Mahlikah Awe:ri On Being an Artistic Changemaker and FOLD Poet

Brampton Focus had the pleasure of speaking with Mahlikah Awe:ri, “a TD Arts Diversity and KM Hunter Award finalist, is a Haudenosaunee Kanien’kehà and Mi’kmaw; Drum Talk Poetic Rapologist; slam poet, musician, hip-hop Emcee, recording artist, arts educator, keynote speaker, artist mentor, festival curator, and emerging knowledge keeper and medicine carrier. She is the Director of Programming for Neighbourhood Impact for the Centre for Learning & Development and founding member of Red Slam.” (from the FOLD website).

Mahlikah is performing on May 4th at the Indigenous Showcase, and the Poet’s Gallery. Tickets can still be purchased at the FOLD website.

What attracted you to hip-hop, and poetry?

Where hip-hop culture is concerned, my boy cousins exposed me to the dance part of the culture, when I was in elementary school. They were very heavily involved in breakdancing, but I was more intrigued with rap music. I did my first rap freestyle cipher on a dare when I was 8 or 9 against high school boys. I knew then that this was something that spoke to me, and that I would continue to immerse myself in as I got older. When it comes to page poetry that started in grade 5 with my teacher Ms. Verner. She exposed the class to poetry and somewhere in there she encouraged us to write our own poems, and really thought mine were amazing and wanted to get them published in our school publication. One of the teachers who was working on the publication accused me of plagiarism. I guess she didn’t believe that an Indigenous racialized person that age could write this way. Of course Ms. Verner defended me and my Mother got up in the mix and in the end, those poems were published and she had to apologize.

It was very traumatic because at that age you’re what, 10 years old and just trying to live your life. I think that may have been why I didn’t want to deal in that anymore and continued to express myself through the arts in general outside of poetry. It wasn’t until high school that I got sparked by slam, and Saul Williams. I was like: woah, what is this? It sounds like rap, but there’s no music and it’s poetic but it’s not written down for the page. I thought that this was my way to be reconnected to my oral Indigenous storytelling roots. I was a kid who was navigating multiple layers of racism, sexism, and all kinds of lateral violence, depression, anxiety and poverty. Poetry and hip-hop is what saved my life then and continues to save me today.

Tell me more about the Red Slam Collective. How did the group come about, and what does it mean for you?

Red Slam as an art for social change movement is celebrating ten years this year. It’s pretty big. We’re a movement involving Indigenized folx who represent different art forms from different parts of Turtle Island and internationally who really want to collaborate, to tell tehir stories, our stories. There is no membership. We move where we’re moved to move. Some people go and then come back, and then go again, with new people coming. It depends on what is calling us at the time. Nothing is stagnant and because we’re working through so many disciplines and because we come from so many different places, there’s different things we want to femifest in expressing the work. The work is always centralized around Indigeneity and art for social change. It’s a free-flowing, collaborative cipher. We love to make music, and do workshops. We do multidisciplinary performances. Some of our most notable were at the AGO, and Long Dragon House, which was an amazing collaboration with a Beijing installationalist; we created a live performance piece, where our thoughts on the notion of land and dispossession, history/herstory, past/present, with elements of hip-hop were expressed to live audiences. We’ve done summerworks, we’ve done The Gathering with Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement of Ontario. We’ve been asked back for their 10th anniversary this May to do another interdisciplinary performance. We’ve also done some stuff with Nuit BlancheTO that was really amazing.

We’re this really organic movement. What got us to this point really just started with us being Indigenous youth who weren’t really reflected in the mainstream arts scene at all. We didn’t have any spaces that were dedicated to cultivating our forms of contemporary art. There were spaces where if you wanted to bead, and do hand drumming, you could do it, but there was nothing in 2009/2010 if you just wanted to write poetry and do slam, or compose and record rap songs. We spent time at the Native Canadian Friendship Centre in Toronto because that’s where most of us hung out. We were all from different territories, and we kept hanging out. Eventually one the youth directors at the time, encouraged us to formalize what we were doing. There were some city grants so we applied for one of those which helped us get a mentorship with digging roots. After that we saw possibilities and we kept moving with that, then Idle No More happened which catapulted us as being seen as a very politicized voice for what was happening at the time across Turtle Island. It kept expanding from there and looking for new ways to collaborate with other racialized folx who were experiencing similar oppression, like Palestinian, and Black folx in the larger social justice arts movement. We wanted to get out to other parts of Turtle Island to connect with our Indigenous communities who were being impacted by the same things, especially when we think about what’s happening to the land, our territories, and resources.

