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In Conversation

Khadijah Ibrahiim

Khadijah Ibrahiim is a writer, an artist, a photographer, a performer, a theatre-maker - and more. Twenty years ago, Khadijah created Leeds Young Authors and inspired a new generation of artists. Ruth Steinberg meets her to find out about how her heritage informs her creativity, how important it is to connect with people, and how she’s always playing with words.




Khadijah Ibrahiim’s grandparents came from Jamaica to the UK in the 1950s and she was born and raised in the Chapeltown and Harehills areas of Leeds. After graduating from the University of Leeds, Khadijah entered the world as an artist. She’s spent the last 30 years creating poems, performances, visual art, photographs, outfits – and lots more artistic work. She’s been described by the BBC as “one of Yorkshire’s most prolific poets.”


Khadijah’s work is rooted in her family and background; she fuses different parts of her heritage with the influences of her current surroundings to create artwork and writing. Khadi- jah was inspired by her grandparents to be an activist and to change the world for the better.

In 2003, Khadijah created Leeds Young Authors. The idea was to work with teenagers in Leeds and encourage them to write and perform. Khadijah was keen to dispel the myth that poetry was an outmoded form, so she focused on spoken word and poetry slams. Leeds Young Authors were so successful that a documentary feature film was made about them: We Are Poets was released in 2012 and told the story of young people from Leeds competing in the International Poetry Slam in Washington DC.

Kadijah continues to create artwork about her experiences. One of her most recent pieces was Dead and Wake, performed at Leeds Playhouse, in collaboration with Opera North. The piece explored Caribbean rituals around death through poetry, music, ghost stories. Khadijah collaborated with turntablist DJ NikNak, artist Paulette Morris and perform- ers from The Sunday Practice to create a moving and beautiful piece of theatre.


Writer and storyteller Ruth Steinberg meets Khadijah to share stories of oppression and triumph and to find out what makes this remarkable and uncategorisable artist tick.


You seem to do so many different things. How do you see yourself?

For me, the important thing is that I'm an artist. The way in which people may know me is through poetry. But also my interest is how to you support the next generation through the expression of words. The art of words, wordplay and performance. I developed Leeds Young Authors because in my younger days, I was really interested in poetry – and there was nowhere to go. I had this love for words and literature and it didn't seem to be the cool thing to do.


Tell me how you came to be the person you are today?

I went to a school of Performing Arts and trained in dance. My teachers really pushed the performing arts. I loved all the aspects of art and expression: dance, drama, drawing. But I came out of a household where my father was a professor of physics and chemistry. A lot of members of my family worked in the medical field – my grandmother was a nurse. So I thought that's the direction I ought to go in. They really pushed academia in the household. When I was younger, I saw the children playing outside - and I was inside reading. I was reading because I had to read, had to do my homework. I had a very old-school grandmother. You had to stand up and do mental arithmetic, recite things. And I thought that was such a chore! When I was born, I lived in my grandmother’s home. And I stayed with her a lot. It isn’t an unusual thing to happen in in a Caribbean household. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. And I loved their house - it was very creative, it was the house of activism. They were on the ground, campaigning for change. Along with this lady called Mrs Davis, they set up one of the first pre-schools in Chapeltown that would support children of that community. There was a community centre, where the teenagers could go down of an evening. Even though I didn't understand at the time, my grandparents were activists.


By the time I had left school, I was sewing, I was drawing, I was dancing, I was performing, I was reading books. But I had to make this choice about what I wanted to do after school. The careers teacher said, “You’re always doing people’s hair - go and do hairdressing.” I remember telling my grandmother and she said, “No.” She encouraged me to go into the arts, into fashion. So I did. I had this ambition that I would work in theatre, I would design theatrical costumes. And I could be amongst literature and plays - theatre was the place for me. But it never really panned out. I did my two years at Jacob Kramer College, which is now Leeds College of Art and Design. And I wanted to do a degree, but I my father had moved to the USA and I wanted to spend some time with him there. On my return, after a couple of years, I made this U-Turn into literature. I really want to work with the community and I wasn't sure what that looked like. I worked in a youth hostel and worked at a women's refuge. I was working with women and their children, using poetry and creative writing. I wanted them to be able to tell their story in the way that they wanted. Not a story about abuse and violence, but a story about the future and what the future could hold. After this, I got job at Women's Aid as the outreach worker. I could create my own job in the Harehills and Chapeltown community. I realised I could do health and well-being through writing.


