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Finding survival through poetry with Amaal Said

Khadisha Thomas the Somali poet and photographer about journals being the one thing she can’t live without, lack of diversity in literature, covid impact on arts and the BBC.

After the hustle and bustle of a moving weekend, Amaal Said is a friendly face on Zoom. She sips her Starbucks, excited about how she is preparing to live with her soon to be husband. However, when she isn’t getting ready for the big changes in her life, her poetry and photography takes centre stage.

Amaal is a Danish-born Somali poet and photographer based in London. Her photography has been featured in Vogue, The Guardian and The New Yorker. She is the winner of the Wasafiri Magazine New writing prize for poetry. Her photographs have been exhibited in Ghana for the fourth volume of the African Lens and exhibited in LA. Amaal grew up in a town called Odense in Denmark and then lived in Copenhagen for a few years. She moved to London at the age of eight.

For her, getting accustomed to her new surroundings was difficult at first because she didn’t know any English.

“I’m really grateful that I came over when I was young because I think when your younger language is a lot easier for you as opposed to being older… I was put in one of those classes that you’re put in when you don’t know English,” she says.

Writing was Amaal’s passion, growing up she would buy multiple journals for different purposes. In her office surrounded by shelves and boxes of books, she laughs as she lists her god, family and her books as something she can’t live without.

“I have all my books everywhere, they keep me sane.”

After stumbling across Tumblr she saw people posting their writing and realized she could do the same.

“I was always writing stories and I would keep diaries. I would keep one for my general thoughts, I would plan out blogs so one journal was for that and I had another journal that was for short stories.”

Watching people tag their writing gave Amaal the courage to share her writing. She was shocked to see so many people like her poetry. This gave her the confidence to apply for the Barbican Young Poets programme.

“I’m from a little corner in London, I’m on the border so I never used to travel to Central, I never went to art galleries, I didn’t have any link to art apart from the internet,” Amaal says.

She submitted her portfolio of poems to the scheme and to her surprise she was selected. This was when her digital bubble perished, and the once mystical world of art opened up to her. Amaal finally got to travel, go to events and meet like-minded individuals, however, she still felt out of place.

“It was mostly a shock because I wore a hijab and when I started there weren’t many poets of colour in that group. You just kinda see each other across the room and stick together. I felt like I didn’t belong, people like me don’t come here. The friends I grew up with had no idea what I was doing on the weekends,” she says.

For Amaal her poetry is inspired by family and mental health.

“I would use my phone and ask my mum questions, ‘tell me this story’ and I would go back and write about it. I was a really nosy child so I would listen to my mum’s phone convos.”

As a teenager growing up poetry became her way to express her feelings and deal with her issues. “It was a mixture of dealing with mental health as a young anxious girl and also things happening with family and trying to write through that muddled history and trauma.”

She thinks the poetry and works of women of colour are not widely consumed and she has always made a conscious effort to seek out and gain influence from women of colour. One of her favourite poets is Warsan Shire, who is also Somali British.

“She would write really beautiful poems about Somali women and Somali people and I had never seen that before.

“Things that were going on in my own home which I had never seen before. It was so sick!”

Amaal believes it’s important to read poetry from women of colour and that in the past poets of colour weren’t widely available because they were thought to not be marketable.

“I remember going to the library and literally searching out peoples names who look ethnic, because for me it was a political thing because if you’re not providing it I need to go out and support and read their work.”

She is part of Octavia, a poetry collective for women of colour. It was set up by her friend in response to the lack of representation of women of colour in literature and the academy.

With a freind, she attended a poetry collective where they were the minority and due to the ignorant comments and lack of understanding from other poets, they felt a space needed to be created where women of colour can feel celebrated.

“Of course it’s incredible you get to do poetry in these collectives but at the same time the type of questions, or feedback or conversations you get, are not conversations you’d be having if it was another woman of colour reading your work, there would be a general understanding because we’re dealing with similar struggles,” she says.

Since the coronavirus, working in the arts has been incredibly difficult and Amaal can attest to how this has affected her as a poet and a photographer. Due to travel restrictions she has lost out on work abroad. Lockdown has also hindered her from doing photoshoots as her job isn’t essential.

Expression through photography: Portrait by Amaal Said

“It’s really difficult, I think you just need to have faith in yourself and belief in yourself, but also to figure out how to have a presence online.”

Despite this, she feels lucky that other opportunities have been presented to her . Unlike other creatives that rely on one sole talent to stream income she can switch back and forth between being a poet and a photographer.

