Meet mental health campaigner & poet Hussain Manawer

Hussain Manawer is a poet, mental health campaigner and so much more. We met the pioneering Londoner for Notion's Identity issue.

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Fresh off two sold-out London shows, poet, mental health campaigner & spoken word artist, Hussain Manawer, has been labelled as redefining the sound of a generation. Using poetry as a form of self-expression, this young Londoner is taking on the uncertain global climate with a fusion of social commentary and artistic wordplay.

Born and bred in Ilford, which he describes as “in between East London and Essex but neither one will claim us!” He grew up as part of a loving community, remaining close friends with many of the people he met at school. It was during his school years that this former MC, “The Original Mummy’s Boy”, discovered his affinity with words. Before poetry, he was writing bars, mostly in private until an English teacher found them tucked away at the back of his school book and asked him to perform in an assembly. He soon swapped the school assembly hall for a SLAM poetry arena, performing in front of thousands in a national competition.

“I came eighth out of hundreds of poets which felt really good you know! Gave me a bit of confidence!” he says.

That confidence comes through during our conversation, throughout which he is unapologetically himself, a trait he assures me has taken him a while to develop. I wonder if it was poetry that gave him the ability to speak his mind to which he assures me, “Absolutely yes. This is the ultimate self-expression for me.”

His example of this in action is particularly disturbing. “I was performing one night, and before I went on stage, the promoter introduced me as ‘Mohammad’. Now I don’t know if he meant it as a racist slur or not but that’s not even close to my name. The other two performers that night were white, so allow me to put two and two together for this example. I felt rough, I really wanted to say something back, but I bit my tongue because the best reaction is no reaction, isn’t it? But he’d walked into a trap. My first poem that night was about racial inequality and the fact that that happened right before shows people why I’m doing this.”

Hussain believes there was an intense and immediate reaction from the audience. “A friend of mine who was in the audience said he burst into tears and he’s a big, footballer, lad’s lad kind of guy! He said he’d never been witness to stuff like that before and he never realised that the problems were out there. We don’t realise because we don’t look, and the minute we open our eyes we see so many.”

Hussain’s grandparents came over to England from Pakistan before his parents were born. His heritage has seen him grace the airwaves of celebratory Asian Networks on both National and Global levels but simultaneously exposes him to these kinds of narrow-minded encounters. Yet Hussain isn’t angry; he’s determined; and adamant that his work will stand up for itself.

“Poetry has definitely allowed me to say things that I wouldn’t have normally had the confidence to say” he muses. “Things that need to be sorted out! Performance poetry gives me the opportunity to capture my imagination in words. It allows me to express those feelings and abstract thoughts in a way that provides a release and helps me to make sense of things.”

As an active campaigner, his efforts stretch far and wide; spending 19 days in Botswana re-building a village, heading up a campaign to assist the plight of the homeless in London, climbing various mountains such as Kilimanjaro for different causes and galvanising the support of his peers, visiting refugee camps to personally provide aid where it’s needed most and, most recently, he set a Guinness World Record for the ‘World’s Largest Mental Health Lesson.’ When I ask Hussain why he campaigns so strongly for mental health, his response is instant and honest; “Because I’m a mess. I’m just trying to be as honest as I can be. I get confused a lot by myself – if one bad thing happens I will throw every other bad thing in my life that isn’t even relevant into that mix! And I suffer for it! But I am so lucky and fortunate to have people around me that don’t judge, that encourage conversation and that is a blessing. On the other side of that, I’m also friends with people that don’t have people around and that hits home a lot more.”

Hussain has made a point of opening up the conversation around this in his visits to over 400 schools, talking about and creating workshops around the issues that young people face. So far, he’s tackled cyberbullying, depression and drug abuse. “A lot of these young people have no one! In a day and age where we’re all so connected online – we’ve never been so disconnected at the same time, and that needs to change.”

School themes play a massive part in Hussain’s career; his new single ‘Playground’ is a nostalgic reflection on the simple joys of childhood, reminding adults to reconnect with those values and focus on the small things when they feel overwhelmed.

I question what Hussain was like as a young person, and specifically, what were the things he was writing down instead of saying? “I was writing stuff like, ‘Dear Mum, I wasn’t meant for this planet, you did everything you could Mum, please don’t panic,’” He reveals candidly. “It was all deep and very raw and hard-hitting, but now I’m growing with my words, and because of that I feel more confident with what I’m saying. The other day I wrote, “God put me through this so I can say I’ve been through this.” His refreshing honesty is one of Hussain’s most admirable traits, alongside his humour and an energy that has convinced me he is capable of absolutely anything. It should come as no surprise then that he has already supported Ellie Goulding at the Royal Albert Hall and was requested to create a one-off poem by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, entitled ‘London Legacy’ to celebrate the launch of the first night tube. His debut EP Am I Going Too Deep? has already drawn critical praise from numerous publications with global media platforms crediting him as ‘creating a new genre of socially conscious art’ and ‘the sound of his generation’.

He laughs at the latter when I remind him, but I ask him all the same, what he thinks is the ‘sound of his generation’? “It’s the sound of healing, it’s the sound of pain, and it’s the sound of growth. Yeah. Healing, pain and growth. Our generation grew up in such a confusing time! We saw Walkmen change to iPhones; we were the last ones to know life before and after social media! We are the ones that had to adapt so quickly that we never got the chance to focus on ourselves as people.” I ask my final question. Is Hussain in this for the healing?

“100%.” He fires back without hesitation, “I got a lot of work to do!”

This article first appeared in Notion 78. Get your copy featuring Hussain Manawer now.

Photography Jack Grange
Styling Iman Sheikh
Grooming Lucy Thomas using Bumble and bumble
Video Samuel White
Follow Hana Walker-Brown on Twitter

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