I was delighted to recently receive my copy of a book that I’d been anxious to get my hands on for months; a beautiful collection of poetry that has been crafted and curated by a man who is at his artistic peak, having been a constant presence on the global creative Muslim scene for many years.
The Art of Remembrance by Baraka Blue is the culmination of a remarkable spiritual journey, which has taken him from the Hip Hop scene of his hometown Seattle, to sacred sanctuaries around the world, from Makkah and Madinah to Fes, Tarim, Konya, Jerusalem, and more.
The poems within — some old, some new — reflect the depths of his spiritual learning and understanding, acquired from two decades of sitting at the feet of scholars and saints; painting landscapes of love, devotion, beauty and light.
Knowing him personally and professionally for many years, I have seen the evolution of both the art and the artist, and was excited to talk with him about his new collection and the journey that preceded it.
“This is my Diwan,” he says, referring to the term used for a poet’s collected works in the traditional Islamic world.
“Growing up in Hip Hop, we used to make mix tapes, and burn CDs in our garages or our basements, and we would give those out to people. But I remember when we were 18 or so, we had our first studio recorded album that was properly pressed, and we pressed a thousand copies. And we thought of that as our first album. All the stuff before that was the preparation.
“This is the case for this collection. It’s mostly new poems, but I included some of the favourites from previous collections because I really wanted it to include everything that I normally read, like Beloved, and Love and Light.”
As we discuss the book, Baraka explains that it’s more than just a book of poems. Rather he wanted it to be “a work of art itself,” and perhaps even a metaphor for how we should live our lives.
“One of my sheikhs told me ‘it’s beautiful that you write poetry, but what is most important its that you make your life a poem for God’,” he says.
As artists it’s beautiful to make art, but the real goal of the artist on the spiritual path is that you make your life a work of art.
“That really moved me, because as artists it’s beautiful to make art, but the real goal of the artist on the spiritual path is that you make your life a work of art.
“There’s a quote from a song I made years ago – ‘you are a painter each moment you make a mark. When you die, you step out of the painting and look at your art’. We’re all artists in a sense, and we’re meant to create. Allah is the creator, the fashioner, the former, and to him are the most beautiful names. And we’re patterned on those divine names.
“So to create and to make art is, in a certain sense, to get a taste or to embody or reflect a small drop from the ocean of those divine names.”
Implicit in this embodiment is the importance of beauty — a virtue that Baraka aims to live by, and has intentionally infused into The Art of Remembrance.
“There’s a Hadith (saying or tradition of Prophet Muhammed SAW) that says ‘Allah is beautiful and loves beauty’. And there’s something about beauty that takes us beyond this world and allows us to access something almost nostalgic — like a world we used to know beyond this material realm. And I really believe that beauty is a profound way to access that.
You’re calling people through this art form to the real, to the good, to the true. To beauty itself.
“I’m so grateful to the great teachers and great spiritual masters that we’ve sat with because they have really encouraged that beauty and art in us. It’s a sacred calling which is not just about writing poems or designing something. Yes, outwardly that’s what’s happening, but it’s like you’re calling people through this art form to the real, to the good, to the true. To beauty itself.
“The Prophet (SAW) said ‘I came only to perfect beautiful character’. Having beauty around us helps to infuse us with beauty, and encourage the beauty within.”
From Seattle to South Arabia
Looking back over his younger years, it was the quest for beauty that brought Baraka into poetry, spirituality and Islam.
He attributes the fostering of his creativity to the artistic maelstrom of Seattle, which was home to the likes of Jimmy Hendrix, Quincy Jones, Bruce Lee, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, to name just a tiny handful of creatives to have launched their global careers from the north western American city.
“It’s by the sea, so you have that energy, the water, the vastness of it, as well as the mountains. The sea and water feature very heavily in my life and my work. A lot of the men in our neighbourhood would go out to Alaska on big fishing boats, or out on crabbing ships. My father was a sailor his whole life, and my grandfather sailed the South Pacific with my grandmother with nothing but a compass and a sextant — no technology, just navigating by the stars, and staying with indigenous people on remote islands.
