hamilton:

How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?

(PS: Definitely click through to the lyrics, they’re worth reading)

At the risk of sounding self-important, I see myself in Hamilton the character/person a lot. My friend Alex asked who I was in the play and my immediate response was, “Oh, definitely one of the Schyler sisters.” And while certainly, I adore the Schyler sisters (particularly Angelica), I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anything like Alexander Hamilton at my worst. I have to be mindful to not monopolize my time with work – “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now” – or I risk isolating myself; but I have to remember not to completely mantle myself in people or I risk feeling like I’m losing my willpower and drive.

How lucky we are to be alive right now. But to what end does this luck serve us? What will we accomplish, in the small blip of time that we are present for in the grand scheme of things?

And what if we forget, one day, to look around because we are too busy looking forward?

In short, Hamilton brings up a lot of questions inherent to the life of a political science/IR student, or someone who wishes to enter public service or governance in any capacity.

And then there’s Aaron Burr whom all I knew about prior to this play was that he was kind of a dick. Don’t get me wrong, he still is kind of a dick, but he’s one of the most human characters in a play all about humanizing historical figures. The same friend who asked me who I was professed that he was Aaron Burr – the most Slytherin of Slytherins. Maybe that was one of the reasons I found myself focusing on Burr’s lines on my multiple re-listens of the album:

“Talk less / Smile more / Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for / You want to get ahead? / Fools that run their mouths off wind up dead.”

I almost always re-listen to that entire part of the song. Beyond the fact that it sets up Hamilton and Burr as foils to one another throughout the play, and that Leslie Odom Jr.’s voice is absolute silk, it has some personal resonance. Before I gave myself the right of passage into waxing poetic (I still say mostly fluff, but at least I’m somewhat eloquent now?) I firmly believed I was always running my mouth. And really, at the end of the day my waxing is a mask; I still run my mouth.

“Fools that run their mouths off wind up dead.”

Neither Hamilton nor I know when to shut up. I all but aspire to have Aaron Burr’s self-restraint. I’m good at that when I’m in conference, representing someone else’s policy, being a politician to boot – but maaaan, my mouth is non-stop. I mentioned earlier that “Non-stop” is a warning message as well as an anthem, and Burr himself underscores this when he says “Why do you always say what you believe? / Every proclamation guarantees / Free ammunition for your enemies.”

Whoops, I’m screwed. But anyway, Burr wasn’t wrong – Hamilton made a lot of enemies with his mouth, and ensured that his own legacy would be a niche historical interest (until Lin-Manuel Miranda came around anyway).

“Wait For It”, in particular, is a beautiful testament to Aaron Burr’s entire philosophy. His sense of self-preservation is the guiding force of his life, but it doesn’t mean he does not have values and opinions he believes in; he warns Mulligan, Laurens and Lafayette to lower their voices in “My Shot” to ensure that no loyalists hear of their plot; he signs up to become George Washington’s right-hand man, only to be shoved aside in favor of Hamilton; and when he finally sees that the playing field is safe enough for him to pursue his desire to become President of the United States, he is foiled by Hamilton who mistakes his self-preservation for disinterest (for lack of a better word).

Aaron Burr at his softest is divine to listen to. The tenderness with which he sings of Theodosia (R&B at its finest in this play) segues into a broader narrative on life. It is a three-part soliloquy on love, death and Hamilton, the first two of which don’t “… discriminate / between the sinners and the saints” but all of whom “take and [they] take and [they] take.” Love, death and Hamilton: forces of nature in Aaron Burr’s world, a world where he is willing to hold his plans close to his chest. As he sees it, the fact that Theodosia is with him and no one else, and that he outlived his family – that he is even alive right now – proves he has a moment coming. He will just bide his time until he can safely secure that moment for himself. Burr does have a cause, it is just one that doesn’t manifest as chaotically tangible as Hamilton’s does. And the cherry on top of the humanity sundae?:

“I am the one thing in life I can control … I am inimitable, I am an original … I am not falling behind or running late … I’m not standing, I am lying in wait.”

