On Sept. 19, the lives of Oakland residents Belal Esa and Asam Al-Awjri were taken as they were gunned down after leaving evening prayer at their mosque. This event was shocking to the local Muslim community in Oakland and hit close to home for me, as the mosque is more than a place of worship but an intimate space where I am able to speak to God about my innermost thoughts and struggles. There’s an assumption of safety in any place of worship, and this senseless violence shattered that for many of us.
In response to this tragedy, myself and organizers from the Muslim Writers Collective, Gathering All Muslim Artists (GAMA), and ARTogether held an open mic fundraiser at the Aggregate Space Gallery in West Oakland to honor the lives of Belal and Asam. During the open mic, attendees used the stage to speak on the trauma of losing their sense of self, relationships, and loved ones abroad. Most importantly, we used the open mic event to raise over $1500 for the grieving families of these two individuals, proving that culture itself is a strong vehicle for processing grief and healing.
The open mic, attended by a diverse range of dozens of community members, was just one event within our larger project, “Khamsa,” an immersive multimedia exhibition designed to help marginalized communities in the Bay Area navigate grief and trauma. More than just an exhibit, it gave visual and musical artists from different backgrounds the platform to tell their stories and allow the audience to look at the mosaic of grief through multiple vantage points.
My team and I did not realize the ongoing impact of what this project might bring to our community when we launched the exhibit on September 2nd, with recent tragic events directly impacting Immigrant and local Bay Area communities, from the ongoing protests in Iran to the two schools shootings in Oakland, the Khamsa project became an anchor for those on our team that was directly impacted by all of these things, giving them an outlet to cope with grief.
On one of the moving walls in the gallery lies an open-ended question: “How do you grieve and heal?” A loaded question that does not provide a one-size fits all answer; although the answers may vary, the space allows attendees to offer a mosaic of responses from different vantage points.
The exhibit was launched in my hometown of Oakland because this city as a whole has been subject to so many traumas, from the violence of gentrification to gun violence. Amidst it all, this city continues to show cultural resistance and innovation through activism, music, and visual arts as agents of change and empowerment. Moreover, Oakland’s collective healing could not be possible without its deep influences from hip-hop. This is why we’ve also created “Khamsa: The Album” to accompany the visual arts project.
The idea began straightforward: an album six years in the making intended to just be an Instrumental hip-hop project and an exhibit where visitors are able to have a sensory experience of grief. The project is rooted in Islam and hip-hop, cultures from which I have gained a deep sense of purpose in life as a way to unite people, to reflect in-depth on the eternal human tragedy of grief, and to heal collectively.
After the many tragic events over the years, especially the deaths of rappers like Nipsey Hussle, the George Floyd uprisings, and the start of a pandemic, I realized it was necessary to include the voices of MCs on the project to reflect the healing needed in Oakland. I recruited my brothers Nu Nasa, DLEE, Spote Breeze, Mani Draper, Gavin Anthony; local artists that I hold in high esteem, to explore their emotions, grief, and healing as Black men. The goal was simply to create songs that each matched the different stages of grief. I knew it was going to be a challenge for the artists to transmute grief into music, but after hearing the project in its entirety, I realized this album went beyond the concept and into the minds of how they process mental health itself.
On the track “Something,” rapper Spote Breeze bargains with the universe to bring his father back, rapping:
The universe threw me so many signs, I thought it was stackin/ had me out my bag like gift receipts in january/ Speaking of returns, I need my father back/ I think we both know dat roll call was unnecessary/ I’ll stop taking shit for granted/ If you let me borrow just a bit more time/Summer 08 is where I wanna go/ I know I’m in the red/ What you mean you got to do a lot of diggin to find it? It’s right there!
Through the song, Spote used music to teleport back in time to plead with his father not to take his own life, a heavy, personal subject matter that intimately illuminates the rapper’s experiences with grief. At the end of the track, he fades away from the simulation, asking his father to take care of himself and to leave the door open. The raw vulnerability on this track, as well as the others on the project, demonstrate the healing power in speaking aloud and processing our grief, something that, for our communities, can often be a struggle.
In my own experience as a Black Muslim, hip-hop was that agent of change that helped me articulate the traumas that I’d gone through; what’s often difficult or disallowed for Black men to say aloud can be communicated through hip-hop so easily at times. I wanted to carry on the tradition of hip-hop as a healing modality to help my community in the Bay Area process grief and maybe impact people beyond the Bay Area who are similarly dealing with trauma and tragedy.
As artists, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in order to provide an outlet for ourselves to process emotion and for our audience to relate to that process. This vulnerability carried the Khamsa project and, in reality, carried all of us in our communities as we navigate healing. Healing may not be a linear path and may in fact, be incredibly difficult, but it is through art, community, and hip-hop —culture—that we’re processing our grief in Oakland. The Khamsa project is just one among many hoping to harness the power of culture to create change.
In Rumi’s poem “ The Guest House”, the Holy Sage states, “This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, or some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all!”
For our Black, Muslim, refugee, and immigrant communities, especially in the Bay Area in recent years, it’s important that this process of understanding grief and emotions be communal. And it is important, as Rumi instructs, for us to collectively welcome and entertain the full range of our emotions and humanity. The Khamsa project is just a single step toward that direction of collective healing.
Guled Muse is the Lead Director of the Khamsa Project. His work includes community activism in the Mission District of San Francisco and in Oakland, which includes movements around issues such as gentrification, promotion of the arts, and diversity.