by Steve Topple
"People, communities and stories have the potential to break the system. We don’t realise how close we are to a better way."
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For Muneera Pilgrim, poetry is all about storytelling.
In fact, she believes it is "fundamental to life".
Her work, ranging from poetry to music and spoken word, is proof that we can all affect change by telling our stories.
Regardless of the grip the system has on us, or the monopoly the media has on the narrative, Muneera is living proof that true storytellers can break through and affect real change.
Born and raised in Bristol, her background is actually in Hip Hop. DJing from the age of 14 on pirate radio stations, eventually Muneera formed a Hip Hop group called Poetic Pilgrimage in the late 2000s.
Motivated by the lack of representation for Black women and the misrepresentation of Jamaican culture in British culture, Poetic Pilgrimage was a unique collaboration between Muneera and friend Sukina Abdul Noor: two Muslim women whose musical eclecticism represented their own diverse cultural heritage and passions.
Performing around the world, Poetic Pilgrimage mixed Hip Hop sensibilities with radical and disruptive social narratives.
But after struggling to break through in the 'gate-kept' world of Hip Hop in Bristol and London, and upon realising that Poetic Pilgrimage was already so poetry-heavy, Muneera switched gears to focus on written prose as an artform.
Since then, Pilgrim has become a respected and influential name in the arts as well as activism and education – featuring on the BBC, having her own TEDx talk and writing for the Guardian and Al Jazeera.
In 2021 she released her debut collection of poetry, called That Day She’ll Proclaim Her Chronicles and published by Bristol-based Burning Eye.
The title of the collection is taken from a verse in the Qur'an. It explores belonging, gender, race, identity, girlhood and familial bonds – all set against the back drop of colonial power structures in the streets of London and Bristol.
Muneera admits that the collection is 'not a comfortable read at times—in the same way life isn't.
She says: "I often think about what it takes for a caterpillar to become a butterfly: that growing and the sprouting of wings, and how painful that must be. And I think about life and all the phases of experience we go through – yet at the same time, we’re still given an opportunity to start again."
Crucially, Pilgrim felt with That Day… that she was “doing a duty to myself, my heritage, the women and girls that I work with, people’s stories that I was holding”. Needless to say, she achieved this. Because That Day… is a stunningly powerful piece of work - almost musical in its peaks and troughs of emotion, subject, rhythm and meter.
At the core of all it is disruptive storytelling. She says: “We need to tell our stories to disrupt but we have to be authentic in telling them – and not compromise on that. It’s also about trying to put a dent in some of these borders and the things that separate us."
So, her craft is also about affecting change. As Muneera explains, “the system is not for our benefit, so it’s working perfectly fine—it’s broken and we need to fix it”.
But how do we do that when the system clamps down on resistance at every turn?
Just as Muneera discovered that Hip Hop was filled with gatekeepers, restricting who made it big and what they were able to say, so too is the Internet and the ecosystem artists rely on to get their voices heard.
She says: “The idea that it has broken-down [barriers] is an illusionary thing that has been put out. And then, we create exceptionalism.
"So, there are a tier of people who are doing extremely well and we’re like ‘look at them: they’ve done it from the internet’ – and that is very true. But it is a tool of the system. It runs on algorithms, there’s a reason we’re scrolling on different sites – and I feel that if you’re looking for good music, you still really have to dig for it."
So, what’s to be done? Or, as Muneera puts it, “how do we create new systems and cultivate our own communities?”
She believes this is a cross-generational struggle, as our elders have often fought the same battles we’re fighting today. It’s also about addressing trauma and recognising and managing this—again, across generations.
Divisions need to be healed. Connections between movements need to be made. We must look across and beyond the borders the system has created.
Ultimately it starts with each of us, even if, like Muneera, we sometimes struggle to maintain resolve against the system.
But 'poetry has helped' with that. “I use it as a methodology to interrogate the world – and I feel extremely blessed to have, and be able to share, it. My faith is also really important.
"But we have to change this society, make this society better. The change may not be with us: it may be in 100 years’ time. But it is our duty, now, to try. People, communities and stories have the potential to break the system. We don’t realise how close we are to a better way."
Steve Topple is an independent journalist, broadcaster and publicist. A staff writer at The Canary, Steve specialises in issues surrounding disability, health, housing, class, economics and government. Follow him on Twitter