Growing up hip hop — it’s both the way Kahlil Almustafa describes his youth and the title of his new book, a collection of poems he wrote between 1992 and 2007.
In the introduction, the 31-year-old rhymester and educator provides a glimpse into the South Jamaica neighborhood of his adolescence, which is at the core of his poetry, sewn into the very fabric of his words — an ever-present character.
“I lived in the ghetto and my grandmother lived in the suburbs, and we lived in the same house,” he wrote. “I grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, which is located somewhere between New York City and nowhere.”
Describing Queens as “suburban schizophrenia,” Almustafa recounted the paradox that was South Jamaica and the confusion it caused him as a black teen. “I grew up in the middle: a middle-class middle child, somewhere in between ghetto and bourgie, revolutionary and The Cosbys, gangsta’ and nerd, hip-hop and not,” he wrote.
Almustafa, now married and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, started writing poetry at 15. The two dominant subjects that appear in his early poems are “the frustrations of urban life and corny love poems,” he said.
But the subject matter turned dark when his mother became sick with AIDS. While Almustafa is not sure how her sickness affected his writing, he knows it had a significant impact on his life at the time. He dropped out of high school because “it became difficult to focus. … It was a see-saw, always up and down,” he said.
His mother’s death in 1994 was the reason Almustafa continued writing. “I was trying to fill the void of her not being there,” he said.
The lyricist also wrote of another missing figure in his life: his father, who left when Almustafa was just 3 years old. “I found fathers in books,” he said, noting that poets and writers were his role models.
Now it’s his turn to be the role model.
Almustafa is in the midst of developing a poetry program called “Growing Up Queens” for school children in the borough, particularly in South Jamaica. Almustafa wants to bring to Queens schools the same type of work he does with Urban Word and Community Works, Manhattan-based programs that engage children and teens in writing and poetry.
Just last week Almustafa received a grant from the Economic Revitalization Program for Artists for his proposal, which he said is both therapeutic and empowering for teenagers, especially black and Latino kids whose life experiences, styles and frustrations are similar to his.
Schools that sign up for the program receive the following: a one-day poetry workshop with Almustafa; a trip to the theater to watch a poetry performance; six to 10 weeks of poetry-writing development; and another trip to the theater, this time for the students to perform their own poems.
“This will transform young people’s lives,” Almustafa said. “They will be able to heal themselves, express themselves. It gives them an option” — one he didn’t have during his school years.
The poet said he wants students to use the program “as a means for expression and as a way to spark dialogue,” just as he uses his book as a “tool for community engagement.”
Almustafa is still a student himself. He enrolled in an MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont, and recently completed a multi-media show that won him a grant from the Future Aesthetics Artist Regrant. The Hip Hop Theater Festival selected Almustafa for the grant in support of his work as a “genre-breaking artist,” which he demonstrated through the multi-media show.
With the grants in place, the show up and running and the poetry program nearing completion, Almustafa is ready to take on any challenge. He is asking educators and others interested in his “Growing Up Queens” program to reach out to him through his website, kahlilalmustafa.com.