Australian slam poet Zohab Khan on being "the other" as an ethnic minority, how his art is like hip hop, and the discipline of creativity

The spoken-word poet also shares his thoughts on the power of language to heal, transform, and break down barriers

Veronica Lin |

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It’s a clear blue day when poet Zohab Khan arrives at the Young Post offices in Causeway Bay. At 198cm tall, the Australian cuts a striking figure.

We waste no time in putting his freestyling skills to the test, asking him to come up with a verse about Young Post. Khan, 31, pauses for just a few seconds, before rolling off a near-perfect rhyme with seeming ease:

Young Post/I’m on the roast/Chicken/Straight up spittin’/From the top of my brain/The next word is going to be news/Hope this gets a lot of views/I’m a wrecked minority/This is going to increase your newspaper’s popularity.”

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The 2014 Australian Poetry Slam champion had touched down in Hong Kong less than 24 hours earlier for the Hong Kong Young Readers’ Festival, an annual event which allows writers to share their insights with teen audiences. Young Post is equally keen to learn more about Khan’s journey as a writer, and how it has helped him discover his identity.

While spoken word poetry has existed throughout history, poetry slams – competitions where spoken word poets can show off their flow – first took off in the US in the 1980s.

Anyone who has ever attended a slam will understand why Khan calls the art form “hip hop without music”; performers use a variety of rhyme schemes and breathing patterns, putting stresses in unexpected places, much like in hip hop. The subject matter is also often related to politics or social justice.

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“I play a lot with breath and rhythm, such as slowing things down or repeating certain words,” says Khan. In his poem, I Write, for example, you can clearly hear him panting between the lines and elongating the vowels.

While Khan makes poetry writing look effortless, he admits that it has taken a great deal of commitment and discipline to get to where he is today.

“You need to consume a lot of art to create art,” he says. “It takes a lot of practice. I do this exercise called ‘Brain Dump’, where I dump all my thoughts onto a piece a paper and write for a minimum of half an hour each day, no matter how tired I am. Eventually, it all becomes part of my muscle memory.”

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Growing up as part of an ethnic minority in Australia wasn’t always easy; it took years for Khan to build up his self-confidence. “As a fourth-generation Pakistani-Australian, people have told me that I’m not good enough because I have this [skin colour],” he says.

As a young australian, Khan didn't have an easy time growing up.
Photo: Zohab Khan

He credits writing with helping him feel comfortable in himself. “The more you write, the easier it is for you to become your own best friend,” Khan says. “To me, the definition of success is beingcomfortable with yourself.”

Khan now uses these past negative experiences to fuel his creativity.

“Despite being treated as ‘the other’ in my younger years, I’ve come to the conclusion that we are all the same. I genuinely believe I’m one of the greatest humans to walk the Earth, which means that the same can be said about every other person out there.”

Along with fellow Pakistani poet Zainab Z. Syed, Khan organised Pakistan’s very first national slam in 2016.

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The project allowed him to see first-hand how poetry can transcend boundaries of culture, race, and class.

“Originally, in Pakistan, poetry slams were only accessible to a select few,” he says. “Now, it’s become a cultural phenomenon. The goal is to encourage different classes to interact with each other, and art can do that.

“For those who are less fortunate – the ones who live on the streets, for instance – to be involved in poetry slams and write down their feelings and views on the world … if that’s not going to tell everyone we are equal and incredible, nothing will.”

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge