Islamic History Month: An interview with Jamaal Jackson Rogers
If there’s one thing I can say for sure after speaking with Jamaal Jackson Rogers, it’s that he sincerely wants to make a difference. Rogers is a spoken word poet and hip hop artist who lives in Ottawa and is heavily involved in his community and the wider world, working as a mentor and educator for youth. Rogers also served as emcee for the Ottawa Police Service’s first human rights forum which allowed marginalized communities to meet with police and discuss their concerns.
Perhaps Rogers’ strength of character should come as no surprise, given his family history: his great-grandfather Albert Jackson escaped slavery in the United States and eventually became the first Black postman in Canada, thanks in part to the support of his community. Regardless of where it comes from, Rogers' enthusiasm for helping others came through loud and clear during our interview, whether we were discussing his work as a mentor and role model, the challenges of bridging the gap between the police and marginalized communities, or the role of the arts in promoting human rights.
October is Islamic History Month in Canada. What does that mean to you?
First of all, I did not know there was such a thing until it was pointed out to me. I’m surprised that it’s perhaps not something that’s well-recognized, even amongst practicing Muslims. Now that this is going on in October, it gives me something to look forward to, something I can plan around and do more education about, as well as create more awareness around, which is always a good thing. So I commend Canada for recognizing this in 2007.
When you think about diversity, you think about inclusion, which is better than the word “tolerate.” That word has become played out. We have to start looking at how we can be inclusive and not just say that Canada “tolerates” different cultural expressions. How do we be inclusive and recognize marginalized groups? How do we recognize individuals and communities that are often looked at as “foreigners” almost anywhere? The recognition of this month is a huge step towards inclusionary practices amongst communities, groups and individuals. One of the reasons I’m proud to be Canadian is because of these types of inclusionary steps.
You are a spoken word poet and you also mentor poets. Do you think that poetry has a role to play in promoting human rights, and if so, what do you think that role is?
I believe spoken word poetry to be one of the contemporary art forms that plays a key role in promoting human rights and social justice matters. A lot of people don’t know what spoken word is. However, the beauty about spoken word is that you don’t need much to relay a message. You don’t need a violin. You don’t need a canvas. What you utilize in spoken word is your voice. That’s the most ancient form of artistic expression – it all started from storytelling – oration, right? I always think of spoken word like soccer. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world because it’s inexpensive to play. You just need something that can roll on the ground and that’s soft enough for your foot to kick – and two posts. Spoken word is the same. You just need a platform – or not. Really, all you need is your voice.
A lot of spoken word artists have taken it upon themselves to use their artistic form to express things about injustices, human rights and social awareness. So I think spoken word is the future of oration – of public speaking. For example, the Olympics recently teamed up with two spoken word poets in Canada to do commercials for 2016 Olympics. There are spoken word poets in Toronto who are involved with Black Lives Matter.
Another simple fact is that spoken word is easy to access – it’s delivered in a melodic, rhythmic way. I’m an early childhood educator and we know people tend to learn better when things rhyme or when things have a melody. When speech has a melody like the ABCs, it tends to sit better than when you are just doing it through rote memorization. These elements combine to make it a very powerful and effective tool in order to champion human rights and social justice awareness.
As a Black Muslim man who is involved in the arts, do you feel a responsibility to be a role model for other Muslim youth?
Absolutely. I tend not to tell myself that I have to be some type of leader, because I think the people will determine that. I allow myself to be brought into environments where there are communities of Black Muslims growing up, male and female. Then I use that opportunity to tell my story, and my story is very similar to many of those in the new generation that’s coming up: either growing up in poverty, or growing up in a home with lots of trouble and difficulty, or involved in the streets to the point where, at one point I had to make a decision to go right or left and whichever path I chose could either have harmed my future or created positivity in my future.
I’ve realized it’s actually important that I’m a role model because there are Black Muslim individuals who feel marginalized. They feel like they’re invisible. Middle Eastern Muslims get a lot of attention specifically because of the global climate right now. So they’re either getting attention negatively or perhaps positively – mostly negatively, to speak the truth – although within their own communities there is positive attention and there are some changes.
But for Black Muslims – it’s such a rarity to see Black Muslims. I mean, you have the Somali Community which is predominantly Black Muslims and there are parts of other African countries that have some Muslims. However, I’m a Black Caribbean Muslim and we are so invisible to the rest of the communities around us, we feel like we’re left out. Growing up I always felt like I was the only one like myself and so I didn’t feel comfortable bringing up my issues as a Black Muslim because Black communities have different struggles we go through. I always felt invisible. I felt like I couldn’t speak to a guidance counsellor. I felt like some of the issues I was going through, none of my other Muslim friends who were from different communities could relate to.
So now that I’m here doing what I do, it’s so necessary for me to reach out and let young Black Muslims know that there are people like you, that understand your struggle, that understand some of the hardships you’re going through and that there are ways to seek out assistance and guidance. And so, I allow myself to be either a leader or a guide, but I tend not to put that on myself – because I truly believe that the people will put you in a position of leadership. Self-appointed leadership is not the way to go, in my opinion.
You recently emceed the Ottawa Police Service’s first human rights forum. Why did you choose to do this and what did you hope to accomplish working with the police?
Well I have to admit, that was a tough decision to make. I grew up poor and in a low-income community – police were often not welcome in our neighbourhoods because we thought that we were profiled as young Black males. Being Black, we tend to experience a lot more prejudice and racism, at the hands of not just white communities, but all communities. I often used to say to my friends, “Black people are the last people your parents want you guys to be friends with.” That’s just the way we experienced life growing up.
Although I personally understand the importance of the police and the importance of law and order, I did grow up experiencing prejudice, racism and oppression at the hands of some police members. Those days are behind me, but when I was asked to emcee, it was tough, because I had to ask myself: is it wrong of me to work with the police foundation in this human rights forum because my community has experienced oppression? Or will I be doing something positive, which is building bridges and creating a bridge between my community [and the police]? So what I did was I asked a few of my friends who I grew up with – who still have a bad taste from the oppression or the racism they faced from police presence. I said, hey, what do you guys think? Would this be “selling out?” and I was surprised that most of them said no, this looks like a good thing, you should do it.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that it’s better for me to do work with the police community that is positive, rather than continue to deny the fact that changes need to be made. In order to make those changes, there’s got to be collaboration. We have to eventually work together at some point, especially if the intention is good.
At the forum there was a lot of healing. There were people from all different backgrounds in attendance and the most speaking time was taken up by individuals from the community who experienced difficulty in their lives with the police. Members of the police foundation had to sit and listen to their stories. The police foundation also explained the changes they are trying to make in order to create a more harmonious relationship between them and these communities. It was an all-day event – it started at 8 a.m. and went to 5 or 6 p.m. with breaks. With all these discussions going around, the forum was supposed to be step one in terms of bringing people together, because we know it can’t be solved in one forum. It’s just that because trust has been broken, it’s going to take baby steps. I believe the human rights forum was a step in the right direction to create trust in the community. It’s absolutely needed.
Your great-grandfather escaped slavery and became Canada’s first Black postal carrier. Can you tell us a little bit about what that part of your heritage means to you and if it has affected how you approach issues such as racial inclusion and human rights?
I only found out in 2012 about my history – and so when I found out I was shocked. It was the first time I was hearing about it. Because I didn’t know about my history, I didn’t know about the legacy that was running in my veins. One of the things it told me is that whatever I do now, as a visible Black Muslim artist and community worker, I have to be sure I’m creating a legacy for future generations so that it doesn’t get lost. So I started to work towards ownership of my work, my art – creating a space for artistic expression. Not just for marginalized groups of individuals, but open to everybody. I went into getting my own venue with two other people of colour.
I also realized the importance of speaking on behalf of yourself – just speaking on behalf of your own rights, instead of asking people to understand your plight or your situation. Standing up for your own rights. And this is what my great-grandfather did. He went to Parliament with the members of his community and they made sure that the Prime Minister heard their concern, which was that Albert Jackson has earned his right to be a postman. From that point I realized, okay, whatever it is I want to see manifested in my community, I have to take it straight to the origin of the issue, and go straight there and work it out. I realized the only way to claim my legacy is to actually go out and grab it because it’s there. Speaking out is important. If I keep silent, change is not going to happen.
I think the third thing that changed is I stopped calling it “Black History Month” – when I found out in 2012, I thought to myself, the Black experience in Canada should not only be about history – what happened in the past. We should talk about presently what’s happening and what we’re building for the future. So now when I teach in schools and people ask me about Black History Month, I tell them I call it Black Legacy Month, because our contributions are not just about what’s in the past – it’s also about the present and also about what we’re setting up for our future generations.
Words have a powerful effect. As an artist who uses words, I realize words have a really powerful effect. Some of the schools I’ve been to now, they now call it Black Legacy Month, because they realize the importance of not just looking back to what Black individuals did many years ago – it’s also about what’s happening now and what are we doing to make a better experience and a better space for Blacks to create and to live for the future.