Last Wednesday, in Hallowed Grounds, a University of Chicago coffee shop, a crowd slowly gathered for the Muslim Students Association’s (MSA) annual poetry slam. The members of MSA arrived early, as did a significant squadron from the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship attending in lieu of their weekly Bible study. The rest trickled in as the event neared, steadily swelling the preemptively hushed audience.
The mic was open to people of all persuasions to rhyme or rap about their faith. The call received an eclectic response. One grad student cited both John Calvin and Sufjan Stevens as inspirations, another undergrad delivered a rhythmic tirade against the perception of mainstream Chinese culture as faithless, and a third staged a conversation with the Almighty, mixing burning theological queries with questions like “will I ever manage to finish that paper?”
The evening’s headliner, nationally renowned hip-hop artist Capital D, arrived in a crisp tan suit fresh off work from his blue-chip law firm in the Loop. Capital D’s rap condemned gang violence and chronicled his conversion to Islam, but he saved his most incisive lyrics for American and Israeli foreign policy: “We say we’re hated for our freedom’s, but maybe it’s the hate that hate created, lets debate it, we’re five percent of the population, but using 25 percent of the world’s resources, and making up the difference through the use of armed forces.”
Some of the evening’s most memorable lines, however, came from Illinois Institute of Technology senior Leena Suleiman about halfway through the program. A devout Muslim, she spoke strongly of 9/11’s aftermath: “So don’t tell me I am failing at freedom / Don’t tell me that I must conform to be accepted / Don’t tell me lies, because my truth sees right through them.”
The evening’s unlikely coda came in form of Clarence, a member of the housekeeping staff, who had been set to clean the shop as midnight loomed. Sidling up to the mic, Clarence whipped out his flip phone and began reciting with growing confidence poetry he’d texted to his friends about observations around campus. He recalled a scene from earlier in the week, when he watched a little boy run in circles, disobeying his father: “I thought it was so cool, that little boy out there doing a happy dance, so free and innocent. I wish we all could get a little bit of that back.” (Chris Riehle)