Very few voices can cut through a room like Wali Shah’s. The Mississauga-raised spoken word artist’s signature baritone has led him to appearing on MTV with Selena Gomez, presenting as a TEDx speaker, performing at the Air Canada Centre, and even freestyling with Kendrick Lamar.
Born in Pakistan, Shah touches on social issues and his South Asian and Muslim background, and blends it with comedy and personal experience in his spoken word art. In 2014, he was selected as one of Youth in Motion’s Top 20 Under 20 — a Canada-wide honour — and this year, he was announced as Mississauga’s Poet Laureate.
“It’s a dream come true. All of this,” says Shah. It wasn’t too long ago, he notes, “I had every strike against me.”
Shah was 15 years old when he was arrested for assault charges and spent the night in jail.
“For a long time, I felt like I didn’t know where my place was,” he says. “When I was younger, I had a lot of friends that weren’t the best examples or influences in my life. I ended up making some wrong friends.”
Being taken away from his home in a police car — while his mother looked on in tears — affected Shah deeply.
“I remember thinking, ‘I let my parents down. My parents came from Pakistan to Canada to give their kid an education and a future, and I let [them] down,’” he says.
Vowing to turn his situation into a positive, Shah began volunteering in earnest and looking for ways to make a difference in his community.
“The positive I took from that situation was that I want to use this experience to fuel my future work in terms of advocating for kids that are at risk, or advocating for men that have the wrong perception of what masculinity is, which [leads] them [to] make decisions that can be life-altering,” he says.
“You can make a difference through your art.”
Shah’s high school teacher handed him a book, Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete. He began finding his calling as a spoken word artist and motivational speaker, gaining strength from telling his story.
He started working with UNITY Charity, then United Way — the latter of which he has raised over $1-million for to date.
“I’ve always been able to take a positive from every situation,” says Shah.
“If I didn’t have the struggles, I also wouldn’t be able to appreciate all the blessings.”