“Funding is opening back up for artists to be able to do their own projects and right now I’m getting ready to start a Adobe artist development fund project, so I feel incredibly lucky to still be able to do what I do even though it hit me really hard in the beginning,” Amaal says.

She was part of the BBC 1Extra Words First, a partnership with Roundhouse that seeks to find the hottest and freshest spoken word talent from across the country. Amaal gave performances alongside amazing British poets such as George the Poet and Holly Poetry.

“We had a showcase and that was really beautiful because a lot of us got to write together and perform together. There was a film on BBC iplayer for a little while,” she Amaal.

Amaal’s most memorable moment from this experience was reading an important poem she wrote about her mother’s miscarriages.

“I remember reading that to her and her being like ‘oh I’m really grateful you wrote that because I don’t want to forget because it meant something and it’s good to remember even if it hurt.”

From a shy Somali girl as she describes herself, tapping away at a keyboard or scribbling down on a page, to a poet who’s performed on stages across the country. Amaal’s words have definitely made a lasting impact. What was once a coping mechanism, has now changed her life beyond imagination.

“Poetry for me means survival, I wrote poetry when I couldn’t write anything else… I was around a lot of people who didn’t understand me so I took it to the internet, blogs and then I took it to perform, and it became a way for people to connect to me.”

For her, the idea of making a career out of what she loved to do the most seem unimaginable so she’s delighted that she’s been able to.
She aims to continue living her dreams as an artist in all regards.

“When the pandemic started I was like ‘oh my god, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna have to put my politics degree to use and sit in an office?’, but no I really wanna be out there and chatting to people getting their stories,” Amaal says.

With hopes that things will go back to some sense of normality, we don’t doubt that she will be out there with her camera and powerful voice, championing the stories of women of colour.

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A part of history in the making: Weruche Opia

‘I May Destroy You’ star tells Khadisha Thomas her acting journey, going against narrative grains, owning her blackness, and the issue of consent.

From a Toronto apartment with a specifically requested balcony, Weruche Opia is a beaming presence on Zoom. It is her last day in quarantine before she begins shooting for another acting role, yet we still can’t get over her performance as Terry on the BBC hit series ‘I May Destroy You‘. Now that the initial media heat has died down, Weruche reflects on her career prior to and post working in BAFTA award-winning Michaela Coel’s dramatic masterpiece.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to act, it was something I knew I enjoyed,” Weruche says.

At the tender age of five, Weruche realized she wanted to be an actress. Drama was her favourite subject and Weruche would be cast for so many leading roles that the headmistress had to strictly allow someone else to have a go.

As Weruche shares her earliest acting memory she expresses sheer excitement, synonymous with what she felt as a child.

“I forced my cousins to do a little performance of Humpty Dumpty for my mum. I remember that my mum was very encouraging, she clapped and said ‘that’s amazing, you’ve got a gift, go and get yourself some smarties.”

Growing up, Weruche wanted to be like Angela Bassett, after watching her in ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’.

“I remember I went to a fancy dress party, my brother went as Aladdin and I went as Tina Turner. After watching that film I even thought that Angela Bassett was Tina Turner in real life because I was so convinced by her performance…

“When my brain developed and I realized it wasn’t actually Tina Turner but someone playing her I was like that’s an incredible skill to have and I’d love to do that,” she says.

Not having an idea of how to get into the industry Weruche went to university and after graduating she randomly stumbled upon the Identity School of Acting.

After a considerably quick four months, Weruche got into an agency and landed her first-ever TV spot on ‘The Bill’.

Weruche bursts into laughter as she shares her nervousness when telling her family and church that she would be acting as a prostitute. Little did Weruche know that she would potentially have to do much heavier things in ‘I May Destroy You.’

She also starred in season two of ‘Top Boy‘, which she describes as a miracle because it came when she had faced a dry spell in her acting and was starting to lose hope.

“It’s such an important part of black culture in the UK… I think these are stories that need to be told not to say that these are the only stories that black people have but it was just quite incredible to see people speak the way black people speak, using the slang.”

With more castings under her belt, the Nigerian born actress found that the ‘sassy black girl’ character was prevalent, a stereotype that she no longer wanted to explore.

Weruche Opia: photographed by Aham Ibeleme

“I know that the sassy black girl role comes with the angry black woman narrative which I don’t like to perpetuate… I want to play other roles than what we’ve normally been given. It’s the whole expecting me to kiss my teeth… and I’m like yeah we do that but that’s not to say that’s a whole character. And there are black women who don’t talk like that but again it’s a stereotype that has been so played out. There’s more to be said about black women,” Weruche says.

