Spoken word poets start a revolution in Sweden

Revolution Poets Nachla and Barakat performing

Revolution Poets Nachla and Barakat performing (c) Julia Jane Persson

Stockholm’s ghettos find a stage: Young spoken-word poets spread stories about their life and struggle in the Swedish capital’s left-behind suburbs. They want to start a revolution for a lost generation – and they are being heard.

Metro Station Hjulsta in Tensta

Metro Station Hjulsta in Tensta

The blue-painted metro train is slowly getting empty. Men in suits, students and tourists are bursting out of the tube the closer we get to the city’s outskirts. Reaching the penultimate stop in one of Stockholm’s Northern suburbs, only two middle-aged women wearing a hijab, a group of kids of Asian decent and a bunch of Arabic-speaking teenage boys in their stained jogging pants and worn-out Nikes  are getting of the metro. The traffic sign reads Tensta.

Tensta is one of Stockholm’s three suburbs where immigrants make up 80 to 90 per cent of the district’s population of 36,000. It’s an area that’s struggling not only with high rates of unemployment and poverty but also with prejudices and oppression. Those are some of the reasons the movement and artistic platform was born in the so-called ghettos of Stockholm.

My vocal cords are fighting the voice of white money that echoes against these restrictive buildings. Buildings that are aligning themselves against me, against us, against liberty,Nachla Vargas Alaeb, spoken-word poet and one of three founders of Revolution Poetry, criticizes in her poem Stockholm Blues. Nachla, who calls herself Nachla Libre, was born and raised in one of Stockholm’s economically and socially-challenged suburbs which don’t have lots to offer other than blocks of flats, metro stations and cheap takeaway. Experiencing daily racism and segregation all her life, she felt the need to do something with her voice and her passion to express her feelings.

That’s why she founded Rev Poetry [short form] together with Aladin Bewar Zakholi and Namo Marouf in 2009. Now she leads Revolution Poetry, a network of spoken-word poets, mainly foreigners, who want to share their stories as well as their struggle growing up in the satellite towns such as Tensta, with Barakat B. Ghebrehawariat. “We want to fight injustice through culture. It’s so much more than poetry. It’s our life, it’s our feelings,” the young woman says while pressing her hand against a black shirt with Revolution Poetry’s logo on it: a white fist.

Stockholm – No room for more than one identity?

People sitting in the Tensta Konsthall

People sitting in the Tensta Konsthall

Nawroz Zakholy’s story seems to be somewhat prototypical for people born in the suburbs. Sitting in the Tensta Konsthall, a luminous café and art gallery situated right next to the district’s all-gray metro station on a rainy afternoon in Mid-May, the Revolution poet with Kurdish parents tells about one of her various experiences of racism in everyday life. “Once my journalism teacher ordered me to her office after I accidentially made a grammar mistake,” Nawroz remembers rolling her brown eyes and shaking her head while watching young men with African decent entering one of the rare meeting places in the dwelling-packed suburb of Tensta. “’Do you have problems with the Swedish language?’ she asked. ‘Of course not, I write Swedish poetry and I’ve been living here all my life.’ ‘- Are you sure?’ she repeated.”

Incidents like that have been causing the communication science student to question her own identity over and over again. Even though Nawroz was raised in Sweden, has a Swedish passport and Swedish as her first language, a lot of Swedes wouldn’t consider her as one of them. “And then again, when I’m in Kurdistan, Kurds don’t see me as one of them either,” Nawroz says as she looks down at her slightly shaking fingers. Just like everybody else she knows in Tensta, she belongs somewhere in the middle, but she doesn’t know where. A common feeling Nachla, founder of Revolution Poetry, captures in Stockholm Blues: “Powerhouses shout out senseless senses about unity but do not make room for more than one identity.”

Besides the identity struggle, stories about unemployment, a poor level of education caused by schools being filled with up to 100 per cent immigrant classes as well as police brutality led to riots in the suburban areas of Husby, Rinkeby and Tensta in 2013. Back then young men repeatedly lit up cars and police stations after the police tried to cover up the death of a citizen of Portuguese decent. Figures show that Stockholm indeed is a deeply segregated city: With an unemployment rate of nearly 50 per cent the district of Tensta shows a whole different side of Sweden’s capital. In contrast, Stockholm’s population as a whole only has 28 per cent of people with migration background and beyond that – an unemployment rate of 23 per cent.

Nawroz at a parking lot in Tensta

Revolution poet Nawroz at a parking lot in Tensta

“Segregation goes back to the governmental housing project initiated in the 1960s that was called the ‘million program,’” Zenia Hellgren, a researcher at the Department of Sociology at Stockholm University, points out. The million program aimed at eradicating the housing shortage in Sweden by building a million apartments within 1965 and 1974. “However, these houses were generally considered ugly and unattractive, in typical identical, large blocks of flats in monotonous satellite towns. So they shortly became residential areas mainly for those who had no other choice: immigrants and poor Swedes.”

Anti-immigrant party is rising in popularity

Only a twenty-minute train ride away from the suburbs people from different age, origin and social status are flocking to the Folkoperan, a public opera in the city center, to see a free show by Rev poets. Artists in black sweaters are talking, shouting and whispering about segregation, love and gentrification in up to three minute long performances. Every once in a while instrumental music is accompanying the poets’ strings of words. Some are even joined by singers. “50 per cent of our art form is text, our story, and the other 50 per cent is the performance and the expression of our feelings,” Nachla whose parents are Libyan and Chilean explains.

There are no fixed rules for their art form: poets talk about whatever is on their mind may it be racism or love, relationships or segregation. And for once, those marginalized voices seem to be heard. “That’s the reason I like Rev poetry – some of the audience is Swedish, they get to hear our stories. And when I look at them while I perform, I see that they start to understand us. At least a little,” Nawroz smiles while a bunch of young children in raincoats are entering the Tensta Konsthall to participate in homework sessions – and benefiting from the free wifi and free exhibitions.

Nonetheless, according to Tensta’s residents there is still work to be done. Not only in Stockholm, but also in Sweden as a whole: The anti-immigrant party The Swedish Democrats are estimated to already have around 15 per cent of the votes, “which has made it more legitimate to openly criticize immigration and the multicultural society,” Zenia Hellgren says. The rise of young people who shed some light on life and problems in the suburbs and its people (over 850,000 people counting in this Scandinavian metropolis) is one big step towards a functioning, open and diverse society. Or as Nachla puts it in her poem: “Storytellers from the periphery raising their fists and their stories. Stockholm do you see us? Do you hear our voice or must we raise the volume?”