Can you tell us about your early interests in the arts and performing? Do you come from an artistic family?
I do come from a place that has birthed many a poet — I’m East African, so culturally, the arts are very relevant to us, just in terms of how we keep our culture alive. Our traditions, poetry, music and dance have surrounded me in those ways. But in the professional sense, and in the westernized view, I am the first out of my family that’s here right now who has taken the arts to be their entire life, so that has had some challenges. I’m Muslim, and so there has been a lot of pushback. Culturally, it was just not supported in Islam — or more so the patriarchy within the religion than the actual religion itself — to be a girl and to be kind of “showing yourself off.” The pursuit of stability over joy is definitely underlining everything. But art has always been a way for me personally to either escape, or to express myself when I didn’t feel like I had anywhere to put my voice or anyone that would listen.
When did it start becoming that escape?
I was born in Alberta but I left really early. And when I moved back from Ontario I was in junior high, and I came back so late in the year that I just took whatever options were left, and drama was one of them. I had a teacher that was really supportive, and so through junior high and high school, I really just performed at everything I could. I was dancing, I was singing, I was acting. I actually dropped out of high school because of mental illness, which had a lot to do with not being able to see art in my future. Because I was getting at that age where everyone was kind of telling me, Okay, this art stuff was cute, but wrap it up. And that sucked. And I got really sick. And my mom realized that it kind of wasn’t an option for me to not have any kind of art.
Was poetry part of your art then?
Yeah, I started sharing my poetry on Tumblr, and I kind of grew a following online and it pushed me to, after a year off and going to Centre High, start at MacEwan in the theatre arts program. I was really excited, because it had been a little dream of mine to just be in Fame, dancing and singing. So that was really fun, but I was also still doing poetry online at the time. And I was also coming into my identity, as one does when you’re in your early 20s. I started to really feel kind of isolated by what I was learning politically and environmentally. I started to dig into my Blackness and my queerness and my womanhood, because I wasn’t resonating with a lot of the art that was being put in front of me at school. Then Michael Brown was murdered, and it catalyzed me. I started sharing my poetry in movement spaces, and spoken word events, and I started competing. I won a slam championship in 2016 and that was kind of what pushed me into the Edmonton Youth Poet Laureate position. I was starting to understand that I needed my art for me, to still be alive. But it also was something that could support the lives of other people like me.
So you’re a do-it-all performer, but is there one discipline that feels most raw, or closest to your artistic soul?
It feels like they all access a different part of that soul. And I use the different mediums to access which is going to be the most efficient in telling my truth. But what I’ve defined poetry as for myself kind of encapsulates all of the mediums. Because for me, poetry is my nature. I move through the world looking through a poetic lens. Sometimes I’m just talking to a friend, and it’s like, that’s an analogy, there’s a metaphor, and it just helps me get my point across. Even when I’m doing some dance or theatre, it feels like I’m doing poetry on the inside, because it’s me showing the world my heart and my spirit, and it feels like I’m sharing a poem.
How did you land the role of Amina on virgins!?
The internet has played such a significant role in affirming me, and I actually got this role because the creator, Aden Abebe, followed me on Instagram maybe four years ago, while I think they were still developing the show as a web series. She was already writing this character, but she said that after following me from some show poster from a spoken word tour I did, she felt like I really embodied Amina as the character. And then last summer, they put out the casting call, and she ended up DMing me the casting call and was like, “Are you going to audition?” I did, and then I was shooting the show a couple of months later.
So you identify pretty easily with the Amina character?
We have many similarities. She is an aspiring actor in a Somali household, and we use humor in many of the same ways. She’s definitely the comedic relief in the show. She’s also a sexual health educator, which in terms of education and working with youth, I also have experience with. And she just really cares about her friends, and friendship is a huge part of my personality. She’s a little bit questioning — they call her the “apprehensive, queer virgin” — so playing her was like playing myself like maybe four or five years ago. So it was kind of a trip to go back into that energy of just trying to figure a lot of things out, and going back into my own life and revisiting that rite of passage.
Is the show about their relationship with each other as much as it’s about their sex lives?
It was really important for Aden to showcase what it’s like to explore things like coming from and East African household, where you’re very sheltered, and going into western society without any information, and how to process those big questions. She wanted to show these really smart, strong, caring and beautiful East African women who happen to be virgins, yes, but also look at the entire ecosystem of what that means.
One of the characters, Delina, is a great example of Eldest Daughter Trauma, where so many eldest daughters in East African homes were made to be second mothers to their siblings. It’s the weight of: You’re not only expected to be treated that way by your family, but that’s also how the world treats Black women, like they’re everyone’s mother. It happens in the home, and then it’s also in the socialization outside of the home. This show finally offers a glance into the lives of young women who don’t really get to catch a break from any of the intersections that they exist in. With Amina, I’m not just playing a queer Muslim person, I am a queer Muslim person. And I feel like this show is finally where you get to see all those intersections at play, in real time.
The show itself had an example of this, with casting. I saw two other Saras that I had seen in audition, and they both had issues with their parents seeing them act as someone who is going to have sex. It was another systemic barrier, but Aden pushed through it with compassion for the Muslim community. Because we want the community on our side, but we also want to tell the truth about what’s happening in the community, so we can’t always just give the version of the community that it sees as itself. Well, we want to give that, but in an honest way. So I was proud of them for sticking to the script, but also knowing that they needed to work with Nadia [Hussein], who plays Sara, to make sure that it was done in the most respectful and artful of ways.
At this risk of being very white male, is the show kind of like a Black version of Friends meets The 40-Year-Old Virgin?
Haha, I love that. But I think the Black version of Friends is already Insecure. And these are monster shows — we’re just in our early stage, but there’s definitely comedy and drama. And even though it’s a culturally specific show, I really think everyone can connect to these characters in some way, shape, or form, and join the conversation of how much or how little support we all had engaging with our firsts.
Are there any firsts you want to achieve in real life?
Yes, I want to jump out of a plane so bad! I feel like I’ve just been inside for so long. I had a lot of health issues this year, too, so I was in my house and in my bed, and I’ve just been dreaming of like, large, vast views. And so I feel I feel like that’s what I’m yearning for.
Watch virgins! streaming on CBC Gem right now.