If that isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is. The entire song is Burr’s way of saying “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now.” He has passions and opinions and ambitions like everyone else, he is just restrained and contained and so deeply R&B in a play full of rappers and beat-boxers.

I love Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s initial friendship. Their playful banter up until “Story of Tonight (Reprise)” is frankly adorable, particularly when Hamilton tries to encourage him to pursue Theodosia and when Aaron Burr, without any spitefulness, tells Hamilton to “smile more” – on the occasion of Alexander’s wedding, it’s sweet, kind, friendly advice.

Their former friendship culminates in the infamous duel where Aaron Burr shoots to kill and Hamilton raises his gun to the sky – showing restraint, where Burr is the one who channels death and takes, and takes, and takes. Hamilton had finally decided to slow down after his son’s death and truly look around, look around at his wife and family; Burr sees his moment and attempts to seize the Presidency, only to have it taken away from him by Hamilton’s vote. It is a scene heartbreakingly rendered. So much so that I refuse to go into it in more detail than I already have.

It is also the one song I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to again.

Description cannot do Hamilton justice. I haven’t even watched the play and it was able to garner such a visceral reaction from me. I don’t recall the last time I became so enamored of something so quickly. It has been two and a half days since I first started listening to Hamilton, and I find myself desperately trying to wrap up a 2000+ word essay because if I don’t stop myself now, I won’t stop at all.

So I will end on this abrupt note: do yourself a favor and listen to Hamilton, because 200 years from now they will remember Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius – and how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Constructing the Molotov Cocktail: Nationalism and Kashmir (dec. 2014)

12/4/2014 – International Relations @ Northeastern University
 Aaj woh Kashmir hai Mehkoom-o-Majboor-o-Faqir
Kal jise Ahl-e-Nazar kehte thay Iran-e-Sagheer
Today is a Kashmir subordinate, obligated, beggared
Which yesterday the wise called Little Iran
– Allama Iqbal

At first glance, South Asia since its inception may seem like a behemoth with realist tenets where there are meant to be tendrils. Pakistan and India’s enduring rivalry is one that seems to be perpetuating an endless struggle for domination – not regional domination, at least on Pakistan’s part. It is a quest to “one-up” the other and glean victories in small doses, if the slews of wars within the first 45 years after India and Pakistan’s independence are any indication. The four wars (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999) officially fought by the two countries do not include crossfires and standoffs. Most of these wars have been over Kashmir – with the exception of the War of ’71, which resulted in the independence of Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan. One could even point out that the Nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan (1974-1998) is the perfect example of realism in the Nuclear age – but this would undermine the very tenets upon which the two countries were created, and upon which they still function and create foreign policy to this day. As the prime catalyst for conflict between the two nations, Kashmir is the perfect case study to assess the applicability of international relations theory. My hypothesis, and what I will be attempting to prove through this essay, is that constructivism is the most closely applicable theory to the conflict over Kashmir. It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay, any references to Kashmir includes the territories of Jammu & Kashmir, Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as Aksai-Chin, with distinctions made when needed. Continue reading “Constructing the Molotov Cocktail: Nationalism and Kashmir (dec. 2014)”

From K-Dot to Kunta: the New Fate of Kendrick Lamar

First published in the Northeastern University Political Review

Photo by John Francis Peters for the New York Times

Compton, California has birthed its fair share of artists who have gone on to make a mark in the rap and hip hop industry, but it’s Dr. Dre’s protege, Kendrick Lamar who has taken the industry by storm. Formerly known as K-Dot,  the rapper’s Section.80, and good kid, m.A.A.d city have all been critically acclaimed. good kid, M.A.A.d city was dubbed an instant classic by many, and the album went platinum. According fellow singer-songwriter and producer Erykah Badu, good kid is, “…an album that not only tells a compelling story, but a near-definitive one of a specific time and place, offering a window on the varying complexities of turn-of-the-century Compton.”[1] An important observation; like most rappers, Lamar waxes lyrical about his upbringing, his hometown – struggling Compton – and his desire to,  in the words of the character playing his mother at a skit at the end of “Real,” “Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton.” These words, taking into consideration the current context of race relations in the United States, are extremely powerful.

