92. Zaynab Farah

3 Jun

Change may be scary for some, but for Zaynab Farah, it’s what drives her every day.

The 22 year-old is a spoken word artist, who uses her platform to draw attention to issues close to home like racism, discrimination and stereotyping.

She described spoken word poetry as “storytelling with a fusion of words” that you convey “using your voice and body”.

And she’s kind of a big deal in the Victorian industry.

In 2018, Zaynab participated in her first spoken poetry competition, where she made it to the state finals. Then, not only did she make it to the state finals, but she won, and was one of two Victorians to represent the state at the national finals – the Australian Poetry Slam in 2019 – held at the Sydney Opera House. She didn’t win but was grateful for the opportunity.

The poem she won the state championships with was called ‘She Is Light’, a piece that was dedicated to her mother.

“[It was about] all of the racism and discrimination my mother faces as a Muslim woman. People walk up to her and say ‘go back to your country’. These are just based on appearances, they don’t know who she is or what she’s like. So I thought I’d do a piece to go against that and say ‘hey, this is what you assume, these are the biases that you’ve got, but this is who she is, this is what she’s like’,” Zaynab said.

At the national finals, she performed a piece titled ‘Black Woman’.

“It was about black women and the multiple roles they play and how they’re teachers, mothers, daughters, and how a lot of the time because of the double standards they have to work extra hard to prove their worth,” she said.

Zaynab said she stumbled into spoken poetry through rap.

Having rapped from a young age, she was approached by someone after a performance who asked if she’d heard of spoken word poetry.

“I started watching videos of a spoken word artist and I really liked how the story flew, it just had me engaged throughout the entire piece and I said ‘I wish I could do something like that’, and I just started slowly writing my own things and performing and I just became a spoken word artist,” she said.

Zaynab said she finds spoken poetry therapeutic in a way.

“It actually helps me break things down, like if I have something on my mind, writing about it helps me understand it better or understand how I feel about it better,” she said.

And the issues she breaks down in her poetry are very personal and what she’s passionate about.

“A lot of my pieces are centred around discrimination and racism and how I sort of tackle them on my own. And a lot of it’s about identity, and misrepresentation in the media, and how when I enter a room or a conversation, it feels like people have an idea of who I am and what I’m like,” she said.

She said spoken poetry allows her to take ownership of her own story.

“It’s my way of presenting my version of who I am and what’s important to me,” she said.

Zaynab said inspiration for a poem can come anywhere at anytime, like when she’s driving.

“I’ll be driving and I’ll be thinking about a piece or a word and how it can evolve. In my notes [section on my phone], I’ll have a random sentence and if it’s something I want to expand on, then I have that as a starting point,” she said.

Writing a poem can take anywhere from an hour to a whole day or longer.

Getting up on a stage isn’t something that frightens Zaynab but she admits to getting nervous just before her performances.

“I’ve never been the person to shy away from public speaking or talking in front of crowds no matter the number. But a lot of the time, when I’m performing, because it’s so personal and a lot of the time the people in the crowd are strangers, I don’t know how they’re going to take my pieces. At first I’m a little bit nervous, but as soon as I start I’m no longer there, it’s like there’s nobody in the crowd, it’s just me and my story,” she said.

In addition to her poetry, Zaynab is a prominent leader in her local Somali community. In the past she’s helped organise events and fundraisers, and even mentorship programs which match high school students with university students so they can learn about different courses and how they got to where they are.

“If they had any questions about the different courses, they could have a conversation with someone who’s gone through it but had the same upbringing,” she said.

She also helped organise sessions where people who had finished university came in to talk about their journeys in different areas, for example a scientist and a lawyer.

Zaynab was modest about her role as a leader in her community, saying it was just about “being present”.

“Being a leader is just about me being there for my community and supporting them in whatever way they need, whether it’s volunteering or performing a piece at an event. If there’s something I can do for someone, I’m always happy to do it,” she said.

In amongst all that she already does, Zaynab also works for the Department of Health and Human Services and is studying engineering at university.

When asked what her future looked like she said she wanted to get engineering experience and hopefully that would lead her to figure out exactly what career she wanted to chase.

She also endeavors to continue her spoken poetry and plans to write a book too.

“I’d like to put together some of my pieces, and make it more written, because a lot of the time, they’re more performance based,” she said.

She said she’ll also give the Australian Poetry Slam another go and is “pretty pumped to try it out again”.

But one thing that will never change is her drive to chase change.

And on that she said, “Everyone has a story to share, everyone is unique. A lot of the time we do come from different communities or religious backgrounds, but we are individuals as well and we have our own stories to share. It’s about being able to show others that they too have a voice. You might be going through something alone, but there could be other people who could relate, and you might be what inspires other people to push forward and persevere.”

Words: Joely Mitchell

Photography: Brendan Bonsack

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