Remi Kanazi performed to a capacity crowd at the Friends’ Meeting House in Brighton last night, delivering a host of his signature powerhouse poems, a double whammy of Palestinian and American street cred, and bucketfuls of hope. Organised by the Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign, this gig was the fourth in Remi’s long-announced UK tour – a dizzying 22 shows in 18 days. He’s acclimatized quickly: ‘Don’t call it my UK tour,’ he begs us, ‘I’m not going to Scotland or Wales – I’ll get in trouble.’ (Don’t forget Northern Ireland, Remi!) The remark gives a small measure of the man: as well as an internationally regarded poet and activist, Remi’s a kidder, a clowner and a master of self-deprecation: an artist both deeply engaged and engaging.
Remi introduces himself as an ex-fat boy, the only brown kid in a small mid-Western school, afflicted with a mono-eyebrow and a mother who was loudly proud of being Palestinian; and while it’s clear his politics stem from being the grandson of four 1948 refugees, and his poetry was honed in post 9-/11 New York, one imagines that his humour developed from playground self-preservation techniques. For his show, though built around the urgent, often angry poems of his new collection Poetic Injustice: Writings on Resistance and Palestine, abounds with humour. Like a comedian, he gets up close with the front row, in ways that may make older British people uncomfortable except that Remi’s introduced himself before the show, and is clearly eager to make friends. He needs to cast the audience as interlocutors at times because his very vocal poems — sometimes addressed to real-life opponents he can’t get out of his head — explore and enact a raging cultural dialogue about racism, violence, and the desperate need for change. Packed with a one-two punch of history and determination, these are poems that travel: today’s audience is composed mainly of local activists – though one of the UK’s top hiphop artists rolls in late after getting lost on the way from London — but Remi’s equally at home with crowds of a thousand, all hungry for emotion served like a good steak: not raw, but rare.
For Remi’s anger is seared by his own unique take on the poet-performer’s craft: eschewing obvious rhymes, his poems meld the rhythms of rap poetry and impassioned speech, and are performed with a dancer’s ethos: mind, body and spirit working as one. Remi often places his fist on his heart, and then opens his hand out to the audience – a physical symbol of the way poetry transforms anger into communication. His topics range from family history and events in the Middle East, to the current American political climate (prophetically, Remi was an Obama-sceptic even before his election) and the vital importance of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Here he gives us an artist’s eye view – BDS, he explains in answer to a question, is directed against the Israeli state and its complicit institutions, and doesn’t mean a person can’t perform in a private café or home within the 1948 borders.
But while they impart a ton of information to arm us for the arguments the topic of Palestine inevitably provokes, Remi Kanazi’s poems also gift us memorable imagery:
still fills tear ducts
with longing memories of Yaffa
just because the house you built is beautiful
doesn’t mean the bones you built it on
have fully decomposed
(‘Only as Equals’)
Of Middle Eastern civilians, whose quest for justice goes unseen by the poet’s trendy twenty-something peers, he writes:
… they are human beings
gracing the windowpane
reflecting stillborn images
they are voices
chiming in choirs and temples
they are life
that won’t be forgotten
they are the world’s shiver
and whether you like it or not
they are coming inside
(‘Before the Machetes are Raised’)
At the ripe old age of twenty-seven himself, Remi is already a veteran campaigner, whose poetry has taken him all over North America, Europe and the Middle East, and whose political commentaries have been featured by news outlets including Al Jazeera English, GRITtv and BBC Radio. As a Palestinian writer and performer, remaking poetry for a new generation, he helps gives the struggle for justice an enormous shot of hope. For in the last 100 years the Palestinians have faced two main enemies: Zionism and international indifference. And if the latter is largely based on ignorance of the Palestinian people, culture and communication are the antidotes. In her groundbreaking memoir of post-48 exile, In Search of Fatima, Ghada Karmi recounts meeting Tony Benn early on in her activist life: give me something to work with, he asked – give me something to match Jewish literature, music and suffering in the minds of the general population. Well, the Palestinians have always had culture, especially poetry, but now, in Remi Kanazi, Suheir Hammad and Selma Dabbagh, among others, they have young writers who are bicultural, media savvy and only just flexing their collective muscle. This is a potential game-changer; a cause for immense hope.
Remi Kanazi is today fit, confident, and boasts beautifully threaded brows – a walking advertisement for the benefits of poetry and politics. Though as he asks – what’s political about wanting your basic human rights? Another of his piping hot takeaway lines; lines that, in the end, take you back to his book. Poetic Injustice. Buy it here