That brings us to his most recent release To Pimp a Butterfly, an intentional reference to To Kill a Mockingbird – appropriate, given the racially-charged content of the album. The anticipation was cultivated almost tenderly, with singles dropped periodically and the release date left unannounced until three weeks before the official launch date – March 23rd. The first single released off the album was “i,” divisive in that it deviates from the dark, cinematic undertones of Lamar’s usual fare. The single is inundated with confidence and optimism, self-love that can only be forged in the smithy of racial empowerment. Undeniably funky, it foreshadowed the jazziness that plays Atlas to Kendrick Lamar’s world in Butterfly. The second single off the album was a divergence from the uplifting message of the first, a track called “The Blacker the Berry” presumably in response to the controversial Azealia Banks’ criticism over Lamar’s comments regarding Ferguson.[2] Addressing the looting and violent rioting that some protesters following the grand jury decision were accused of, Lamar emphasized the importance of black self-respect: “[change] don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”[3]

“The Blacker the Berry” is scathing, and Lamar is as accusatory of America’s institutionalized racism as he is of himself, spitting, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” and weaving the theme of hypocrisy throughout the song. He explores his identity as a black man, struggling with the label of African-American, his African heritage, speaking to the “institutionalized manipulations and lies” perpetuated by the system, demanding the listener admit, “You hate me, don’t you? You hate my people […]” Anti-black slurs ricochet: “I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.” At the very end of the song, he turns the mirror back towards himself, recalling his own history of gang violence – almost lambasting himself. “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gangbanging made me kill a ni**a blacker than me? Hypocrite!”

The explosive last line is unapologetically difficult to swallow, and Lamar has no intention of making Butterfly easy to swallow. Layers upon layers of historically black musicality in every song; a cacophony, if not for the masterful way in which brass, wind and bass weave together.

The third single released, “King Kunta,” was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of something far bigger than it: the album itself. Accidentally released March 15 on iTunes, it was fully released on March 16th, taking many fans by surprise and setting a Spotify record with 9.6 million streams in a day.[4] Right off the bat, with “Wesley’s Theory,” you are taken on a ride akin to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne: a celebration of black excellence, as Jay-Z would put it, “opulence, decadence.” A critic called Butterfly “[…] black insomuch as the album is a cosmic slop of nearly every musical movement that we Negroes have founded on this continent.”[5] The album opens with a sample of “Every Ni**er is a Star” by Boris Gardiner, and features George Clinton of the Parliaments, an avowed inspiration.[6] “King Kunta” is deceptively evocative beneath unabashed rhythm – Kendrick Lamar often refers to himself as “King Kendrick” but in this subversion he relates to Kunta Kinte, a Gambian slave who had the front part of his foot cut off as punishment for trying to escape slavery in the burgeoning United States. The next few tracks follow with similar funkadelic allusions to the race conversation that will proliferate the latter part of the album; but the arrival of “u” radically changes everything and jolts a new perspective into “i.” The outro to “These Walls” preludes “u,” with a spoken word piece by Lamar that transitions one song into the next throughout the album:

I remember you was conflicted

Misusing your influence

Sometimes I did the same

Abusing my power full of resentment

Resentment that turned into a deep depression

Found myself screaming in a hotel room…

“u,” appropriately, begins with Lamar screaming and repeating “Loving you is complicated” ten times in a frantic voice. “Complicated—” an Atlantic piece submits, “not impossible, not difficult, but complicated. Everything in Lamar’s world is complicated, probably because everything in the real world is.”[7] He stumbles through the song, crying, drinking, eviscerating himself with cruelty: he wasn’t there for his sister, he wasn’t there for his city, he wasn’t even there for his friend Chad while he died in a hospital bed save for a Facetime call.[8] The last lines in the song are jarring: “And if I told your secrets/The world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness” and lead into the cautiously optimistic “Alright” with Kendrick singing against a broken, brassy backdrop, “I’m f*cked up/homie, you f*cked up/but if God got us/then we gon’ be alright.”

