Palestinian-American spoken word poet Remi Kanazi isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. The opening lines of his Rambling Poem on Israel and America are characteristic of his unapologetic, in-your-face poetry.
Every time I think of 9/11
I see burning flesh
Dripping off the bones
Of Iraqi children in Fallujah
I tend to memorialize the forgotten
The collateral damage
Eclipsing our unpunished crimes
Maybe it’s because I’m a numbers guy?
Kanazi speaks and performs with an urgency that commands your attention; his voice is forceful, lawyer-like in the way he pleads for justice. His conviction of opinion may offend the faint-hearted. Needless to say, Kanazi is never at a loss for words.
“I write a lot of angry pieces,” he confesses. “All you gotta do is turn on CNN to write a poem. Thanks to our government and media, I’m never devoid of creativity.”
While Kanazi uses his past growing up as the “the brownest thing going in a small western Massachusetts white Catholic town,” for inspiration, he wasn’t always so comfortable talking about his Palestinian heritage.
“Look, Arab Americans usually go two routes,” he says. “It’s either I am Arab hear me roar, or I want nothing to do with you people.” Remi was the latter. “I wanted McDonald’s, I wanted Coke, I was the fat kid who didn’t care and I rejected my Palestinian ancestry.”
Remi began singing another tune when he connected with Arabs in college. “When I talked to some of these people, there was an enormous feeling of embarrassment, of not knowing where I came from, and that pushed me to find out.”
After a brief stint as a business major at the University of Massachusetts, Remi moved to New York. He didn’t begin writing until about four months before 9/11. Following 9/11, his creative output only intensified:
“The backlash against Arabs, the mischaracterizations, the vitriol, it made me want to write,” he says.
Kanazi, who grew up politically conservative, began independently reading and researching, delving in progressive politics, Edward Said and “anything I could get my hand son.” He saw Def Jam poetry on Broadway and was drawn to Suheir Hammad and Carlos Andres Gomez. “It blew my mind how spoken word was so progressive and interlinked with socially conscious hip hop; it moved me in a way I wanted to emulate,” he says.
Activism drives his work. “I used to write op-eds, but I felt the youth was yearning for voices, for artists to say ‘this is me, and I’ not afraid.’”
In 2005 Remi started his poetry website PoeticInjustice.net and began booking shows.
“The first show I ever did was at a Palestinian Relief Fundraiser at St. Georges church in New Jersey. Natalie Hundall and Maysoon Zayid were reading that night.” The event organizer-Remi’s brother’s friend’s mom- read some of his poems off PoeticInjustice and asked him to perform.
“They said I would perform for ten min, and I was so mad at myself for agreeing, thinking I was gonna make an ass of myself. I was shaking like crazy but then I did it and it was the best feeling ever.”
Six months later, the idea for Poets for Palestine started. An anthology of poems edited by Kanazi, it unites poets, spoken word artists, and hip-hop artists calling for humanity. Remi relied on open-call submissions and help from within the Arab American artistic community, eventually personally asking writers to submit their work. Networking within the Arab American community was key.
“There was and continues to be an immense amount of support from the Arab artistic community, which I know sounds funny because Arabs are so well known for their dividedness.” He laughs. “Everyone gave their time for free or did it for dirt cheap. If it wasn’t for the Arab American community I don’t think I’d still be a poet.”
Remi’s maternal grandparents are from Yafeh, his paternal relatives are from Haifa. They all fled to Lebanon in 1948, during Al- Nakba, the creation of Israel.
In 2007, Remi went back to Palestine for the first time, visiting the land his ancestors dreamed of returning to. “You can read as much as you want but nothing can replace the experience of being in Palestine, feeling it, and connecting with people on the ground.” When he says that, you get the sense his mind is wandering back to a specific encounter and image.
Remi’s grandmother passed away in the summer. He credits her for influencing him as an adult, and for the love and pride she instilled in him. “She was always talking abut Yafeh and wanting to return,” he says. “When I look back [at my younger self], I constantly feel, like, what the hell was wrong with me? The more you reject your roots when you’re younger, the more you actually come back to them when you’re older.”
Remi finished his fall U.S. tour last month. During performances, he talks about how PoetsforPalestine came together, but focuses more on his own poetry, performing ten to twelve poems per show.
“I tackle double standards, war and politics, but my main focus is Palestine, so I talk about what coexistence means, what justice means,” he says.
In the spring, Remi will head back to Palestine to teach a course as part of the Palestine Writing Workshop and will be participating in Palfest, a yearly literature festival in Palestine.
“I’m a little afraid because Israel has been jailing Palestinians-especially non violent outspoken ones,” he says with a nervous chuckle. “But I’m looking forward to it.”
I ask Remi if, like many Palestinians, he prays to God for freedom from oppression. His answer is, not surprisingly, political:
“In a post 9-11 world people want to say, ‘Oh it’s fundamentalist or religious zealousm, but when you look at Palestine, it’s occupier vs occupied, colonzier vs colonized. The problem is disposition, apartheid.”
I’ve touched a nerve.
“It’s ridiculous when people say Jews and Arabs can’t live together because of Hamas,” he says. “Israel didn’t reject Hamas because it was religious- before Hamas there was Fatah, the PLO, secularism, the problem clearly isn’t religion.”
Remi’s poem “Coexist” is a tribute to Palestinian resistance, as the only thing that keeps the people from becoming extinct.
I don’t want to coexist
Not like good guys and bad guys in True Lies and propaganda
Put on blackface as cab drivers or deli owners in racist comedies
Not bomb Dunkin Donuts with my Kuffiyeh
Fist pound Fox News
Or let you steal my food and call it Israeli salad
I won’t Mess with the Zohan
Or let him turn the rocks of Palestinian children into balloon animals
While Israeli soldiers snipe our children’s heads, shoulders, knees, and stomachs
Hollywood snipes ears of young ones with lovable tales of blue and white heroes
I am not looking for your approval
The last lines read:
I don’t want to coexist!
I want to exist as a human being
And justice will take care of the rest!