Three weeks before George Floyd lost his life at the hands of Minneapolis police, a Whitby, Ontario-based lawyer wrote a poem called “I Can’t Breathe.” It was inspired by the death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man who was fatally shot while out for a jog in Georgia, but its message and devastatingly prophetic title gave it a new relevance when Floyd uttered the same exact phrase moments before dying under the literal knee of the law.
Performing under the name Pen Moodz, Hamud Mbarak began sharing his perspective through spoken word poetry on his Instagram channel. When another of his pieces, “Maybe If It Was Me,” went viral, he spun it into a charity, printing shirts that read “Know Justice, Know Peace,” which were picked up and worn by members of the Los Angeles Lakers, including J.R. Smith.
Complex teamed up with the lawyer by profession and poet by choice to commemorate Black History Month. Check out the spoken word piece he made for us, untitled “Ode to Us,” below. Then read on to find out what he’s up to next.
So, where are you from?
I grew up in Richmond Hill and then moved to Whitby in grade 6. Now it’s home. I went to high school here, did my post-secondary here at Durham College and then went to law school in the UK.
You’re a lawyer by profession and a poet by choice. So who’s the first guy, Hamud?
Hamud is an individual who’s determined and built upon the principles of perseverance and self-belief. My belief in myself has never wavered. I would’ve quit this game a long time ago, you know? I started law school in 2010 and I literally qualified 10 years later in 2019. Today I’m actually the in-house counsel for a tech firm that sells software and hardware.
And who is Pen Moodz?
Yeah! Yo! Let’s Go! [Laughs.] So, I had an individual in my family who got really sick and it was a very challenging time for my family. And I’m the type of person who keeps their circle extremely close and tight, and even within that I don’t really show much. So my only outlet to deal with my own mental health was to write. And I would just write in my Notes on my phone, just expressing my emotions, my dark, and sometimes scary feelings that I was facing and contemplating. It’s ironic, but it was actually on world mental health day in September, 2019 that I shared my first piece. That was the beginning of my spoken word journey. Today, Pen Moodz speaks truth to power.
Where did “I Can’t Breathe” come from?
I saw the death of Ahmaud Arbery earlier in the year and I wouldn’t put my mind to it because I didn’t want it to bring me down to the depths… I didn’t want to go to that dark spot. But then on May 6, LeBron James catches it, posts on his Twitter and it goes viral. Now the entire community, the world is paying attention to it. And not only that , but it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic, so I had no choice but to engage with it. I went to sleep that night angry, and then I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and I was livid. And the only way I knew how to deal with my own emotions and to process my thoughts was to write. So I wrote a poem called “I Can’t Breathe” three weeks before George Floyd was killed.
And how about “Maybe If It Was Me”?
After Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed, during his period, mentally, I’ve never been so broken as an individual for those three weeks. I was crying every single day. I would break out in tears at my desk when I’d be working, I’d cry in the shower. I’d never been like this, never been so affected by somebody I didn’t have a personal connection with. But that’s the actual challenge, because the connection is that we are both Black—our community connects us. And why I was crying was because all these deep-seated racial injustices that I experienced in my own life that I didn’t even know were buried so deep just came and exploded out in all my own traumas.
What’s the long game?
Well, my goal is to legally leave a legacy, to leave a lasting impact and to do something that’s much bigger than myself right now. I’m only the vehicle. I’m more than the conduit. And if I can continue to empower, educate myself and the people around me, the next generation, then I’ve done my job. And that’s really what I’m here for.