Not enough can be said about the juxtaposition of “u” against “i,” but it is necessary to know that these existential questions are a pivotal part of the black experience. Kanye West explored these questions in Yeezus, and Watch the Throne is a twelve-song testament; Frank Ocean alludes to it in “Swim Good” (referenced by Kendrick in “These Walls”), Janelle Monae actively preaches against it in The Electric Lady.[9] Even the September-released “i” receives a facelift inButterfly. It gets stripped down to seem like it’s being performed live, but retains its optimism until a fight breaks out in the crowd. Kendrick stops immediately, exclaiming “Not on my time – not on my time!” and demands of the crowd, “How many ni**as we done lost, bro, this year alone?” He continues, trying to silence the arguing and instill a sense of camaraderie amongst them with an a capella verse and a lesson in linguistics: “N-E-G-U-S, definition: Royalty; King Royalty.” Instead of the “n” word – the turn of tongue that has damned so many black people to slavery, and that renders many, like Oprah who condemns the use of the “n” word, uncomfortable – he encourages the use of this word of black excellence, validating Oprah and offering an olive branch in the form of a word that only has empowering connotations.[10]

“Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive.”

There is no way to dissect, discuss and lampshade every single track on this album under a word limit. But the last track of the album demands a paragraph of its own.

Tupac “2Pac” Shakur is regarded by many as being the most influential rapper of all time; Lamar has repeatedly mentioned 2Pac as one of his greatest influences, and it stands to reason.[11] 2Pac’s legacy is controversial but it is undeniable. His music is influenced by his family’s Black Panther notoriety, including his step-aunt Assata Shakur, the first woman to be added to the FBI’s most wanted list.[12] “Mortal Man” is to this album what “Real” was for good kid: putting lessons learnt throughout the album into perspective, to realize oneself in the grand scheme of things. Kendrick Lamar asks of the listener, “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” citing all the ways in which he could get in trouble over the course of his lifetime: being framed for crimes he did not commit, arrested on exaggerated charges to fit the agenda of institutionalized racism. Not unlikely scenarios given the backdrop of continued, arguably escalated, police brutality against black people and people of color. He invokes the legacy of Nelson Mandela, a man jailed for more than two decades for his commitment against apartheid – it’s not just homage, it is a statement of intent, a promise to fight the good fight, working for justice and peace. It is a bold promise, and one that he obviously wants to be held to. But it is the outro of the song that leaves the most lasting impression. He starts reciting the poem that has laced one song to another in its totality. Blackness must unite to prevail; blackness must forget the colors of gangs; blackness must forgive itself and reject the evils of “Lucy” – Lucifer, who has haunted Kendrick through his career. “If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us/But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another ni**a.”

Paper crumples, and you can almost visualize Lamar looking up with an almost sheepish look on his face, “Sh*t and that’s all I wrote.” The outro quickly establishes itself as a conversation between two people: Kendrick Lamar and his idol, Tupac Shakur. The late Shakur’s words are taken from his 1994 interview with a Swedish radio station, but it doesn’t seem like a conversation with a ghost. He may as well have been talking to Dr. Dre with the familiarity and slight awe that is in Lamar’s voice.[13] They contemplate poverty, impending revolution, the future of black youth: and isn’t it natural for a 27 year-old black man against the background of Ferguson, “I Can’t Breathe,” and #BlackLivesMatter to be asking such questions of his idol? Butterfly is an album for disenfranchised youth of color struggling to find a voice in a society that purports to be post-racial and is anything but.

Perhaps Kendrick Lamar is a butterfly, and his discography is his evolution. Section.80 wove together a setting for the story of Kendrick’s Compton; good kid, m.A.A.d city was a memoir, one teeming with his experience of racism and exploring vice along the way; but To Pimp a Butterfly is bigger than Compton: it’s America. It’s Kendrick Lamar exploring his role as a black man with a voice that is becoming increasingly influential; it is the narrative of a man terrified and insecure of the temptation that surrounds him in his new-found fame, and – and perhaps most importantly – it is the manifesto of an apostle. In his words, Lamar is doing “god’s work” on earth; how timely, this album, given what is essentially the reinvocation of the civil rights movement.[14] If to To Pimp a Butterfly is a “75-minute story of “survivor’s guilt” that finds some sort of resolution at the end, the question must be begged: what is next for Kendrick Lamar?[15] Activism has always manifested itself through multiple mediums and Lamar joins the ever-increasing number of black artists that have anointed themselves activists. Will he work through musicianship? Or will he step out from behind the curtain of artistry and take the helm of the resurging civil rights movement? Continue reading “From K-Dot to Kunta: the New Fate of Kendrick Lamar”