Then off to university I went! I started late, I was in my late 20s. I did Arabic and Middle Eastern studies because I was interested in language and creative writing. The course gave me an opportunity to explore a different culture through language and I was able to travel as well. I went to Yemen and I was really pushing this love of literature. I started doing some volunteer work with UNESCO, working with asylum seekers and refugees coming from Syria and Somalia. And I taught English too. So when I when I got back to England, I decided I would do my masters straight away, to study theatre. It was there that I felt like I could make some real, definite decisions about what my life would be like. It was writing. It was theatre.


After I graduated, the first thing I did was to set up Leeds Young Authors. It was for young people who may be in households that were unsteady. The children just came from all different walks of life, all different backgrounds. You know, we had children from the Leeds Grammar School and they met children from the local schools in Harehills, Chapeltown, Bramley and Armley. We and had kids coming from Bradford. So it was very rich. The poetry was the thing. But in the background was a plan to work in the theatre. So, here I am today as a freelance artist doing poetry, working in theatre, writing plays and working with communities. And the fashion still plays an important part. I do style people. I can design and draw. Someone might ask me to style something or give them some ideas - or go wedding shopping with them! It's a side-line. And I paint in my spare time – and do a bit of photography. What I've learnt over the years is that when I'm creating my own work, I bring all of those elements into it.

"I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. And I loved their house - it was very creative, it

was the house of

activism. They were

campaigning for


So, you are just you, bringing all your creative interests together – you are Khahdijah Ibrahim!

Yes, I think people box you up. As if you can only be one thing. I think it's important that, as long as we have breath that we breathe life into the things we really enjoy. That we embrace them and run towards them. Sometimes you fall down and it doesn’t work. My grandfather used to say, “It's not the knockdown you get, is how you get up.”


I see a parallel with my life. I grew up in a Jewish working-class family, so I have something of that resilience there that. I do get knocked, but I don't stay down.

You coming from a Jewish household, you know the struggles that your family and your forefathers had. That resilience and strength they had to continue to survive and to be able to make good. And to gift the next generation with something. The struggle is real. And within that deprivation, there's a richness. I feel like I was very fortunate. I was really lucky to know my grandparents. To hear their stories and to see their campaigns. Very simple things like making sure the streets were clean. My grandfather campaigned so much to the Council about cleaning the streets, emptying the dustbins on a regular basis. There’s a wonderful story there. He asked all the residents to take all their rubbish and dump it on Chapeltown Road! He had a lot of pride in his community and looked out for everyone that lived in that community. I remember people staying in the house. There were lots of stories of people seeking asylum in my grandparents’ home, until they were able to sort themselves out. It was amazing, the kind of things I was able to witness. These the things that shape you. Why I become a people watcher. Why I'm so interested in culture and diversity – and people’s stories. I just feel very enriched when someone’s happy to share their stories with me. And I'm very passionate about older people because of my grandparents. Wanting to know that history - what was life like before I was born?


What have you found out about your family history?

My mother is 82 and she is such a great storyteller. I feel so blessed that I can ask my mother to tell me stories. Over the last five years I’ve been trying to build my family tree.  I’ve been to Jamaica several times - going over the records, finding these names and coming back to ask my mother about them. I went on an adventure in 2019, several weeks in Jamaica. I went to where my grandfather on my mother's side was born. It’s up on a mountainside, it’s very lush, very green.


How have you brought those things you learned about your family in Jamaica into your work?

