Ahmed “Knowmadic” Ali is best known as a storyteller, comedian, writer and poet. His stage name, Knowmadic, describes his life as a knowledge-based nomad, something he proudly represents every time he performs.
“I try to make sure that I’m asking a lot of questions, going against the grain, talking about policies, so definitely it comes through my art,” Ali says.
His upbringing in Somalia, Italy and Canada shapes the way he presents his stories on stage. Hardships due to migration and racism have followed him throughout his life, hindering him greatly at times. But his positive mind-set and message have gotten him past those obstacles, allowing him to share his journey with the community and disenchanted youth.
“I’m not a victim, I’m a champion. I’m a survivor,” says Ali.
He was born in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1984 and escaped with his family in 1989 before tensions in the country boiled over. His family moved to Italy once his father raised enough funds through the community—hoping to find a better life outside of Somalia.
Once in Italy, Ali and his three older brothers were forced into boarding schools and felt a resounding culture shock.
“One night [the nuns] were feeding everybody pork and we said, ‘We can’t eat pork because it’s against our religion,’” Ali explains. “Then they’d get upset and bring back the same soup with the pork still in it, with not the other pieces. They’d hit us in the back of the head like, ‘You’re coming as a refugee and you’re not going to eat our food?’ It was that type of
His family moved to Canada in 1992, eventually settling in Kitchener, Ont. His school would have what he describes as “race wars,” provoking violence and rage within Ali. These feelings are something he’s grown to deal with in his poetry, letting racial attacks slide off his back.
“If somebody calls me the N-word it’s up to me, it’s my decision whether I want to fight this person or I want to validate their racial slurs,” Ali says. “So I learned just to ignore them, because meaning is provided by the person who gives value to the words being said to them.”
After a trip back to Somalia to see his mother and father—who had returned—he saw the desolation and lack of opportunity of his home country. This gave him a new perspective on Canada and ultimately his life’s purpose.
Ali moved to Toronto, becoming the first Somali to enrol in Humber College’s comedy writing and performance class. This unlocked his humour and talent for expression.
“What that did was really help me define my funny,” Ali says. “The structure of my funny helped me to learn how to write skits, how to write stand-up bits and helped me to hone my skill.”
These days, Ali is using his voice to inspire the youth in various communities and enacting change by rubbing shoulders with authority figures. He doesn’t like talking about his various accolades and accomplishments and would rather take joy from the work he does with youth. He explains that he sees part of his younger self in some of the kids he works with.
“The main reason I help out these youth is because I never had that and I don’t want them to feel like they’ve never had a connection,” Ali says. “Because this world is 100 percent about who you know, and so I try and position myself in places that gives youth the opportunity to be whoever they want.”
Currently he is a registered vendor with the Edmonton Public School Board. He is currently creating contracts to spend time teaching poetry and black history. Ali is also working out a contract to present art to incarcerated youth.
Although he’s escaped his past, he still feels the sting of racial profiling from time to time.
He describes his treatment at airports and the detrimental nature of a potential travel ban proposed by President Trump.
“I’m not allowed to check in online and I’m not allowed to check in on the machine at the airport,” Ali explains. “For the longest time, that I can remember, I’ve always had to go up to the counter and then they’d call in to make sure I wasn’t the person they were looking for. … It’s become a routine.”
Ali encourages all people to use their voice as he has. He stresses that keeping quiet in the current social climate serves as more of a detriment than anything.
“Being silent is talking,” Ali explains. “People think that if they’re not saying anything then they’re not part of a conversation, but by not talking you become part of the conversation—in the sense, you’re the person that’s indifferent when things are going down.”
Editor’s note: This profile is the first in a series highlighting artists and cultural contributors from the seven countries named in the now suspended travel ban.
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