Right now we’re back in the studio. We released our first full length album a couple years ago, and now we’re working on a second recording project. The difference with this one is that we have control of everything, so we’re not working with outside producers. It’s all us, and I think that’s making a huge difference in the sound and the process, and we can’t wait to put this out here. It’s a great testament to our longevity as a movement, and the things that are dear to our hearts.

Some spoken word artists and poets have a process that guides them into the moment of bringing art into spoken word form. Tell me more about what happens when you perform spoken word or music with Red Slam. How does it feel, and what goes through your mind when you get into the flow?

I think I’m always in the flow. 90% of my pieces are conceived through dreams, freestyles, and jam sessions with my crew. I really made a point, especially after I left the competitive slam scene, back in 2013, that I was going to dedicate my process to being as organic and true to orality as possible. Which means delivering orally, and remaining oral once it’s conceived in an oral form, avoiding the temptation to write this things down. I want it to live inside of me. I don’t want it to be on my device or in a notebook somewhere. I just want it inside of me and when I need it I can draw from it. This challenges me as a spoken word artist to be present, to embody the intentionality of my words knowing that they are emotion, motion, blood memory, magic, medicine. I really believe that I’m a conduit or a portal for all those who have come before me, those who are still here, those who have gone too soon, and those who have yet to come. I try to lean into that when I’m performing. It’s letting go of the colonial mindset that everything has to be perfect, and that everything has to be ready, that we have to rehearse. Even with Red Slam we started a monthly feast and jam, which is at the core of this new album. As opposed to different contributors to the album going away separately, and working on verses for tracks,  melodies and or the lyrical side of it. We would just get together at my wolf den and I’d cook up some nice Indigenous food, and we would talk, eat, and then jam for a good 2 hours. During the jams, we would record some of what’s happening. It would become a template that we could utilize to build a track, but allowing ourselves to get back to our roots. We’ve always been a jam, and I love that in this return of a decade we’re coming back to those original roots. We created by jamming, so this album is very much that way. It’s also my process as an oralist. I allow myself to be in the moment when I’m creating. When I’m creating, or putting a set together I can be very intentional and decide what I want to bring to that place I’m being asked to perform. I’m trying to reignite our oral tradition. What did we do before we wrote things down? How did we remember these things? How did our elders know these things from time immemorial, without writing it down. I think in this age where people are very attached to being able to see something to believe it exists, I’m trying to reestablish a different narrative where it exists because it is, and I don’t have to prove that to you.

One of your bios states that you’re interested in the “rematriation of Indigenous Futures”. Tell me more about what that means for you, and how that emerges in your music, poetry, and spoken word performances.

First of all, for the reader, what I mean when I say rematriation is that it’s the acts of actually restoring a living culture to its rightful place on Mother Earth, while restoring a people to a spiritual way of life in sacred relationship to their ancestral lands without external interference. There is a rematriation movement in the Indigenous world that maybe everyone else isn’t aware of but it is very active, coming from reclaiming the matriarch, and matrilinear ways of leadership, returning to clan mother systems, centreing it. Non-Indigenous folx may read it as feminism, but we have our own way of centring what that means. I feel like rematriation is one of the central themes that feeds all of my artistic expression because it’s a way forward for me. I feel it’s the way forward for generations who will come after me, and that it’s the intended way. It’s the way that our creator, and our ancestors intended us to live. In our language we say it’s the Ownkwehonwehnéha. It’s the Indigenous way of recognizing that everything is connected, and we have to be more responsible in the way we relate to each other, and all of creation, otherwise there will be no future existence for anybody. Indigenous Futurism, as much as it is about looking to the future, it’s also understanding that there will be no future unless we return to some of our ancestral ways. As Indigenous People, and for me as a Haudenosaunee, you’re always supposed to be looking seven directions into the past, and seven directions into the future before making any decision. It’s really about returning to that way.

