Arts feature: Bahirah and Nafisah Malik

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

For the first nine years of their lives, Bahirah and Nafisah Malik lived in cities and towns across the southern United States, among them Selma, Alabama. Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge nearly every day, the young girls absorbed a deeper sense of the struggle and the trauma of what it's like for people of color living in America.

So perhaps it should surprise no one when, a few years later and living on Columbus' East Side, the sisters were willing collaborators when recruited by a young activist named MarShawn McCarrel.

“He was like a big brother figure to us. He was always there to make sure we were OK,” Bahirah Malik said in an interview at an Olde Towne East coffee shop. “We met him on a trip to Mississippi [in 2014] for the 50th anniversary of freedom summer. He was involved in the Ohio Student Association. We got involved with that and from there he just took us under his wing. We were out there in the community because he was the one to put us up on the front line of our first march.”

McCarrel also encouraged both young women to write poetry. Writing was something the twins had been encouraged to do from a young age by their mother, but McCarrel noticed that his friends needed a release from the pressures of activism.

“He was always big into poetry. For us, we always kept things bottled up and hidden inside. He took us to one of his poetry events and showed us that we could use it as a way to tell our stories,” Bahirah said.

“My first poem was trash,” Nafisah said with a laugh. “But we both just fell in love with poetry. I feel like that is what we were meant to do, and so we work hard at it.”

McCarrel's 2016 death by suicide didn't dim the Malik sisters' passion for either activism or poetry. Both remain active in the Black Lives Matter movement and in Pursuing Our Dreams, an organization McCarrel founded.

“In a sense, activism and being there for my community and being a voice for my community has played a big part in my poetry, because my poetry is a way of kind of analyzing what's going on and communicating what I feel should happen,” Bahirah said.

“He brought us in [to Pursuing Our Dreams] and our love for helping was sparked,” Nafisah said.

The sisters have shared their voice at marches, rallies and open mics throughout the city. This Friday, Nov. 16, Maroon Arts Group has given them the opportunity to be the featured performers at its recurring ROOTS: An Open Expression event at Upper Cup Coffee in Gahanna.

“The sisters represent an energy that hasn't been on a MAG stage. The youth movement itself is revolutionary in how they express their identity.Bahirah and Nafisah are going to be leaders amongst all the communities they represent. Their poetry reflects that. Maroon Arts Group is dedicated to giving platforms of all kinds to these revolutionary voices,” said MAG member Otis Sharp, aka DJ O Sharp.

At first apprehensive about being granted center stage with their poetry, the sisters have curated a set that will speak to what it's like to be black in America, the strength of black women and their love of community, which includes the late rapper Nes Wordz, whose birthday the Maliks will commemorate in poem.

“Our community has a lot of love and light. There is a need for a lot of love when you live in a system built to tear you down. We want to bring light to all of those relationships and to our ancestors,” Bahirah said.

“Our voice is our power,” Nafisah said. “This is our chance to stand up and build the world we want to live in.”

Upper Cup Gahanna

7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16

121 Mill St., Gahanna