Success: Wali Shah

Wali Shah says his male role models perpetuated toxic ideals of success and manhood, but he's here to change the status quo

Wali Shah Walrus Talks poster
Wali Shah - The Walrus Talks Success, September 20, 2018, in Toronto

Spoken word poet and recent graduate of the University of Toronto Wali Shah held the audience captive as he described the toxic masculinity he was exposed to as a child and his fervent ambition to change that for the next generation with his future children.

You can listen to Shah’s talk or read it below.

M name is Wali Shah and this is spoken word poetry.
To my future son, when I was a kid I was told that big boys don’t cry
That instead of expressing my emotions that I should lie,
Hide behind a mask to get by,
Conditioned to believe that I should be one of the tough guys and put on a tough disguise,
It’s not a surprise,
That innocence dies at the age of ten,
Or maybe it’s just that pop culture lies to us then,
Because we’ve got our eyes on a TV,
Mesmerized by the men who reinforce patriarchy and hyper-masculine trends,
I had friends who got bullied for wearing pink because in fourth grade, the colour of your shirt can make you stink,
And in twelfth grade, you were a little girl if you didn’t drink,
It’s sad the way society thinks.
My son, being a man doesn’t mean being aggressive,
You want big biceps, but a big heart is so much more impressive,
And honestly some of these bodybuilders are a little excessive,
And young kids wanting that makes me so sad,
Cause why would anyone want to be a balloon animal so bad.

Do you do it for them?
I hope that being better for you is part of the plan,

It’s ok son,
I’ve been there and I understand that growing up with the world against you isn’t a simple task,
Even Jim Carrey will tell you it’s easy to get by wearing masks.
Society and institutions make it so hard for kids growing who don’t know where to start,
Ask you the consequences of families who split and get torn apart,
So I won’t let my child give his mother a father’s day card.
We live in a world where rappers pay women to get naked in videos for more promo,
The intent is tapping that girl while double-tapping photos,
And sex makes a boy a man,
But gets a girl labelled a hoe though,
Boys can’t they say they love each other,
Unless it’s followed by “no homo.”
I want to teach my son if he argues with a woman,
He doesn’t have to raise his voice or raise his hand,
To treat a woman like he treats his daughter,
And learn respect as a man,
To love his mother through old age and do whatever he can,
But first, I need to ask myself, is that the man that I am?
To lead by example.
Because in this day and age, we get consumed by the tricks of the media’s sleeves,
Misguided by the information we receive,
Reality TV and the movies we see have become the basis for what we believe,
Unfortunate that power is used to mislead,
And the young don’t always understand the things they perceive,
So when you grow up and see this world firsthand,

I pray that you change it for the better however you can,
So that maybe one day your son will understand that love is the first step to being a man.

This poem was inspired by a boy, a boy who when he was three years old, came to Canada with his parents, and they had nothing but the clothes on their backs. As he grew up in Canada, at about twelve or thirteen years old, he fell in love with Hip Hop and rap music. And he still likes it to a fair degree to this day. His favourite rapper at that point was a guy named Soulja Boy. Soulja Boy was one of the big-time rappers, and this kid loved him, he loved the idea of being popular and cool, and what that success stood for for icons like Soulja Boy. Soulja Boy wore baggy jeans, backwards baseball hat, and a 5XL t-shirt that made him look like he had a dress on. The boy had to get that too, and he did. Because for him, icons like that, the way they behave, the way they dressed, the way they were, that was what success looked like. He had to emulate that.

Slowly and surely, by the time this boy was fifteen-years-old, his peer group changed, he was around negative friends, he started making negative life choices. He eventually closed himself up, culminating in his arrest. He was charged and handcuffed in front of his mom, thrown in a cruiser to 12 Division in Peel Police headquarters, where he spent the night behind bars. And this boy thought about where his life was going, he thought about the idea of success, the toxic masculinity that he had followed in the media, and society so often imposes and perpetuates through rap music, Hollywood films and so forth. When this boy came to the realization that he had the potential to change that, he told himself he would become an alternate icon to change the status quo. He was lucky because he had teachers that cared about him at the school he went to, he had social workers that supported him that gave him the love and encouragement that a young boy needed that he didn’t find in other young men or older men who perpetuated, again, a very toxic masculinity.

When this boy was in his final year of high school, February 2013, in the mail there was a letter that said University of Toronto, he opened up this letter, and it said that he had gotten accepted. This boy took that letter home to his mom, who was sitting on the couch watching Bollywood movies, drinking chai tea, and he said, “Mom, you’ve got to read this letter!”

She looked at him and she said, “Is that suspension letter?”

And he said, “No Mom, for real! I want you to read it”

Once she finished reading, she had these big tears in her eyes.

He said, “This is my small token of appreciation for you. For everything that you’ve done, for every sacrifice you’ve made coming to this country with nothing. Thank you for all that you’ve done.”

This boy now is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto, so believe me when I tell you, that the story is true, because the boy in this story is the man in front of you.

Wali Shah
Wali Shah is a Canadian speaker, poet, musician and philanthropist. He has spoken most prominently on topics including bullying, mental health and social change.