AN artist impossible to imagine without the flat cap on his head, Jamal Raslan is one of Kuala Lumpur’s most prolific poets and writers.
But if you ask the humble man how he ended up in the poetry scene, he’ll explain that none of it was planned.
“To be honest, it wasn’t really a choice,” he confessed. “I didn’t study the various forms or sub-genres of poetry before choosing spoken word. In many ways, I stumbled into it. In hindsight, I think it was logical that I arrived at it.”
“I feel like spoken word chose me instead.”
Jamal began writing English poetry since the 2000s but initially couldn’t find his writing voice. He eventually felt that despite his proficiency in the language, he might not actually have a “poetic English writing voice”.
He then switched focus to Malay poetry instead, which seemed to come more naturally to him. Jamal however was unable to summon the courage to perform his poetry into a microphone, preferring to remain an audience member during slams.
With time however, he grew curious of his dilemma, and yearned to understand why he couldn’t have an English poetic writing voice.
That’s when YouTube introduced him to recordings of poetry slams, as well as Def Poetry, a HBO show following Russell Simmons’ journey in unearthing young, new voices in America.
Def Poetry heavily influenced Jamal’s early writings because it made him realize that there isn’t such a thing as a specifically-English poetic writing voice.
“There are just so many voices that sometimes you forget to listen to yourself, or to those that matter to you,” continues Jamal. “It’s about representation, relevance and resonance. So when I realized this, I felt as if spoken word had been waiting for me, for someone who needs to speak.”
“I am looking for my voice; I need a voice; we are all waiting for a voice.”
Jamal’s track record includes performing twice at TEDxKL in 2011 and 2012, as well as MOCAfest at the 2013 World Islamic Economic Forum in London.
What do you think about the local spoken word scene?
We don’t really have a scene. Yet.
What we have is a contemporary English poetry scene, where performance poetry is a strong and emerging voice due to its catchiness and immediacy. So generally people refer to spoken word as performance poetry and just leave it that.
I myself have been approached after performances and was told that my “raps” were great. I do my best to correct them.
For us to get there, two things have to happen first — more people reading poetry and more people writing/sharing poetry.
What emotions hit you the moment you realized that spoken word was your calling?
I felt like I was validated, regardless of the quality of my performance/writing. I felt like I finally found a voice; found myself. I felt like I found a place, a third space; like I mattered. I even felt it was okay for me to be alone. Because in actuality, we are never really alone in this world.
It was liberating, profound and overwhelming.
However, more importantly, I felt like I was being filled, like I was fulfilling myself. It was so becoming (Note: I haven’t become anything yet though hehe).
I felt this way mostly when I feel that I have connected with people, when people come up to me not really to talk about my performance but instead about what I had just said. About what it made them feel or think or realize. And then you just start talking about those things, rather than the poetry.
What’s the main message you want to convey?
The things I talk about are various, but all will be delivered on the backdrop of the socio-political-economical state of the country (during my upbringing and/or currently), with plenty of subtext on identity and coming to terms with one’s self.
At the core of this, is me finding the answer to the question: how does one be a Malay Muslim in Malaysia?
Many of my poems touch on reconcilliation of self with self, self with the world, self with God.
What legacy do you want to leave?
I would love to help this country find its voice. I would love to be one of the voices that helped make the Malaysian spoken word (voice), even if it was at one point of time in history.
This though, is completely out of my hands and is just the romantic idealist in me talking.
When I write, my pragmatic nationalist voice often takes over. So while I am hopeful, the picture isn’t a picture of me on the wings of a MAS airplane flying into the horizon. Instead it’s a picture of a little boy riding a tricyle through his taman perumahan towards the playground.
Personally, I have milestones I’ve laid out. As long I accomplish these milestones, then alhamdullilah.