I was listening to your interview Irkar W Beljaars where you talked about allies, and allyship. I wanted to hear more about what this means for you, because so often people ask how they can be better, and it doesn’t seem like they are truly interested in much more than wearing knowledge about Indigeneity as another layer of privilege. People seem very interested in allyship when they don’t lose privilege, land, their body, or space, but still call themselves allies. Is there a way of talking about allyship that places privilege in an appropriate light, maintaining the focus on Indigeneity, rather than continuing to centre settler colonialism?

I’m actually working on a Ted Talk that deals with this! Since that interview, which was also connected because I was in Montreal as a keynote for a hip-hop conference. It was after my keynote that we had a breakout circle, and a Black brother asked how can we be better allies? I said that I don’t even believe in allyship anymore, and don’t even want to use that language. Then I got into the specifics: allyship is problematic because it’s a-lie that came with the ships. It’s rooted in colonialism. It is rooted in this idea of military conquest.

We don’t need allies. We need accomplices who are willing to conspire against the system which marginalizes and oppresses Indigenous people. Accomplices are part of the All My Relations way, the act of becoming a relative who is willing to utilize their privilege and positionality to do the heavy lifting, which is actually required to make change. I think this idea is important because we are all Treaty People, especially when we talk about Turtle Island. All My Relations is a way of relating with others that contributes to reconnecting to our humanity, and developing relationship building in a mindful and authentic way, enabling us to move forward with intentionality as stewards of these homelands, and leave a legacy for the next generation through collective acts of reconciliation. Essentially, in order to bring people together to accept accountability, or shared responsibility. We need to look at restoring equity between ourselves and our intentions on Mother Earth because our future depends on it, and I’m hoping that this talk will give a new perspective on allyship from an Indigenous lens. It’s thinking about authentic acts of solidarity between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people as we build that stewardship on Mother Earth.

What are you most excited for, about the FOLD? What does the FOLD mean to you?

In general, based on how the organizers have been working with me, the Festival seems pretty lit! I’m really looking forward to sharing space with writers and poets that I’m inspired by, as well as learning and growing, and engaging new audiences who may not be familiar with my work. I think the festival means a lot because although I have poetry that has been published in ten publications, I don’t often get a seat at the literary table. I’m racialized, I’m Indigenous, I’m a spoken word artist, and I don’t have a published book of poetry by a publishing company. I really think it’s important that we have festivals like the FOLD that are BIPOC centred, and we need them across Turtle Island. If it’s anything as I’m imagining it, after being treated in such a good way, and being given so much opportunity to share my work, I think the FOLD could be a prototype or blueprint for other places across Turtle Island to step up when it comes to real inclusion, and diversity of voices in a good way.

How do you decide what projects to take on that will help develop your creative repertoire?

I think it’s important for me to have a good balance. When I look at my year, I know that I’m going to be doing a certain amount of workshops, a certain amount of solo features, a certain amount of collab with Red Slam, a certain amount of professional development for myself which could involve an actual project or could just be training. Somewhere in there I have to give myself time to create new pieces. I’m also getting more involved as an arts educator and also in mentorship so I try to make sure doing all the things that I love throughout the year because I get bored very easily. I need to keep it popping and I also want to just live my best life. I worked really hard to get into the position where I am as a professional artist while still giving back to my community. I’m not just a creative, I’m a cultural arts leader. I’m somebody who has done a lot to open up doors, change people’s perceptions in this larger industry. I’m a changemaker and I can say that with all due confidence, and I’m an emerging Knowledge Keeper and Medicine Carrier for my community. I’m living the life: I can feed myself, pay my rent, and look fly. I get the respect owed where people are paying for my art. I guess I can say this now, too: I’ve just become an artist for Prologue. It’s huge for me on so many levels. I never thought that would be possible.  I’ll be launching in the 2019-2020 season, and I’m just in shock, like somebody pinch me! It’s amazing to think that I’ll be bringing aspects of hip-hop, slam poetry, and aspects of my Indigeneity into elementary schools across the province with an artist touring management group that many artists I know tried for years to get into. I’m humbled, and I’m really going to utilize my time with Prologue to continue to open up those doors for the next generation of artists. I’m really going to enjoy this run for how long it’ll last, because it’s amazing to be part of such an acclaimed organization.

