SAFIYYAH AMINA MUHAMMAD
Safiyyah Amina Muhammad was born in Harlem, in 1969 to Gloria and Gilbert Muhammad. She was raised between Newark and East Orange, New Jersey; where she currently resides. Safiyyah’s paternal grandfather was a self-taught Jazz musician in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Safiyyah attributes much of her inherent enthusiasm for Jazz music to this fact. Safiyyah was also highly influenced by her mother’s extensive collection of musical greats such as Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, Etta Jones, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Shirley Caesar, Bobby Womack, Bobby Blue Bland, The O’ Jays, Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin and many of the Motown greats and Philadelphia sounds of the 70’s. It was the original and playful lyrics of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band that invited Safiyyah to test the art of writing songs and poetry.
“I used to write poetry and songs all the time in my youth, I even co-founded an all girls rap group and, believe it or not, I used to break-dance. But as I got older, my interests had shifted”, states Safiyyah of why she decided to unlock her self-proclaimed “Briefcase of Verse” ©, which she plans to publish and record later this year. Safiyyah’s voice is like poetry in motion and her poetry is as soothing as it is powerful! Safiyyah’s first effort at reciting in public was what she proclaims to be “sweaty palms” moment when she read before Miguel Algarin of Nuyorican Poets Café and Amiri Baraka. Encouraged by Miguel’s positive words, she began featuring at the Jordan’s Red Carpet Restaurant in Roselle, New Jersey.
Safiyyah says that, as of four years ago, writing poetry became a therapeutic retreat to compliment her hectic lifestyle. “I believe that Sufyaan’s love of jazz is also inherent. Jazz delivers the synchronicity, syncopation and dissonance in its musical expression that often captures what’s going on inside the mind. It’s melodic and pragmatic all at once. I believe this is characteristic of Jazz music, Autism, even Attention Deficit Disorder; the latter of which I have been striving to live with. There’s so much going on that it’s not. A mind in a confused state is like having internal comping with your psyche. Each instrument represents a different thought, a different scope; a different point of view. It begins so serene and subtle, but like MY thoughts, the melodies all take on a life of their own. The syncopation of the bass line, the percussion and the melodic instrumentation is like fluctuating feelings. My chest gets tight and my throat begins to close. I read the same reaction as I study my son. Jazz music is so deliciously invasive. The music jumps inside of the body to define the mind. We’re consumed by Jazz.” Safiyyah admits that the only instrument that she plays is the violin, “But in my mind I have a mean Johnson stride”, she says jokingly.
Safiyyah has been married for eleven years to her best friend and has five dynamic children ages 21, 11, 9, 8, and 4; four boys and one girl. Her eldest son is expecting his first child in August, which will add more excitement to Safiyyah’s already eventful life. One of the main facts that make her life so busy is raising a child with special needs. Safiyyah’s nine year old son, Sufyaan, has Autism. “It was a lonely struggle trying to figure out why my son was different and what that difference was”, she stated, “I couldn’t defeat this challenge until I knew what the challenge was”.
Once Safiyyah began advocating for the rights of her son and challenging the status quo in decisions regarding his care, it was evident that advocacy was her calling. She began by learning everything about Autism Spectrum Disorder and the options that are available in obtaining treatment and educating herself and her child. By age three, Safiyyah was taking Sufyaan to Speech therapy sessions on one side of town, sending him to school in the Preschool Disabled program in her public school district and juggling maintaining and supporting a family both inside and outside of her home. Safiyyah is the oldest of 7 and maintains a matriarchal relationship with her relatives both in New York and New Jersey and the in the South.
As an African-American Muslim woman, Safiyyah has always been aware of the biases and prejudices that exist in society, however, having a child with a developmental disability opened up a whole new world that Safiyyah did not expect. Her Islamic upbringing and strong spiritual influence of her grandmother has led her to declare that “if you’re a true follower of your faith, who YOU ARE should define how you deal with who I AM”. She soon found that this compassion for others was not shared in every venue she and her son were exposed to and this eventually led to her crusade for justice for people with disabilities and the disparities that are apparent in today’s public school systems. She began volunteering in her children’s classrooms by providing their teachers with a support network and chaperoning school trips. Consequently, she was elected to the Parent Teacher Organization. Safiyyah has worked diligently with parents, school staff and administrators and students in addressing concerns within public schools for children who receive mainstream and Special Education instruction. “I’d like to know that if I present a problem, I equally present a viable solution, or at least, I’d like to help in finding resources that lead to a solution”.
Following in the footsteps of their talented mother, Safiyyah’s oldest son Bashir has played the guitar, saxophone and writes poetry and songs. Her daughter Aatikah is an aspiring singer-songwriter and has already written seven songs. The second oldest, Abdul-Salaam, has written a 3-part comic book series and aspires to complete an animated series and video game.
Safiyyah says; “Like Loretta Claiborne, I would love to one day see Sufyaan take the world by storm displaying his athletic prowess in the Special Olympics World Games. I know he can do it. He’s determined, he has support and he’s loved and with that love that we feel for him, if he wanted to touch the moon, he could.”
Safiyyah’s advice to other parents of children with disabilities is that early intervention is the most important aspect of addressing differences in your child that concern you. “Seek advice from a professional but don’t limit yourself to the diagnosis of one. Many medical professionals have not yet unlocked the mystery of Autism and they may ignore something that could be crucial to your child’s success in treatment. Support legislation that promotes better means of connecting with the community of individuals who have or are affected by disabilities. Knowledge is the key to understanding. If you don’t know someone who is affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder; chances are YOU WILL”.