October 6, 2015

Spoken Word Activist Remi Kanazi Visits Cornell

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A table stacked with books, falling bombs pictured on theirs covers, stood before us. Easy chatter filled the McGraw Hall room on Friday evening as a crowd of people, mostly Cornell students, mostly members of Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine (the group that organized the event), waited for 34-year-old spoken word poet Remi Kanazi to enter and begin his performance.

And after about fifteen minutes, he did. Hadiyah Chowdhury ’18 presented us with a brief introduction and he stepped forward. His eyes grew large as he leaned forward and greeted the room in an overly-earnest voice, “Thanks for coming out on a Friday night to hear poetry!” Instantly, the stiffness was cracked out of the room by laughter.



“Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising up from Brooklyn to Palestine,” also the title of his newest book, is a tour taking Kanazi across the United States and Canada, as well as through Europe and the Middle East. Cornell was the third stop. His mom, Kanazi told us, thinks that his book is better than One Direction. His mom, he told us, doesn’t have any idea who One Direction is — but she loves him very much.

He became flustered when he tried to call out a latecomer and she responded by smiling and offering him an apple from a bag she’d just finished picking. “This is what I get for trying to call out a nice person — I don’t know why I do this,” he muttered, half to himself and half to the entire room. He was profusely apologetic towards her, but once he transitioned back to his work, he was anything but.

The grandchild of refugees of the 1948 Jaffa Nakba, when zionist military forces displaced almost all Arab Palestinians from the city of Jaffa, Kanazi is no stranger to racism and xenophobia either at home or abroad. His poetry provides him with an important outlet. Before he started writing seriously, he would encounter people on the streets and “didn’t have a way to articulate or combat misconceptions” about Palestinians or Arabs as a whole. Living in post-9/11 Brooklyn, Kanazi was frequently confronted by strangers saying ignorant things to him, and at first, responding with something equally rude was all that he could think of to do.

But over time, and after being exposed to spoken word performances and activism across the world, he began to put his frustrations to paper and to build a network with other organizers. The goal? To stop injustice everywhere. His most immediate focus? Freeing Palestine.

Kanazi’s performance was not just a string of readings — rather, he interspersed details about growing up as the sole minority in a small Massachusetts community (“we got another brown family in eighth grade — that was a weird fucking experience”) to the immense anxiety that he initially felt travelling to Palestine to perform his work for the people whose lives he writes about. When Kanazi performs, each poem comes to live in the room as he breathes it out. As he reaches the end of a piece, he leans backwards as if he’s on the cusp of falling over from the weight of his work. There is no escaping the frank emotion in his pieces, for him or for us.

Although he’d warned us ahead of time that none of his poems were going to be “happy,” it was impossible to suppress the sensation of ice creeping down our backs as he evoked images of parents digging through rubble for their children and screams resounding through villages.

He has an intensity to his work that many spoken-word poets shy away from; In the middle of a performance he will lock eyes with a member of the audience while speaking a line calling out a character he’s making them fill. He stepped forward to read “Normalize This!” and boomed the first word — then stopped, acknowledged that he’d made someone jump, and restarted. He let his anger, his sorrow and his call to action carry him through the piece. He stared down an audience member as he said, “In case you missed the hint — I don’t want to pretend that all is okay.” To all those who try to cover up tragedy with reason, he said, “we don’t want this messed-up world to crash your baby’s lullaby.” For Kanazi, it seems the lullaby has and will continue to be in a state of disruption. Before reading each piece, he held it close to his face and stared at it silently for about ten seconds — something that an audience member asked him about after his performance.

Kanazi is seeking to disrupt, educate, advocate, anger, reveal and organize. He insists to rooms full of strangers, readers of his books and those watching his videos online — that they must stop tweeting from “their parents’ basement,” where revolutions may take root “… but probably not in that basement,” and demand real change. This takes immense effort, and an immense connection to his work, even in the midst of daily barrages of violence and injustice soaring through media. The ten seconds he takes aren’t about checking that he has the piece memorized so much as they’re about ensuring that he’s fighting off his own desensitization. Because he has a message for those who agree with him, and also for those who don’t. “You deserve nothing, nothing more than equality.”

Jessie Weber is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].