You might think that rapping alongside Kendrick Lamar or performing with Barack Obama would be the moments that have impacted poet, storyteller and professional speaker Wali Shah the most – but there is one thing that he holds in equally high regard: the relationship he holds with his parents and making them proud.
Wali sat down with us in the barber chair to chat about his process of making words move, which words from other poets and artists move him, how his work is tied into balancing his mental health, and much more.
What inspired you to become a poet?
In high school, I had a teacher who was incredibly down to earth and caring – Mrs. Reilly – who truly took time for her students before and/or after school. For me, I didn’t like school as much growing up and had so many things happening at home with my family and friends; having Mrs. Reilly reach out to me and check in on me outside the classroom meant the world.
On a day where I really didn’t feel like doing anything, she gave me a copy of this book, “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” by Tupac Shakur and it changed everything. I mean everything.
I never made the correlation between Tupac and poetry, but realized that ‘rap’ is an acronym for ‘Rhythm And Poetry’. Getting that book and finally making that connection was a sincere moment of “oh, this is different!” This book opened my mind up to so much from Tupac; he wrote about the experience of navigating the world as a Black man, growing up without a father figure, relationships he made mistakes in, experiences with drugs – all very real things, many of which I could relate to growing up where I’m from.
And these weren’t just things I could relate to but important things that I thought deserved to have a platform to be spoken about – that’s when the gears started turning for me. That’s when the seed grew; from that one crucial conversation with that teacher. Poetry began to bloom from it.
What is the first poem you remember writing?
Oh man, that was so long ago. I wrote a poem when I was in high school going through a lot of things with my family and navigating my experience of living in the Western world, talking about the mental health challenges facing at the time. I wrote something delving into what masculinity looked like for me and how it compared to what I saw around me.
Most of the early work I wrote documented the daily challenges I had and was a way of processing all the issues I had at the time as a kid, and was a way to question the world around me. Many of the things I was writing about and questioning were the things that teenage guys weren’t talking about.
So when I shared it for the first time, I was nervous; it was Mrs. Reilly’s English class, and I remember telling her , “I don’t know if I can do this...” with the nervousness I had. But she believed in me so much and gave me the confidence to perform it. Hands trembling the whole way through, I remember finishing, looking up, and seeing all thirty of my classmates applauding me, in awe of my work!
That moment, I remembered thinking to myself, “If I can do this, who’s to say I can’t do the Air Canada Centre one day? Or an even bigger stage?” Since then, I was hooked.
Who are other poets and artists, contemporary and classic, that you look up to or that inform your work?
The list is endless, but here’s a few: Prince EA, Amanda Gorman, Mustafa The Poet, Rupi Kaur, Humble the Poet and Saul Williams. Rupi’s work hits home especially because she is South Asian and her work is rooted in social justice.
How much of a role does writing play in your life as an outlet for challenges and mental health?
Whenever I go through something, poetry helps me to process whatever it is and the feelings with it. Sometimes it isn’t even poetry; sometimes it’s just journaling or words on a page.
In university especially, poetry helped me process a lot of my feelings, struggles and experiences at 19 – an escape, of sorts. While many of my peers were escaping into drinking, drugs, etc., poems became my home. It was an escape from toxic masculinity. Back then especially, the problem was that with these vices, no one ever tells you to stop or that there’s more to life in university, so having poetry as a tool helped me navigate the challenges I had then (especially in breakups). I turned pain to power with writing as a tool and a resource and I want to teach that to others as a tool and coping strategy as well.
How are you prioritizing your mental health/well-being right now?
Even though COVID-19 has been a challenge in many ways, I found myself writing a ton and talking to my friends about what happened throughout the year. A big thing for me is developing my connection with the creator – something I feel close with, knowing that there is something out there bigger than myself, which helps me to put things into perspective in these uncertain times.
Why do you think organizations like Movember are important?
For so many reasons, but for me the specific connection to men’s mental health and men’s issues hits home. There is a lot of toxic and ‘ideal’ masculinity out there, so it’s cool to have organizations that ask people to open up, be vulnerable, and normalize having difficult conversations about masculinity, trauma, etc.
I hope that we can have better mental hygiene as men, and Movember is a great platform for that; men need platforms like these to help build communities and destigmatize mental health issues that so many people face on a daily basis.
Life isn’t about me – it’s about how I treat others. It all starts with conversation and connection with my parents and my family and the people that matter. Sometimes the changes are small to begin with, but conversations and the right resources can make the world of difference later on.