Words out of context

The pen is mightier than the sword. Or the voice is mightier than the bullet, as the case may be. Except that if you’re Muslim, and you use words like “explode” or “hit,” it seems that all possibilities for metaphor might fly right out the window.

The very talented Sofia Servando Baig, a Muslim spoken word artist, was recently profiled in an article the Toronto Star (and has written her own response to this article here.) Her spoken word pieces cover a wide range of topics, from inner spiritual struggles to social justice and oppression.

Of all the pieces that Sofia Baig has written and performed, what makes it into the Star’s article?

“So pardon me while I rip the clip from my lips and throw – blow them away like ashes,” the 20-year-old Montreal poet recites in “My Weapon,” from her debut CD Daughter of the Sand to be launched at the festival.

“My mouth won’t ever cease fire,” she raps. “So load the clip and watch as they shoot out of my lips, rain hell on all of them. I want these words to explode and hit.”

This very small clip is taken from her song “My Weapon,” in which she talks about violence, ignorance, apathy, racism and war, and about her voice as her only defence against these injustices. Of course, if you take out the rest of the song and leave only these lines, it makes it sound as if she is the violent one, never mind all the bombs and death and pain she speaks about. The absurdity of this misrepresentation would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive. The poetic language about using her voice as her weapon is lost on many of the people commenting on the article, who assume that what she is really advocating is the use of actual weapons. Apparently, along with things like rational independent thought and gender equality, figurative speech is also assumed to be completely beyond us Muslims.

The article continues by talking about how Ms. Baig’s father’s side of the family “rejected her for her mixed race,” which Ms. Baig says is completely untrue. Her choice to wear the headscarf comes off as wishy-washy, unsure of why she does it (again a claim that Ms. Baig disputes, and is it really a surprise that a reporter who writes like this is unsatisfied with her explanation of why she wears it?) Although not overtly negative, the overall tone of the article invites us to fear, then pity, this portrait of a supposedly confused girl with potential violent tendencies. As Ms. Baig says in her blog, even CNN did a better job of talking about her. How sad is that?

Sofia Baig’s voice is indeed powerful and articulate, and ultimately speaks louder than this article. But I’m pretty sad that the Star missed such an awesome opportunity to profile this very accomplished artist, instead choosing to manipulate the story so it fits in with all the other Islamophobic stereotypes out there.

Here she is performing at McMaster University.

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  • Forsoothsayer

    two stanza do not need to be in context…if she doesn’t want to be thought violent, she need not use violent language. simple. even if that wasn’t what she meant, the fact is she did actually say that, word for word. of course the journalist made a choice based on her own stereotypes, but someone could heard/read only that excerpt also.

  • Zeynab

    Forsoothsayer, I see what you’re saying, but I don’t agree: Baig is a poet and performance artist. It’s journalistically irresponsible (not to mention defamatory) to portray her as something she isn’t (in this case, a terrorist or violent).

  • The Amazigh

    Hey guys. I thought you might be intrested in the following report done by Cnn. http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2008/08/10/newton.uk.honor.violence.cnnSalaam

  • Krista

    @ forsoothsayer – I agree with you in the sense that her poem is definitely very strongly worded, and she is specifically talking about fighting back, rather than, for example, using her voice to sing happy songs of peace in a hippie-esque kind of way. But I still think it’s really problematic to print only those few lines. The way it comes across, it could almost be read as some angry Muslim woman wanting to stir stuff up, using her voice to attack people just for the heck of it. In fact, these lines come up in her poem after she talks about so much of the violence and oppression happening around her – she is using her voice as a weapon in defence *against* the violence, rather than as her own tool of aggression. In this case, I think that taking the words out of context seriously distorts their meaning, and as Zeynab says, is rather irresponsible on the part of the journalist.