Some may think that acting as Terry in ‘I May Destroy You’ was Weruche’s first time stepping away from that narrative grain, but she attributes her roles in Nollywood films.

“The first film I did in Nigeria my character was a wedding planner, so there wasn’t any of the sass, she was a professional woman doing her job, but that was filmed in Nigeria so it was a different perspective, not what we are pandered in the diaspora.”

Weruche migrated to England when she was 13. At first she thought living in England was an extended vacation, but once she went to school she began to see the cracks in her holiday destination.

“I felt like I had to pretend to be from the Caribbean because being African then wasn’t cool. In Nigeria, I went to multicultural schools and everyone got along but when I moved to the UK I noticed everyone tended to stay in their own communities. That’s when I started to realize that I’m black,” she says.

Weruche had legally changed her name to Reanne because nobody in school could pronounce her real name.

Right up until she acted in ‘Bad Education‘ this was the name she wanted to be identified by.

“I had a conversation with my aunt and she asked me to go to my next audition and say my name is Weruche, and I was like why am I gonna do that but then I prayed about it and I did it. When I decided to be Weruche I became grounded in who I was.”

The passion is voracious as she talks about the importance of names and her experience with people trying to shorten her name or give her a nickname.

“It’s a thing of respect, everyone can say Marinovich so why can’t you say Weruche? I’ll teach you how to say it and you’ll get it wrong a few times but you’re gonna get there. It took me getting to a point of where I was confident in who I was and embracing my heritage. It was the beginning of a new era and that’s when life kicked off for me,” she says.

Life certainly did kick off, Weruche played Terry, the struggling young actor and best friend to Arabella, the main protagonist played by the show’s creator Michaela Coel.

‘I May Destroy You’ is a show that opened topics of racial microaggressions, off the back of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. A show that showed the trauma of sexual assault regardless of sexuality and gender, based on Michaela’s own harrowing experience. A big smile spreads across Weruche’s face as soon as she talks about her relationship with Michaela. She only got a brief character description because the project was still under wraps but reading with Michaela, Weruche felt an instant chemistry which she describes as magical.

“I finally read the script and I was like yep, this is something that I need to be a part of because of the stories, because of the perspective… and for me more than anything that was my angle, to celebrate black women’s stories and reading it, of course, it was something I’ve never seen and I was like yeah this is gonna be history,” Weruche says.

In ‘I May Destroy You’, Terry is ridden with guilt when she realizes that Arabella was sexually assaulted after she told Simon to leave her alone in the club. As Weruche talks about the girl code on nights out, she is adamant that she would never leave her girls anywhere but understands why Michaela featured this.

Official trailer: ‘I May Destroy You’

“After a conversation with Michaela about it, it was kinda like stuff happens and if Terry knew what happened was going to happen she wouldn’t have given that advice. I think Terry shows that humanity and I think the character did try to redeem herself by helping her and she took responsibility for her part in that.”

Terry also engages in a threesome with two men who she believes to be strangers. However after seeing them walk home together she realizes that they were friends. Weruche felt that this perfectly highlighted the grey areas of consent. She found it interesting to play a character who on the one hand was expressing her sexual liberation but on the other hand was manipulated and leaving it up to the audience to make their own interpretation.

Some people felt that the character was still in control, but others thought she was taken advantage of, Weruche believes this is a grey area that needs further discussion.

“It was almost a power struggle where Terry felt she was in control of the situation because she made the decision to go off with these two men, but had she known they knew each other would she have had the same confidence.”

Weruche is proud of being part of a show that showed the authentic and relatable experience of sexual assault from a black woman’s perspective seldom seen in the media.

“The whole concept of the strong black woman, that we are these resilient creatures, feel no pain, we can just keep going even with the trauma… It’s nice but it also dehumanizes us and I’m not for it, because black women are always seen as these resilient creatures so there’s never time or empathy or care for black women to allow us to be vulnerable in spaces where other people are vulnerable,” she says.

‘I May Destroy You’ has broken down boundaries and has shown Weruche how to stand up for herself and for what she deserves but to also allow herself to feel all emotions.

“We bleed, we cry. I don’t think we have to be oxen.”

Going forward Weruche is grateful to the platform ‘I May Destroy’ has afforded her, and how far she has come on her acting journey.

Inspired by Michaela, who produced, directed and acted in the show and turned down a million-dollar Netflix deal, Weruche believes that anything she puts her mind to she can achieve.

“I mean what’s the worst that anyone can say to me? No?,” Weruche says.

We think they’d be crazy if they ever did.