What does mentorship mean for you as an artist now, and how is it incorporated into work you’re doing? Should more organizations be placing an importance on it for artists?

Yes. Yes. And yes. I feel very blessed that I’m in the position to be a legit mentor. I say that because you shouldn’t be mentoring until you’re ready for it. It is a whole other thing because essentially you’re inspiring and motivating, and modelling for the next generation of emerging artists. It’s a lot of responsibility and you do need to take it seriously. It does take up a certain amount of time because especially young people have a lot of questions. They’re going through their own personal stuff, but they know that the arts, just like you did when you were a youth, is an amazing outlet to be heard, to be seen, to be valued. There’s also the business, promotion, making money, not selling out, dealing with microaggressions, that they have to learn about. I feel so blessed to be able to do it in a good way. I knew it was something I would eventually do because when I was coming up I didn’t’t necessarily have mentors 24/7. There were people who came into my life at certain times, who gifted me with certain knowledge, and gave aspiration. I didn’t have formal mentorship like young people can access today. It’s why I always tell young people when I come into a classroom or community program, take advantage of me in that this doesn’t happen often.

It’s amazing that there are a lot more programs, started by artists who didn’t get the mentorship, saw the gap and wanted to make sure it didn’t continue. There’s now more mentorship attached to the different arts councils, and grants offered. There are mentorship programs in school boards now, particularly the Toronto District School Board. I feel like it’s my responsibility as an Indigenous artist to the next generation to be a guide and give them that intel that I may not have had when I was coming up. I love it. I love to see the process of where someone starts, and then to see them later, taking up space in the scene or working on a publication. I saw a former workshop student while out for a burger, and he told me that he got into an arts school because it was all the things we did in that workshop that gave him performance confidence that he brought to his audition. Obviously you don’t do it for accolades, but when something like that happens you realize why it’s so important. Youth also need to see people who look like them, from their hood.

You mentioned working on an album with the Red Slam Collective, but is there anything else you’re working on now that readers can anticipate?

I’m a busy person! Aside from the Red Slam album, which we’re hoping will be released at the end of this year or early next year. I am working hard on expanding my artistic growth when I get opportunities to do so. I’m currently going to be in my first theatrical production. I’m nervous-scared but very excited. I auditioned a year ago to be part of the cast. It’s Daughters of Lilith, Dainty Smith’s play, and I’m Sister Warrior. We’re all sisters and we are about our witchery, our magic, and our medicine, and dealing with all our shit while coming together as this sisterhood. I love it because it centers femme voices, queer voices, trans voices, Black voices. I’m honored to be part of the play and grow in this way. We’re going to have two nights at Buddies in Bad Times. May 15th and 16th we’ll be performing.  It’s really pushing me in areas that I needed to be pushed, it’s only going to make everything I do more fabulous. Who knows, maybe I’ll do more theatre after this!

I’m also gearing up for a Cultural Pluralism of the Arts Movement Ontario 10th anniversary celebration Red Slam has been invited back to do a performative piece. I’m finishing writing the piece, and it’s centred around the four sacred medicines, and what are the teachings, stories, memories, magic, madness, and the blood memory housed in those four sacred medicines. It focuses on why we need our medicines today; why are they so essential to us moving forward and reclaiming in different ways. It’s a combination of music, poetry, dance, and I may spit some rhymes. It will be all the things that people have come to expect when members of Red Slam get together to share in this way. I’m really looking forward to it. That’s on May 29th at the Aki Studio in Toronto, Native Earth Performing Arts.

The Festival of Literary Diversity takes place in Brampton from May 2nd to 5th, and tickets are available at the FOLD website.