Love, Dinah


I took Leah to visit Loïc at the hospital today. I’ve been trying to keep her from seeing her father at this stage – there are a lot of wires, cords, IVs around and on my Loïc – and I don’t want her to worry about him. She’s still the beautiful, bright, sweet girl she was before Loïc fell ill, and I’ve talked to him. I know he wants to keep it that way.

She always surprises me though. As soon as we were let into his room, she squealed her daddy’s name and ran up to him, stopping just short of the bed. She asked the nurse if she could climb up on the bed and hug daddy without “messin’ up the wires that make him better.” I know my precocious little one took the nurse aback, but it was the expression on Loïc’s face that absolutely gutted me. He doesn’t let himself cry – I think I’ve only seen him cry once, and that was the day I said yes to the empty ring box he presented me with – but he lifted her up into his arms without a second’s hesitation. He told me once that exertion felt like sandpaper against his bones, but my love peppered our baby with kisses and smothered her with hugs and told her to tell him all about school. Continue reading “Love, Dinah”

I got off the armchair

My grandfather passed away when I was 14 years old. I may not have been as close to him as my brother was but I’d like to think my dada – Urdu for grandfather – was privy to the moment every star in my figurative sky aligned and made me recognize what I wanted from my life.

To recognize: to reacquaint someone or something – concrete or abstract, take your pick – with your cognition. The facts are all there, lined up finely like topiaries; what is left is to blindly stumble into one of the bushes.

Allow me to line up the facts, then, as there are a few to be acknowledged here: to be born Pakistani is an inherently political act. It follows, then, that your life is steeped in the political no matter what route you assume. You could be an engineer, a computer scientist, the most domestic of housewives but when society calls and you find yourself sitting around a coffee table or dinner table, cradling a cup of tea, there is only one real topic of conversation. That was my childhood. Continue reading “I got off the armchair”

A Lesson in Heroism and Pichal Peris

Shirin did not often leave her house at night. The dark was not something she was entirely comfortable with: there were too many unknowns, too many uncertainties, and she had always been the type to take words on a piece of paper to heart. Being driven into the night, though, was different. When the lack of sleep got too oppressive, there was little Shirin could do but wander quietly out her front door and float — the barely-there fall of her feet against grass was too light to constitute actual walking — towards the pond nestled between thorny brambles and scrub that no one else gave a second glance to.

She always knew there was something different about her little retreat. There were plenty of times where she had pointed a tiny forefinger towards the scrubs and trilled, “Sometimes I see little women there!” but her happy exclamation was always shushed by nervous warnings. “Don’t. Do you want the pichal peri to get you?” Even though Shirin knew that her friends in the pond were far from the back-footed, long-faced witch that pervaded the lore of her mountain village, the pit of her stomach got knotted up like her hand in her mother’s dupatta and she shook her head vehemently.

But thoughts of pichal peris and other strange, menacing creatures took a backseat to her own excitement — it must be admitted, the fantasy of fairies and water-nymphs overtake much of the sense that a child hungover from dreaming possesses. So Shirin continued, using muscle-memory to navigate her way to the pond. She felt brave, like the heroes and heroines in her Urdu literature anthology, kicking komodo dragon-shaped flora out of her way and whispering threats at alarmed bats journeying between trees. She wondered what mysteries she would stumble upon and subsequently solve, and how, when she finally came home from her adventure, her mother would envelop her into her arms and cry, “My courageous, intelligent Shirin!” Her older siblings would apologize for all the times they stole her toys and books, and she would be rewarded with bowl upon bowl of kheer. And thus, stuffed with rice pudding, Shirin would retire and return to her life as a humble student.

