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Spoken words, changing worlds

Yusra Khogali Ali sees her art as a powerful tool of resistance.

That girl on the bus listening intently to her headphones isn’t always playing music. If it’s Yusra Khogali Ali, she’s taking time to perfect her art and fight oppression.

“Art is very political, a way to raise awareness and challenge social issues,” says Khogali, a spoken word artist and fourth-year student at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC). “It’s a powerful and important tool of resistance.”

Spoken word – an often subversive performance art Khogali calls “the voice of youth” – was popularized by the 1960s African-American community. Always a writer, Khogali fell into spoken word when a high school teacher read one of her poems and encouraged her to perform it publicly.

Instantly hooked, Khogali has now performed for over 500 groups and events, including the recent TEDxUTSC. She incorporates knowledge from her double major in international development and women and gender studies. Her work also references her personal experience of being born in Kenya and moving to Regent Park from Sudan as a child.

When she came to UTSC for its co-op development program, Khogali found there was no space on campus for her blend of performance and social commentary. With a friend, she founded Spoetic in 2010. Spoetic holds popular regular events where youth perform spoken word and hold poetry slam competitions.

For Ali, spoken word’s appeal is that it provides a platform for people to create their own stories in a supportive environment that encourages the performer even as they’re speaking. “If you hear something good, you’re encouraged to call out, snap or clap,” she says. “It’s inspiring when your words resonate.”

Recently elected vice president for equity on the UTSC student union, Khogali volunteers for a youth education group and is external co-ordinator for the UTSC Women’s Centre. She plans to make her future career in the non-profit sector promoting equity.

She also wants to continue evolving as a social justice artist. “Sometimes we internalize stories about groups in society and treat people according to those stories,” Khogali says. “I want to show people that what things appear to be is not what they are.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough