Interview: Jamaal Amir Akbari a.k.a. JustJamaal ThePoet
By Jessica Ruano | December 2, 2021
Jamaal Amir Akbari (AKA JustJamaal ThePoet) is well-known as a driving force for good in Ottawa’s spoken-word and literary scene, as well as a beloved member of the MASC community of professional artists. Here, Jamaal talks about working with youth, being inspired by his family, and how he’s managing to stay creative in our COVID-19 world.
MASC: Tell us about the evolution of JustJamaal ThePoet. How would you describe yourself when you first started performing and how would you describe yourself now?
Jamaal Amir Akbari: Over the years, I’ve come to discover that I find joy not only in performing and presenting, but providing others the opportunity to express themselves as well. Creating platforms for artists to share their truth has become a passion of mine; it is what helped propel me into the world of arts education and artistic mentorship. When I first began my career as a performance poet, you could find me frequenting open mics and poetry slams. Fast-forward eight years, I am a co-owner and Director of Operations for The Origin Arts & Community Centre while directing slams, organizing festivals, and holding positions such as Ottawa Poet Laureate and Carleton University Artist in Residence.
You recently released a beautiful music video titled Baby Girl (Celebrate You) about a sweet date night with your (real-life) wife. You’ve also written poems about your children, such as one about your daughter learning to ride a bicycle. How has your family influenced your focus and your approach to your art?
My family is my backbone. They support me in ways that allow me to practice my art. They are the most important community to me. When I made the transition to full-time artist, I knew that I would have to find ways to continue to provide for them. Being a father of six and a husband has made me think outside the box in regards to content creation and artistic programming. I am a community-based artist at heart, but oftentimes it is not as financially lucrative as it is emotionally rewarding. Knowing that my family is relying on me, I invite them to be involved in as much of my career as possible so they can see that it is possible to make a living being an artist. They attend my performances, help me memorize poems, and feature in my cinepoems and music. More importantly, they inspire me to not give up and to keep pursuing my goals as a creative.
As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and in the community?
The exchanges that I have with students as a MASC artist are life-altering. I gain insight into the diverse experiences that the young and elderly go through. I feel I learn more than I teach, because their stories are rich and carry so many lessons that I can use in my own life. I get to make intimate connections with strangers, and we often leave feeling connected and energized. Usually, I allow for participants in my workshops to bring all their baggage, and find ways to write or perform it out in poetry or song. I could deliver workshops for the rest of my life. I don’t imagine there is a more rewarding feeling than providing a welcoming space for individuals to gather and create art.
Why do you think it’s important for the local community to have access to professional artists?
Breaking down the walls between professionals and the general public is crucial in keeping the arts alive. When the public can access the arts, they not only have a chance to have a deeper appreciation for the arts and the life-giving work that artists do, but they themselves become a part of the cycle of creativity, feeling a sense of satisfaction and belonging for being a part of something that once seemed complex or confined to only a select few. Having access to career artists dissolves the idea that only “special” people can be artists. It helps humanity understand that everyone is special, everyone in their own way is an artist. The more people can experience and realize this, the more the arts can thrive.
Last week you posted on Facebook: “Today would have been the day the youth musical would have premiered that I’ve been working on with young creatives in this city.” Why don’t you tell us what we missed out on?
In September 2019, MASC artist Alicia Borisonik of World Folk Music Ottawa contracted myself, fellow MASC artist Jacqui DuToit, and Jewne Johnson to co-create a youth musical that would premiere in May. We conducted city-wide auditions and after we found our cast of 16 diverse youth, we began crafting the production. Every part of the musical, based off of an Anansi folktale, was created in collaboration with the youth. The students were in the final phase of the musical, the dance and blocking sessions, when the rule to quarantine came in effect. We hope to continue where we left off and premiere it in October of this year.
COVID-19 has changed the way artists are creating and sharing their art. Many artists, yourself included, have taken to using video conferencing apps to continue offering mentorships and workshops. Looking forward, what do you have planned for the future, post-quarantine?
My upcoming plans focus on launching a seasonal artist retreat program, hosting Origin Kitchen Concerts (an intimate performance-based concert event) and producing the inaugural Highlight Awards—an annual awards ceremony that recognizes and celebrates creatives in the city. Personally, I’m looking forward to publishing my first book of poems and finishing my first independent musical album. I’m grateful that I have plenty to keep me busy during these COVID-19 times.