When Khaleefa Hamdan was two years old, his family decided that it was time to pack up their bags once more and begin a new life in Ottawa. Before calling Ottawa home, his family had emigrated to Montreal from Kuwait in 1989.
In 1988, the year that Khaleefa was born, his family was forced to leave Kuwait after his father was exiled for criticizing the country’s government. Khaleefa recalled how his father would sit him down and tell him stories of their family’s experiences in exile.
“They were jailed in Syria, they were beaten in Turkey. I believe my older brother spent his first birthday in a Syrian prison,” said Khaleefa.
His father would also share stories of his past life in Kuwait as a writer and a poet.
“He was jailed in Kuwait when he was exiled. He was beaten. They took turns urinating on his notebook. They read his poetry mockingly and then they set it on fire right in front of him. For him, it was artistically traumatizing,” said Khaleefa.
These stories would have a lasting impact on Khaleefa, for it instilled an interest in poetry and storytelling. When he was 15 years old, he discovered the spoken word artist “Black Ice,” who he said changed the way he saw spoken word and hip hop.
“I googled Black Ice and then I realized he was a spoken word artist, and he was featured multiple times on Def Poetry Jam. That led me to Def Poetry Jam and I absolutely fell in love with it. To me, spoken word artists were the coolest thing. That’s what I wanted to be. So I became it,” Hamdan said.
In grade 10, Hamdan would write his first poem for his crush on Valentine’s Day, who ended up throwing it out right in front of him.
Later that year, Hamdan’s older brother Kareem introduced him to Curtis “Masai” Nyarko, and the two would eventually form the rap duo “Poetic Elements”. It was here were Khaleefa became “Apollo the Child”.
“If it wasn’t for Masai, I wouldn’t have achieved anything that I have now. If he had not taken me under his wing, I wouldn’t have learned how to write or properly bar and learn how to structure a song. That would not have led to spoken word and would have led to nothing,” said Khaleefa.
Growing up, he described himself as someone who was always very shy. It was performing, combined with the encouragement from others, that Khaleefa said allowed him to develop a much more outspoken personality.
“He was one of those introverts,” said his older brother Kareem, aka “Livin Large”.
“When he first performed at the school talent show, I remember thinking that he’s got balls doing this. In front of the whole school? I wouldn’t do it,” said Kareem. “That’s insane. That’s a side of him that I didn’t think I would see.”
By 2012, Khaleefa had already made a name for himself in Ottawa’s spoken word scene. His talents led him to Saskatoon where he was part of a spoken word team that represented Ottawa in the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, his first of many national competitions.
He had his style down by 2013, describing it as a blend of traditional spoken word elements with hip hop elements.
Performing spoken word became part of his weekly routine. When he wasn’t busy performing, Khaleefa was jotting down lines for future poems or songs.
“I made my father happy and proud when he found out what I was doing,” he said.
In 2014, Khaleefa became the co-director of the Urban Legends Poetry Collective, a slam and spoken word organization in Ottawa that gives local poets a platform to perform. He recently launched a creative writing program called “Youth Speak”, which gives students the opportunity to develop their writing and performing skills.
“When I first started writing, it was because I wanted to be dope. But obviously perspectives change. Goals change,” said Khaleefa.
“I want to help grow the community. I’ve done a lot of good work.”
Having been the longest running director for Urban Legends, Khaleefa said that he wants to continue to offer a platform for emerging artists to grow.
“I’m glad that he’s doing stuff like this. He’s opening doors for other people,” said his brother Kareem.
“He’s giving them the motivation and he’s giving them the stuff they need to achieve whatever it is that they want. At the same time, he’s basically giving them avenues that he didn’t have.”