My interest for the last five years has been around wakes and burial rites. How different cultures celebrate the passing of someone. We mourn the loss, but within that mourning there is also celebration. The practise in Jamaica is what we call “Nine Nights”. Nine nights of mourning. In the earlier days, without modern technology, people would be buried sometimes in 24 hours. But usually within three days, you’d be buried. After this, there will be nine days of remembrance. It's the preparation of leaving the home. The spirit must leave. People will rearrange the furniture. So that the dead will not try to re-enter back into the home and settle – they’ll be confused and say, “This is not my home”. Within that time, those nine nights, there should be no angry words, there shouldn't be any fighting. Everything is for the dead. I've been exploring that in my work. I’ve been writing poems around these traditions. These are very global traditions because we're not quite sure where they all come from. Some of these are African traditions. And in Jamaica, there is a very old Jewish community. They came from Syria. We also have a Chinese community and an Indian community. After slavery, Britain bought indentured labourers from these places. Then people started coming from Syria and all these different places, to work. So in the end, we have this big mixture. My grandmother on my dad’s side - her father came from India. So, on my dad’s side, they cremate the dead. I never understood why Grandma was cremated. Until I started having these conversations with my family. They said, didn’t your grandma tell you her father was Indian? That’s the richness of knowing culture. It's not my identity for me, is just about how rich these cultures are. And how they intermingle within my own family household. I did some work with Opera North, where I was able to extract some of that research in Jamaica, using those interviews and conversations I had with people there. I was able to work with a sound artist to create a podcast. Then, with Leeds Playhouse, I was able to realise that into a performance. Soundbites alongside poetry.


It's fascinating what you’re saying about how different cultures approach the idea of death.

I say funerals are for the living – and we celebrate the dead. Funerals and burials are really for us. How do we connect in that middle area, between the living and the dead? It’s not restrained by everyday things. I think that people who have lost people enter into a conversation with them. My grandmother didn’t like people eating in the street. She’d say, “Sit down at table and eat!” So, when I find myself eating something in the street, I hear her voice. There’s a side of me that feels my grandmother is communicating with me.


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As a storyteller I’m interested in the idea of “play” and I feel you are too?

Definitely. At the centre of my work is play. Different art forms, yes - but there has to be joy. Because there's so much sadness in the world. We have to find space and talk about joy. Joy comes in so many different forms. fLaughter and smiling and watching somebody achieve something brings joy. I’ve got three children and my daughter just graduated. She had the struggle of trying to study through the pandemic – when that hit, the tears when she thought that she was going to fail. Nobody knew what was happening and there was sadness. I said, “We're going to work it out”. She was able to get through in that difficult time. And she passed, and there was joy. The biggest joy was graduation. But they were unsure if they were going to be able to have a proper graduation. So she said, “I’ll create my own graduation!” They let her hire the gown, she bought the hat off eBay. Her friend came and took photographs on the steps of the university. There was so much joy in that. Then she got a letter saying they could have a ceremony after all! We went and she got up on the stage – she did a little dance on stage. Most people just shook hands – she did a jig! I’m so proud of my children. They give me joy. And I think they are proud of me. So, you’re right, at the heart of everything there has to be play. When I was a kid, I used to play with dolls. That joy of playing with a doll and dressing the doll.


You were making fashion and theatre with dolls at an early age then?

Every doll and all my siblings had to be my plays when I was younger. They’d say, “Do we have to be in your plays?” I’d give them all roles. But my brother and sisters would all go off – and my dolls and teddy bears had to be in my plays instead.


How do you feel about getting older?

I am getting older. It feels so nice. I am watching the way my body is changing. Thinking, “I’ve got my grandmother’s feet now!” And seeing the grey come through, thinking I’ll be silver soon.


What other writers and artists inspire you?

I love reading books. But I also love visual arts. At the moment I’m really into exploring Afro Futurism – that’s a form of art. There’s an artist called Hew Locke. I love his work “Procession”. He really pulls on the narrative of carnival. And I love carnival! The Leeds West Indian Carnival came about in the year I was born. August is a really exciting time for me; I get to play, I get to masquerade and really develop character. It’s playful and it’s about narrative – and it’s also very political. Hew Locke looks at this political aspect of Carnival, about how Britain was trading through colonialism. He opens up what that all means through using the imagination. If you don’t know what Afro Futurism, think of the singer and artist Grace Jones.

Grace Jones would be considered very futuristic in her mindset. She was ahead of her time. Her outfits, her songs - they were very different to what other people were doing at the time, what was in the charts. Her style has always been different. Quite unique. So she comes under that narrative of what we call Afro Futurism. That sense that it’s not grounded in any era, it moves and shifts through time. It doesn't have any boundaries. So, there are lots of visual artists who are working that way. And writers. People like Toni Morrison. Octavia Butler, a sci-fi writer. It’s all about Afro Futurism for me!

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