The Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life brought artist and activist Amir Sulaiman to campus Monday night for the annual K. Brooke Anderson Lecture. Sulaiman, a Harvard Fellow who has performed around the world alongside artists including Kanye West and Stevie Wonder, shared “True + Living,” a combined poetry recitation and lecture, with members of the Brown community. His presentation centered on faith and love in the face of contemporary social issues.
“Whether it’s something in nature, or something in built culture, or some work of art, I find in all of those settings intimations of the sacred, and I also find a lot of spaciousness for people who find dogma or doctrine or tradition too narrow,” said University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson. When the multifaith team came together to name the lecturer for this year’s K. Brooke Anderson Lecture, Sulaiman stood out as a speaker whose work at the intersection of art and religion would offer students a spiritual take on the difficult circumstances of today’s cultural climate. Sulaiman takes Muslim theology and applies to it a contemporary and unconventional interpretation, Cooper Nelson added.
A central role that the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life plays is to aid students in facing the difficult circumstances of the world, said Adnan Adrian Wood-Smith, the University’s associate chaplain for the Muslim community. He finds in Sulaiman’s work a powerful ability to “address the darkness in the world and yet be helpful and bring in light, in spite of that,” he said.
“I’m a poet, so I’m going to recite poems. That’s why they brought me here,” Sulaiman began. For a moment, he stood in his dark clothing on a dimly lit stage, facing a nearly silent audience. “You being here is the only thing that’s making this special for me.” Here, Sulaiman’s warm presence brought the auditorium to life. With his statement, he began a conversation. Throughout the night, audience members interrupted his speech to pose their own questions or commentary.
Sulaiman, who has been Muslim his whole life, included imagery from the Bible and the Quran in the poetry he recited. With a dynamic cadence, he spoke passionately about his spiritual insights, bringing in lines like “miraculous things are happening if you’re awake,” “tell your mind to never mind the unknown” and “the truth is hidden everywhere.”
In one of his poems, Sulaiman talked about a vanilla sky, a chocolate earth and a caramel girl. He explained the metaphor in that poem, which discussed loving two women, as the challenge he finds in balancing the duality of the physical world and the spiritual realm.
In addition to reciting poetry, Sulaiman talked about his life as an artist. He spoke about the inspiration he found in hip-hop as a child. He also talked about how his first child, who depended on him in a dangerous world, affected his perspective. “I love you, so therefore I’m afraid,” he said. Sulaiman focused the discussion of his personal life on the act of loving. “Loving is everything, it’s the reason for existence,” he told the audience.
Sulaiman introduced his last poem as a piece that breaks his heart. In its lines, he addressed what he described as the “tragedy of being black and male and Muslim” and coming to terms with an “America that made me but rejects me at the same time.”
He finished his presentation with lines that summarized his powerful message, tying together the harsh aspects of the human condition with a spiritual message of hope and possibility. “Through all the battery and all the abuse, we are still so beautiful,” Sulaiman said.