Mustafa Ahmed has been meaning to assemble and record the best of his spoken word repertoire, but the 17-year-old artist, emcee, and actor has managed to garner widespread praise without releasing an album. Since he caught the media’s attention five years ago, he has performed at Roy Thompson Hall and TedX Toronto, and has shared the stage with artists as diverse as Nelly Furtado, Pharoahe Monch, and Margaret Atwood.
This evening, Ahmed debuts his self-titled EP in his local Regent Park, the neighbourhood that has shaped his life and his art. “It’s very humbling, because these are stories of my own,” he tells us in a phone interview. “I want people to know that this is where I started. Even the album cover has pictures of the buildings in Regent Park.”
Ahmed, whose Sundanese parents immigrated to Toronto before his birth, describes his youth in Regent Park with fondness. “I loved my community and felt a strong sense of camaraderie and family. I felt like all the parents in my community were my parents as well.” Yet that sense of community didn’t extend to the classroom, and he struggled to fit in at Nelson Mandela Park Public School.
“I couldn’t focus in class for too long,” he recalls. “When you’re in Regent Park, there’s a lot of baggage you carry. I had people in my classroom who were being bullied outside of school. There was a whole life outside the school, and there wasn’t much acknowledgement of that.”
So Ahmed turned to writing as an outlet, and with encouragement from his older sister Nasefa, he developed his artistic voice. At first, he hid his gift from friends and family. “You have to be proud of what you do, but when I was younger, it was strategic for me to do what I did secretly and without any negativity. I knew my parents and friends wouldn’t support me going into the arts.”
But once he started sharing his work, the response was overwhelming. “The more attention my poetry got, the more I started realizing it was something I could possibly do for the rest of my life. Of course, some people still made fun of me, but I had a few close friends who helped me get through it.” With the support of parents and tutors, he also came to enjoy school and improve his grades.
Ahmed’s poetry is raw and lyrical, and captures the earnest vulnerability of a young man with high hopes for himself and his community. “A lot of people in immigrant communities are against their children having dreams—they just want to see them have an occupation.” The young poet says he draws inspiration from the likes of Lauryn Hill, but is equally moved by novelist Walter Dean Myers and William Shakespeare.
Regent Park remains his muse, and he shows how well suited he is to tell its local stories by sharing one with us. “I was walking to Tim Hortons. There was a kid from my community, maybe nine years old—lanky kid, high-pitched voice. He had a miniature globe in his hands.”
Ahmed noticed that the boy kept dropping the globe on the ground and picking it up, and approached him to ask what he was playing at. “He told me, ‘It’s like when something happens in Regent Park…the whole world falls, but then something else can happen, and you can just pick up the world again. That’s what I’m doing right now.’”
As Ahmed listened, the boy went on to describe his reaction to a recent gun murder in the neighbourhood. “The kid said, ‘When that guy got shot, I felt like the whole world was falling—then my mom made me a good breakfast, and it felt like someone picked the world back up again.’”
Mustafa Ahmed’s ability to both hear and amplify the voices of those much younger than himself speaks volumes, and leaves us eager to hear more from this teenage artist.
This post originally stated that ticket prices range from PWYC to $25, when in fact they range from PWYC to $15—an additional $10 will send you home with a CD.