“So that vastness of the sea, and Seattle’s framework as a centre of counter-culture, made it a really creative place to grow up.
“I got into music and poetry quite young, and was really into hip-hop culture, and I really poured myself into music and poetry. With the group of friends I made music with, we started to get a following and perform locally, up and down the Pacific Northwest and over to Vancouver, Canada.
“Through that I got into world music and world poetry. I was reading Japanese Zen poems from Basho, and listening to Qawaalis from India and flute music from the Andes — all sorts of things.
“And this was also the time of spiritual seeking. Which was interesting, because Seattle and the region is the least church-going region of the United States. People came here to get away from tradition, but with that counter-culture came a sweep of metaphysical bookstores, Buddhist meditation, and things like that. And so I was imbibing all these things.”
It was at this point that Baraka discovered Sufi poetry — notably translations of Rumi and Hafez — that would change the trajectory of his creative output, and his life.
“This was the most beautiful poetry I had ever found,” he says.
They talked about this divine reality, which is synonymous with love. And they emphasised the experiential nature of it.
“It wasn’t just that the words were beautiful, which they were, but it was clearly about the experiences they were having. It was an intimacy with this ineffable reality that they called ‘the beloved’. They talked about this divine reality, which is synonymous with love. And they emphasised the experiential nature of it.
“They were saying, ‘don’t just take my work for it — you have to taste it for yourself’. And that really piqued my interest. Because of my own experiences I’d had through seeking, and meditation, and all these other kinds of things, it really spoke to something deep in my soul. And it set me off on a journey which culminated with my embracing Islam at the age of 20.”
As his music and poetry developed, Baraka explains that he would both see and experience more profound experiences through his art — whether seeing a friend tap into something beyond their normal state while freestyling, or feeling something akin to transcendence while performing himself.
But while there was “a lot of light and a lot of beauty” in these moments, he adds that there was also a “lack of ‘furqan’ — a lack of discernment and guidance”.
“There was a lot of substance abuse going on, and a kind of wildness or self-destructive energy that I realised I could start to come into,” he says.
“I really felt like I needed to commit myself to a spiritual path. I’d read about the world religions and come to the conclusion that there is divine unity, and that there are great saints and sages and awakened ones and prophetic voices who have access or have had their hearts opened to this.
“And I recognised that without committing to having those beliefs, these openings wouldn’t translate into my life the way I really wanted them to.
“So I embraced Islam, and then nine months later, I found myself in the remote Hadhramaut Valley in Tarim — a village that preserved a kind of ancient spiritual way of being as complete devotion. A place where people wake up every night and chant the divine names at 3am; cultivating the spirit in a way that’s almost completely indifferent to the world.
“Being there, with saintly individuals — enlightened masters and awakened souls — had a profound effect on me and sowed a lot of seeds in my soul that have carried me forth, almost 20 years later.
“I returned to Seattle and separated myself from the music scene and my friends that I had grown up with. I didn’t feel strong enough yet to be in those environments and not be influenced by some of the old things. I really wanted to purify my heart.”
Making it a Muslim artist
As we reminisce about his early days on the Muslim music scene – a time when MySpace was king of social networks, and the independent record label Remarkable Current was bringing Muslim artists of all genres together – Baraka offers up some beautiful memories and sage advice to today’s budding creatives.
“The producer of that record label found my music on MySpace and told me they wanted to sign me and work with me. That’s how I came down to the Bay Area,” he remembers.
“It was such a supportive environment. There wasn’t a lot of money in it, but I could be around people that instead of drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis were lighting incense and drinking tea and coffee.
“It was so much more aligned with where I was trying to go, and it really launched me to a global audience and allowed me to travel and do what I love.
“It’s not always easy though. There were times when I didn’t have anywhere to go or stay. It was around the time of the economic downturn in 2008 and times were hard. As an artist you have to do what you can. I had a job as a teacher at a middle school, and there was a time when I was driving an Uber, and all of this behind the scenes, just trying to make it work so that I could pour myself into the art.
