Poet, Activist, Organiser: An Interview With Aliyah Hasinah

From Aliyah Hasinah's Instagram

By Vita Pearl

A spoken-word poet, a writer, an intersectional feminist workshop facilitator, an activist, and the organiser of Birmingham’s Black Lives Matter protest: Aliyah Hasinah can do anything. The young Birmingham-based activist is making a difference on local, national and international levels. I spoke to her in person to find out more about all of the incredible things she is doing…

In July you organised our city’s Black Lives Matter protest in two days, with your friend Olivia Brown - how did you do that, and how did you do it so quickly?
Myself and Olivia both have backgrounds in marketing, so that came in really handy when trying to circulate it! Olivia initially came to me with the idea, she said that she had a dream, that she saw people with tape over their mouths, listening to Kendrick Lamar with placards for Black Lives Matter. This was just after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed, so tensions were high and there were a lot of emotions, and we were essentially all mourning for them. At first, I was like, ‘Yeah, okay Olivia’,because it was a lot to take in, but then I called her back and was like, we have to do it right now, let’s organise it for Saturday. Then in two days, we just marketed it everywhere. The day before the protest, we set up a [plaque-making] session so people came and made plaques down at Impact Hub in Birmingham. On the day we all went up in the morning from Impact Hub, blasting music, and within 15 minutes there were like 100 people there and it just kept building and building until over a thousand people turned up.

Why do you think that American police brutality gets more attention than British police brutality does within the UK?
I think the movement in America is extremely strong because there are already heightened racial tensions there, and everyone’s sort of aware of it. Someone I know moved  to America for a year and before that she  hadn’t thought about race whilst living in England her whole life. She moved there and was like ‘everything’s black and white in America’. It then made her, when she came back, see the disparities in the UK. I think the reason that it gets brushed over here is because they claim that the numbers are so small, but then in comparison to America, we’re a lot geographically smaller. Black people and ethnic minorities are still disproportionately targeted by the police and institutions within the UK. We’ve seen a lot of murders on British soil - we recently saw Mzee Mohammed, who was killed over the summer, in Liverpool, in police custody. He had mental health issues and the police saw him as a threat instead of vulnerable, which comes down to racially entrenched views on black masculinity, among other things. I think in the UK, we accept stereotypes as fact, and compared to America we’ve had a lot longer to change the face of racism. I think that’s why it’s so important to call it out, because it’s to the extent that it’s so institutionalised, we tend to neglect and forget about it. That’s why with BLM UK being set up, they’ve really had to work so hard to make it relevant here because...I wouldn’t say it’s too far gone, but there are a lot of issues that are so deeply rooted in Britain’s fabric  that we’ve internalised them and  don’t actually notice them as issues anymore.

I’ve heard people say - some people of colour say - ‘well , at least we don’t live in America, I don’t think people of colour should be complaining’.
That’s just it - we feel like we’re over it here. But also, we have things like Black History Month, which feels bittersweet. We’re in Black History Month right now and as an artist of colour, this is when I get most of my work and that really frustrates me, because it’s this box : ‘We’ll put you there for the month and say that we’ve celebrated some black cultures, some black arts - we’ll put all the black sh*t in the corner’. All the institutions that I haven’t seen doing anything around black arts the whole year are now turning all the events on because it’s Black History Month. It is tiring and frustrating. At the same time, there’s so much work that needs to be done, to not have a Black History Month would kind of feel like a step backwards. I think it’s important in schools, but when it’s taught properly and for more than a month. At the same time, we need to be programming these events and opportunities all year long based on talent not diversity quotas, and not say that it’s black arts, because these people are artists but they’re instantly racialized and everything they have to do has to do with their colour. Yes my colour is important in illustrating my social reality but white artists should not be default “artists”. Call it white art and watch the response.

Is reform of our current justice system enough?
I don’t know where I stand on this at the moment - I’m doing a lot more reading into prison abolition and social justice. But from the core of me, I guess it doesn’t feel right that the justice system, which is institutionally racist (as are all other institutions in the UK), are just allowed to flourish as they are. The fact that we have more private prisons in the UK, which are disproportionately incarcerating black and minority ethnic men and women and keep popping up but there’s no mention of anything to do with reparations or helping countries that have been disadvantaged because of colonial legacy, really demonstrates how institutionally racist the UK is. With Theresa May [the Prime Minister since July], it doesn’t seem set to get any better, as her husband has links to G4S, which runs most of the private prisons. I don’t think reform is enough. Essentially, all these institutions are created on the ideas of dead racist white men and those ideas and ideals  need to be unpicked part by part.

What’s your favourite poem you’ve written?
I’m not sure I actually like my poetry. It’s cathartic and it starts as a process to help me feel better and to get stuff out. It then kind of becomes this contract with the audience, which informs how you edit your poetry, because I do perform it. It’s an uncomfortable thing - in terms of performing, I get very nervous - I do not like performing. The reason I started performing was because someone told me to, because “what if someone in the room needed to hear exactly what you had to say at the time” and being a representation of narratives is important. I’m growing with my writing - I think I’m starting to like where I’m going with poetry a little bit more. I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea of being a poet. One of the pieces I’m probably proudest of is one that I was commissioned by Channel 4 Random Acts to do. So it’s a short film and what I really enjoyed about that is that I got the chance to write a script and characters. With this piece I became the characters, and was allowed to be the characters, and was different aspects of different people, all centred around the idea of the cycle of imprisonment within black communities. So, although there is a lot of work to be done on developing the script - I’m currently developing that into a play - I think I’m proud of it. It’s called Sentence and will be released by Channel 4 online soon. .

What do you do as a ‘Trailblazer’ for Fearless Futures?
Me and a friend of mine, Saybi, are the first two Trailblazers in Birmingham, which is really exciting! We basically teach intersectional feminism at this school in Kingstanding. It’s super fun! We started actual sessions last week, and we’ve done everything from gender and binaries to intersectionality and power - within like two sessions! It’s really just an amazing course and company. The woman who runs it, Hanna, is phenomenal and the work she does is just… she’s amazing, I have so much respect for her. It’s nice to be back facilitating sessions and it’s nice to be in a school, because that’s where you feel like the most amount of change is gonna happen. Giving them the tools to really think critically - if it’s all they take from it, it’s just to question everything that we’re told is true.

We had a training session in London before we started working in the school and we got the chance to work with some young girls who were on a Fearless Futures summer school. The group that I was working with wanted more representation within the history curriculum for black and minority people and the letter they wrote to their head of History was so incredible. They were like 13, 14 and 15. I was so awe of them. That’s what really excites me about Fearless Futures. The participants run their own campaigns towards the end of the programme. It just helps give them the building blocks for them to change the world.

That’s so cool! How can young people get involved in activism otherwise?
There’s so much! It always starts with education and critical thinking. Understanding where we are in order to see where we can go is so important. Also, activism online is important and I hear a lot of activists putting people down for their online activism. No. That’s just as important. If you’re putting something out there on social media that people disagree with, it allows uncomfortable conversations to be had, which is where I think the real revolution is. I think action is crucial as well - the biggest thing we need to instill in young people is the confidence to know that they can. I’ve had so many people ask me to run things for them, and I’m like just do it, you can! The fact that we don’t believe we can is due to levels of oppression that we’ve internalised, so forget that, let’s make sh*t happen with our heads held high!

Aliyah has curated an exhibition called Black Lives Matter Brum. The exhibition's launch will be on the same night as her event, Herstory, and in the same place in Digbeth, Birmingham, . You can find out about both of them here.