Satisfied by these thoughts, Shirin used her tunic to carefully push aside the brambles — a hero does not get scratches from bushes — and found herself breathing the familiar air of her lake. Canopied by the night sky and mantled by tall grass, the pond was a resplendent, yet still blue. The only ripples in the water were caused by the forays of minuscule frogs, leaving trails in their wake as they swam towards the colony of flowers abloom, no doubt in search of a midnight snack (Shirin was careful not to accidentally step on the frogs; it would not do to alienate the locals).

She waited for her friends to come. Usually it would take them a minute or two, and then they would poke their heads out from underneath the flowers and smile at her. They would listen to her talk but for the most part, the two parties enjoyed the silence.

Five minutes, ten minutes, and Shirin started feeling impatient. She tugged at small blades of grass before moving onto the taller ones. “A hero doesn’t sulk,” she muttered to herself, but it was a half-hearted reminder. As if in response, she heard a rustling in the bushes behind her, and then a high-pitched, musical voice saying a single word:


Shirin heard it twice. The first time, it went in through her ears, and the second time she heard it in her bones. But a hero never balks, and Shirin, in all her childish wisdom, replied with, “Th-that’s a bad word.” Suddenly, the frogs in the pond began ribbiting in alarm, and hopped as quickly as they could towards the safety of the grass as a dark head slowly emerged from the water. A less stubborn child would have raced home, but Shirin just trembled and stared down the bright blue eyes that looked at her. The woman’s nose and lips remained submerged.

No one said adventure wasn’t going to be terrifying.

“…pichal peri?”

A nod by itself may not be inherently menacing, but Shirin had enough experience with her own mother to know that a simple head movement could convey a whole array of intentions. She fidgeted in her seat and sat in silence for a few seconds more before the silence became less tense and more awkward. Of course, the pichal peri hadn’t even twitched in the slightest, but the witch was not a 7 year old girl and, hence, was not accustomed to the struggle between sense and curiosity that a child went through every moment of their day. “People say pichal peris have long faces. Are you sure you’re a pichal peri?”

If Shirin didn’t know any better, she would have assumed that the woman in the water had sighed, but no one can sigh underwater. Nevertheless, she got what she had wanted, and the woman straightened to reveal most of her body and, indeed, a face that was longer than one needed to be. And now Shirin could see that the pichal peri was possessed of a complexion unnaturally white, and hair unnaturally black (it had been already established that the witch’s eyes were unnaturally blue, so that particular detail required no further contemplation); her lips were full and pink, albeit a little on the white, dead side of the color spectrum, and her nose was the kind of aquiline that left people irrationally envious. “How come you didn’t get married if you’re that pretty?” Shirin asked. The pichal peri blinked in surprise — an expression! — before replying, “I’m sorry?”

“I mean, everyone says you wait at the roads to get men to die for you, or you wait up by the campsites and pretend to be hurt, and then kill men, but how come you don’t just get married?”

The pretty lady frowned before murmuring, “Why aren’t you afraid?”

Now it was Shirin’s turn to blink. “Why should I be? I’m no man. Besides, I’m a hero, and heroes don’t get frightened.”

Maybe it was the matter-of-fact tone of her voice, or the way Shirin’s chest puffed out in pride as she declared her heroism, but if there is anything that can make a horrific creature of lore lose her fabled villainy it is the innocence of a child. The laugh bubbled out from between the pichal peri’s perfect lips, much to Shirin’s confusion, in a display of sheer mirth. Sulking just the slightest bit, the little girl went back to picking blades of grass while she waited out the shameful hysterics of this so-called monster.

“I put you under a spell every time you visit here,” said the still-smiling witch once her laughter faded. “I do not hurt children. I had a child in my own life. But I could not let you see me. I could not risk you stirring up a situation in the village out of terror, so I distracted you with fairies.”

Silence followed this revelation. This time, it was the witch who prompted, “What is on your mind?”

“…do you mean the fairies aren’t real?”

This pichal peri, old enough to have forgotten her own name, who had committed countless murders, who had broken households and hearts without thinking once let alone twice, felt her lips twitch upward. Affection prompts lies sometimes, and the lie in this case was: “Of course they’re real. I sent them myself.”

