“Educate through action”: poet Remi Kanazi on triumphant UK tour

Published by Electronic Intifada. Protected by copyright, republished with permission.

Asa Winstanley | The Electronic Intifada | London |26 December 2011

The first night of his UK tour is over. We are standing outside a jammed Kenyan bar, which for some reason doesn’t serve food. Palestinian-American performance poet Remi Kanazi just wants to find somewhere to eat after his opening show. But he’s too nice to break up the group, so we go inside — however, not before I grab my chance to grill him for his opinions on Palestine solidarity activism in the UK.

Let’s get the hard questions out of the way first: is he worried about pro-Israel hecklers? It seems not. In fact he relishes any chance to demolish their arguments. “I’m not the head of an institute,” Kanazi says. “There are a lot of things I can say as a poet … I don’t have to worry about, ‘am I going to get denied tenure?’ I can go on stage and say ‘Zionism is racism: this is why.’”

Kanazi’s politically-charged blend of spoken word poetry performance went on to win huge audiences in a major tour in towns and cities all around England in November. He performed works such as “This poem will not end apartheid,” “Coexistence” and “Revolution.” It was after his opening night in Notting Hill, London that we did this interview.

I asked how the tour, organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, first came about. Kanazi was here last year for the Poetry International festival at the South Bank Center where he was writer-in-residence and teacher-in-residence. That went over well, and he met a lot of students. He says someone in the UK reached out to his tour manager about doing a couple of shows here. After Kanazi agreed, he tweeted to say he’d be touring and it soon “developed into something much larger.”

Bringing spoken word to Britain

Spoken word poetry is not always as popular as hip-hop, or stand-up comedy, he says. The medium is new to many in the UK, whereas it is more established in North America, partly fueled by the Def Poetry Jam TV show. Kanazi has been touring for years in the US now, and so is familiar in pro-Palestine circles there. He wanted to make more links here because there are lots of groups active in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. Palestine Solidarity Campaign chapters or Palestine societies in universities organized his shows, aiming to connect him with the grassroots.

He is impressed by the level of activism in Britain and the way his gigs have been promoted. “There’s a complexity here that I think is really brilliant,” he tells The Electronic Intifada. The US is also moving forward: Kanazi points to how there are now 130 Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters. He says the US, too, is “starting to get our act together.”

Kanazi is enthusiastic about the empowering nature of the BDS movement, as well as the way it put the solidarity movement back into the leadership of Palestinians themselves. “BDS has been the coalescing factor, taking the lead from Palestinian civil society. Groups have come together around a unifying strategy,” he explains.

The younger sister of an activist who put on one show was reading The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe, and told Kanazi about how she got into Palestine activism. He joked that he had been completely inactive at her age: “You’re 16, shouldn’t you be watching [the popular film series] Twilight or reading Harry Potter or something?” Kanazi says it’s amazing to see how much the youth are doing for Palestine activism here.

He thinks there is something disarming about art which makes him more resistant to attacks by the pro-Israel crowd. Academics and other more established figures are more subject to blackmail than poets, he says, citing the treatment Richard Goldstone, the retired South African judge, received after publication of the eponymous report by the UN investigation he led into Israeli massacres in Gaza. Kanazi, on the other hand, says he burnt all his bridges in the beginning. “There are a lot of Arab organizations that I’ve criticized that don’t want to work with me.” But it seems that feeling is mutual.

What next for BDS?

I have another conservation with Kanazi when the tour ends. He is just about to hop on the London Underground to the airport when he picks up the phone. “The tour itself was amazing,” he says. It covered a wide area of England from London and Manchester to little towns like Dorchester and Southampton.

BDS and the cultural boycott of Israel were the main themes for the tour. They had “long Q&As for just about every show … it was nice because it was a great mix of people,” university students, people from Palestine Solidarity Campaign chapters, and different activists. “What I found most exciting is how developed people were in terms of talking about BDS,” he adds.

Kanazi says he appreciated hearing about how activists mobilized for two years against Ahava, an Israeli shop in London’s Covent Garden that stocked almost nothing but cosmetics from illegal West Bank settlements — now shut down thanks to the BDS campaign against it. “People seemed really open about cultural boycott. It was more about strategizing and how to organize — what the next steps were, rather than ‘what is BDS?’”

So the tour was a combination of art and activism, then?

“I define myself as an activist who uses art as a medium to get my message across … There comes a point where we can’t just entertain, we have to act beyond it,” he replies. The billions of dollars allocated by the US as aid to Israel provide a moral imperative to act, and not just talk, he says.

“After 63 years of continued ethnic cleansing of Palestine, it’s time to not only educate, but to educate through action, and that action is boycott, divestment and sanctions.”

I ask how his shows went down with English audiences compared to the US. “British people are much more reserved. The way you can tell that people like your performance is the length of clap. In the US they will be more expressive, there’ll be hollering and hooting.”

Kanazi has been telling activists to bring The Electonic Intifada’s executive director Ali Abunimah and BDS National Committee co-founder Omar Barghouti to speak on more occasions. He advises activist groups to stop organizing around speakers who attack the BDS movement, “give faulty analysis on one state/two state,” and attack the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Challenging the cult of celebrity

Kanazi says this is “ten-years-ago politics … One of the problems we have is this culture of celebrity, we build up a celebrity academic” — fine, they bring in audiences of 900 people, but what do those 900 actually take away? What kind of action are they inspired to take?

While Kanazi enjoyed connecting with people he met over the Internet, “I don’t want people putting their Facebook pictures of me and them together as their profile picture because it takes the onus of responsibility off of the activists” and puts it on “celebrities.” He told the student groups: you’re the movement: your de-shelving actions of Israeli produce in supermarkets, divestment campaigns, like Derail Veolia. “That’s what’s scaring the shit out of the Reut Institute [a Zionist group monitoring human rights activists] and the Netanyahu government,” he says, and that’s what’s fueling the Brand Israel campaign against Palestine solidarity.

He had been really hoping for Zionist hecklers on this tour, but unfortunately they didn’t turn up in the end. “With poetry, I get the mic for a whole hour.” He says that this silences people with bigoted or racist conceptions about Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims.

What’s in the pipeline for Kanazi? He has an expansive North American tour from winter through to spring 2012, and is taking part in Israel Apartheid Week, a campus-based series of activities every March, in the US and Canada. There are potential German and UK dates in the works next year as well. Activism and art can make good partners.

Asa Winstanley is a journalist based in London. His website is www.winstanleys.org.