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‘How many black people are speaking Japanese? Not many’

TikTok star and musical artist, Richard Tomic loves Japanese culture with plans to move there. Despite it not being a popular route for people of colour he follows his dreams nonetheless. Savannah Duncan hears his story.

Richard Tomic, a Black British TikTok star with over 208 thousand followers, wants to leave the UK to live in Japan. He first started creating TikTok videos in June of last year during the UK’s first lockdown.

He says: “I made my account during the first lockdown because I saw my friends who I knew online getting popularity on TikTok.”

Although he was born and raised in London, Richard wants to move to Japan. He has previously been to Japan three times and had the opportunity to live there for a year in 2017. His grandfather was working at the Japanese Embassy for six years, so he was able to stay with him during his time.

“It was the best experience of my life.”

Whilst living in the UK he wasn’t able to do much because his mother was a little strict and very religious, however, once he moved to Japan his Grandfather gave him a bit more freedom.

“I guess you could call it a self-discovery journey, I just did everything I wanted to do that my mom wouldn’t allow me to do because of her religious views,” he says.

Despite his mother’s strict views, Richard believes he had a great upbringing and understands the hard work his mother put in for him.

“I appreciate the fact that she did that for the both of us, mainly for me.”

Currently, Richard is studying Law and Japanese at university because he wanted to gain a degree in any field, he could get his foot into.

“If you want to live in Japan you need to have a degree, that’s why I couldn’t stay there for more than a year because my visa ran out.

“If I don’t graduate, I won’t be able to go back and live, and get a work visa.”

After Richard had lived his year in Japan, once he had returned to the UK, he was forced to take a foundation year.

“They had a few courses that were available to me after the foundation year and Law was the only one that seemed to have substance,” Richard says.

“The other courses I just don’t see how I’d be able to get any kind of reliable employment from them, so I was just like law looks good let me just go for it.”

Anime inspired: Richard’s past fashion.

Richard has a great love for Japan and their culture, to the point where he used to dress similar to Japanese anime characters. His previous fashion sense was the inspiration for his first viral TikTok video called ‘Watch me get out of my I want to be Japanese phase’ which features images of how he used to dress in the past.

His main focus within his videos is his use of Japanese which he mixes with English from time to time.

“The reason why I started Japanese is just I wanted to be different, I was just like how many black people are there speaking Japanese. That’s already a selling point.”

Surprisingly, Richard is no longer a fan of anime like he used to be.

“I had a little anime phase when I first got into Japanese but that’s not the reason why I started learning Japanese. I started watching it as a result of learning Japanese.”

His Japanese phase only lasted a year, and he believes it was his obsessive personality that got him into anime in the first place. I watched one anime and then I relaxed my hair and I tried to dye it white.

“I watch anime every now and again but I’m definitely not an anime fan.”

At first Richard started making English skits on TikTok, but then took a short break after gaining a few hundred followers.

“I was just like, you know what I’ve seen people being really successful in this app let me just try again,” he says.

Richard then began creating English skits again until he posted his glow up video and it went viral. This was when he gave Japanese content a shot just to try it out.

Additionally he also creates his own music and posts it on TikTok. Although he has never pursued music within education, Richard has been making beats for around two years until he started taking music seriously. Since he knows how to speak both Japanese and English, his music also contains a mix of both languages in most of his songs.

“A lot of my ideas are quite out there and quite quirky because I’m a quirky person”

Most of his music found on his page was produced by himself, it was his friends who inspired him to make music.

“They were just like, bro you’ve come so far you’re actually a solid musical artist and it’s only taken you a year,” Richard says.

His one and only inspiration for everything he wants to achieve in the entertainment world is an actor, screenwriter, stand-up comedian and much more: Donald Glover.

“He’s a well all-round performer. Donald was my main inspiration at the start of lockdown when I decided to start doing music and then I started incorporating the comedy.”

Although Richard is inspired by Donald Glover, his content is still 100% original with some being real-life experiences.

“A lot of my ideas are quite out there and quite quirky because I’m a quirky person,” he says.

“I take inspiration from others, but I never seem to copy.”

Despite Richard’s career being newly found he is still incredibly grateful for how far he’s come and wishes he’d started sooner because he doesn’t think things could be better than they already are.

“My most memorable moment would be my first Instagram live. They were just so interested in me… it was just nice we all had a conversation.”

Richard Tomic found his passion for the Japanese culture and decided to pursue it, despite knowing that people of colour do not normally take an interest in topics like these. He is still working towards setting up shop within the country itself. Hopefully bringing along his music and videos with him.