If you love. what you do – if you really love it – do what you can to make it work. If people pay attention, great. But if not, you’ll be fine because you love it.
“And this is what I would say to any artists out there now. If you love. what you do – if you really love it – do what you can to make it work.
“If people pay attention, great. But if not, you’ll be fine because you love it.
“The artists that I’ve seen who want to be successful in some financial way, or for accolades and attention — they usually don’t get what they want, so as they get older they get really bitter. It’s hard for them.
“But the people that just love the art and love what they do, they will carve out their niche and people will find them. And if not, even if they have to find other sources of income, they will still love creating the art.”
His advice brings me to a topic that many creatives have been wrestling with in recent months: The impact of artificial intelligence on art and life in general.
It’s another subject we used to discuss during late-night conversations in years gone by. But while it was then a theoretical notion more suited to the realms of science fiction, today it is a fully-functioning phenomenon, pervading just about every aspect of our lives.
I ask Baraka whether he’s concerned about the wave of AI such as Chat GPT, Midjourney and DALL-E, and what they mean for artists today.
“This is really a strange moment that we’re in,” he says.
“But I do think that our fitra — our innate, primordial disposition remains the same.
“For me, I think technology is a tool, and we are flawed human beings. With tools, you can cut with them and be cut by them — there’s always that propensity. Ultimately, the one who is wielding the tool is going to define how the tool is used.
We need to cultivate our souls and become more luminous human beings. We need to be people of virtue, light, goodness, self control, self awareness and self discipline.
“So I think that the spiritual path and the wisdom traditions of humankind are more needed now than ever before, because we need discernment. We need to cultivate our souls and become more luminous human beings. We need to be people of virtue, light, goodness, self control, self awareness and self discipline. Otherwise, the more powerful the tools, the more trouble there will be.
“It’s not that the tools themselves are necessarily bad, but there is a danger within them if we’re not careful and mindful.”
Another point to remember, he says, is the belief in the soul — something that technology surely cannot reproduce, however developed it becomes.
“I think materialists fall into a fundamental error. They assume that all we are are physical beings and that consciousness is just neurons firing in the brain. And eventually they will be able to reproduce this consciousness.
“That’s opposite to every single wisdom tradition that affirms an immaterial dimension to the human being — what you might call the soul.
“Chat GPT could take everything that I’ve ever written and create a poem that sounds something like me, but it’s not a conscious entity. It’s just like Pharaoh’s magicians — what they produced wasn’t a divine miracle, so Moses was able to obliterate their illusion, and they fell prostrating in submission, acknowledging the truth.
“I’m getting a bit metaphysical about it, but for artists I’m not all that worried.
“I actually think that there’s a lot of cool ways that things like virtual reality can be used to bring an immersive experience to poetry and other art.”
As he has a knack for doing, however, Baraka uses his words to bring us back to a sense of true reality — reminding us of the bigger picture away from AI, VR and other worldly pursuits.
“I did a podcast not long ago where we talked about artificial reality as a metaphor for the nature of this work.
This world, this life, is a type of virtual reality. We’re immersed in it, but we’re not really from here. We have a spiritual nature that is beyond this world.
“The spiritual teachers of mankind talked about this world being like a dream that we eventually wake up out of. They didn’t have virtual reality, but they were saying that this world, this life, is a type of virtual reality. We’re immersed in it, but we’re not really from here. We have a spiritual nature that is beyond this world.
“And this world we’re in is going to be removed eventually. The goggles will be taken off and we’ll stand in front of the ultimate reality. So we should try to remember the higher world before we leave this one.”
These parting words are a sound reminder for us all — especially those of us working closely with modern technologies – and it’s no coincidence that his book is called The Art of Remembrance.
This is perhaps what we’re all called to do amid the increasingly alluring, yet increasingly unreal array of technologies and digital advances: Remember.
And with the likes of Baraka helping to jog our memories and realign us with reality, the art of remembrance is made that bit easier for us all.