In lieu of blood, in lieu of revenge, the witch’s reward was seeing the relief and happiness in the child’s eyes. “Okay. Well, are you going to hurt me?”

“As I said, I do not hurt children.”

“Can I come back here?”

“I would not recommend it, but I cannot stop you.” The life of a pichal peri was a solitary one, and good thing too. Smiling this much was not appropriate for a servant of evil. But she would redeem herself with one trickery, no matter how harmless — and, admittedly, well-intentioned — it was. She crooned at Shirin, employing a softer version of the voice she would use to woo men out of their Jeeps and into her vice-like hold, “Little one, you must be sleepy.”

“Not at all, I-” taken over by a sudden drowsiness, Shirin yawned, her shoulders sagging and admitted, “…maybe.”

“Then let me take you home.” In the back of her mind, Shirin debated the merits of falling asleep right there and then, but sinking into the witch’s voice was a much better option and so she let herself be cradled by affectionate deception.

How strange, the pichal peri thought to herself. She trekked noiselessly up the hill and to the little girl’s home, holding her tiny form against her bosom. I thought I had forgotten what children were like. She deposited Shirin onto the ground, on her feet, supporting the sleeping child with a hand and whispering into her ear, “Go to bed now, little one. Tell no one of your friend the pichal peri.” With a soft noise, Shirin obeyed, her eyes closed and the magic of the witch by her side. She watched as the little girl closed the door quietly behind her and then smiled one last time before turning away.

Maybe this one really will be a hero.

NOTE: I haven’t written a short story in a very long time. This was so much fun to write, and I’m a little bit in love with Shirin and the pichal peri myself. It was also awesome to take a piece of my culture’s mythology and run with it; definitely something I want to do more.


Scientists Find Muslims only 40% Human

by Neiha Lasharie

Households around the world can watch the evening news in peace and without feeling horror and guilt now that a scientific breakthrough has proven what many pundits have been proposing for decades. In what has been touted as the “widest and most demographically representative” study of Muslims around the world, science has shown that the average Muslim is chemically and morally composed of 40% of an ordinary, non-Muslim human’s molecular make up.

Pointing to a crude drawing of homo mohommetan – at first thought to be the same, if pleasantly different, from the homo sapiens but in light of recent discoveries found to be of a different taxonomy altogether – eugenicist I.B. Gotte explains. “We’ve been testing this theory for generations but have only recently acquired funding from the government – and several generous media outlets – to prove our theory correct.”

While the exact mechanics of the study were not relayed to this reporter, many have called this study a “gamechanger” in the way society perceives the Muslim community – and it brings with it a sigh of relief from tragedy-weary lives, particularly among middle Americans. One mother in particular had this to say, “I can’t tell you how good it feels to know that all those people dying everyday aren’t actually people – wait, I can say that, right? It’s PC, right? Okay. Well, anyway, I’m just happy my kids can sleep better knowing that all those Syrians and Palestinians and all them are dying in much fewer numbers than we thought.”

While the exact death tolls have yet to be recalculated – particularly in light of another breakthrough that suggests that not all the victims in the Syrian civil war and the occupation of Gaza are Muslim – early projections put the numbers at less than a third of the current estimates. This may even put the number of deaths since the Syrian uprising at less than 50,000, a prospect that has caused celebrations to erupt across the world among activist groups.

Editor’s Note: The number provided in this article, 40%, comes only when rounded up. The exact percentage varies among Muslims and across sects and volume of facial hair. The average comes to 39.68%.



Glenn Beck Reacts: Relief in the Heart of a Former Pariah

Ten Muslims that are Still Pretty Cool, with a note by Ayaan Ali Hirsi

(Note: If you think this isn’t satire, I feel bad for you son. I give 99 things, but a shit ain’t one.)

Mother tongue: Being an Urdu Lisper

Khatt-e_NastaliqI have 40 pages of dense reading to do for my classes tomorrow, so in the spirit of procrastination, I’m going to put this essay up. My major is a BA, so it demands proficiency in a second language; as such, I was required to write an essay detailing my proficiency in and relationship with Urdu to waive the language requirement. I’m still taking French, but I figure if somewhere down the line I have to take extra electives, I want to be able to drop French.

Fun fact: my essay was accepted and my language requirement is waived.

I debated, initially, changing this essay’s title to “Tongue-tied Mother tongue” but I felt like that would be betraying my recently established confidence in the language I was raised with. Instead, I decided to lay my interesting history with my beautiful native language plain in this essay:

I was born and raised in Pakistan, in the vibrant city of Lahore, speaking (an admittedly skewed, slightly urbanized and Punjabi-fused version of) Urdu and studying the language til the end of 7th grade, when my family relocated to Dubai. My relationship with Urdu in those early years was definitely less than ideal, but as I mature as a person, I recognize just how beautiful my language is; and for the purposes of this essay specifically, just how fluent I actually am in Urdu. Revisiting my tumultuous foray through Urdu, however, is still a bitter feeling. I was what we call in Urdu ṭoṭli – that is to say, I had a lisp unlike a conventional English lisp. This lisp serves as a testament to the complexities of the Urdu language: with 38 letters, it’s no wonder I couldn’t pronounce most of the different T, D and R sounds that really have no representation in English. Once I became aware that this lisp was a hindrance and not just something adults would condescendingly chuckle over, I resented the language. I dreaded being called on to read a piece of Urdu literature in class. I knew from experience how terrible the exasperated sighs and amused snorts were for my self-esteem.

For a girl as patriotic as me, that was painful. So I strived, instead, to excel in English, but there was still a distinct void in my life that could only be filled by Urdu. I still spoke the language at home with my family and, interestingly, with my Pakistani and Indian friends at school.

In a way, it’s strange how moving to a country other than Pakistan helped me gain such a heightened love for Urdu. There was a surprising factor in addition to that, however, and in retrospect it makes sense; I found that certain words in English did not have the depth their Urdu counterpart(s) did. I pride myself on my vast English vocabulary, but Urdu is a language that trembles with sheer poetry; English may have love, but Urdu has ishq, muhabbat, pyaar, dewangi…it is a language tailored to fit the needs of the literarily inclined, thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib and Pakistan’s own national poet Allama Iqbal have crafted intensely beautiful works of art with its nuanced palette of words.

Upon this realization, I took it upon myself to download Urdu dictionaries, pick up Urdu books, and immerse myself in this linguistic Nirvana; and certainly, it helped me break out of that cycle of resentment and bitterness that I had built. Prior to this, I had taken to replying with a tentative “Yeah, I speak Urdu but English might as well be my native tongue” whenever I was asked if I knew Urdu. Looking back, it breaks my heart that I had distanced myself from Urdu, and it further scatters those broken fragments to think that this was the result of a young girl being so negatively impacted by the words of her peers and the adults who should have encouraged her instead of deluging her drive with patronizing chortles.

But few things remain broken – I piece together my heart by realizing that in my moments of pain, my mind’s voice resorts to Urdu; that I can read Urdu to myself with complete accuracy, if not yet aloud; that Urdu music resonates with me on a level as deep as – if not more so than – English music; and that no matter what, Urdu still remains my mother language – a mother that coos sweet words and has a soft, familiar embrace.

As I bring this essay to an end, I’d like to point out that word I italicized: familiar. The point of this essay, despite my emotional spiel, is to underscore my proficiency in Urdu. The bottom line is that I spent 13 years of my life in Pakistan, formally learning Urdu, and a further five years in a foreign country surrounded by Hindi and Urdu speakers; as much as I had convinced myself otherwise, I never lost my mother tongue. It evolved with me. It matured with me as much as it helped mature me. I can converse fluently in Urdu, and with a distinctly Lahore accent at that, if one slightly injected with a Karachi twist; I can read and write the language; most importantly, I can recognize that it is my language in a way English will never be. Urdu meri zubaan hai; and no one can take that away from me, least of all myself. And so, it is with extremely happy confidence that I sign this essay off with the knowledge that my Urdu is more than sufficient to waive a BA language requirement – and I hope that whoever reads this essay can see that.