Malik speaking at St Catharine's CollegeTobia Nava

Malik Al Nasir speaks with an unadulterated passion about spoken-word legend Gil Scott-Heron. It is clear, from both his recollections of the man, as well as his own poetry, how inspired he was — and remains to be, by everything that he stood for. Hearing his poetry echo around the walls of the McGrath Centre, located inside St Catharine’s College, there’s an added sense of gravity to Malik’s words, which explore themes of power, struggle, and justice in a deeply personal and authentic way. As receivers of his storytelling and art, we are left with the impression of an utterly remarkable life having emerged from the most challenging of circumstances. Malik’s life story is one of resilience, resistance, and reflection — three themes that somewhat summarise his new memoir Letters to Gil.

The cover of Malik Al Nasir's memoir 'Letters to Gil'HARPER COLLINS

Malik acknowledges that he is perhaps best known for his revelatory article Gil Scott-Heron Saved my Life, and cites its publication as the turning point in his writing career. Despite the personal importance of the article in publishing his work and aiding this career, he expresses pride in being able to portray a side to Scott-Heron that was previously uncovered; the impact which the poet had on all parts of his life are illustrated, through his words and his writing, to be immeasurable. Through a spiritual collage of video clips, photographs, and stories, Malik details his startling encounter with the poet, demonstrating just how literal the title of the Guardian article was. A victim of Liverpool Council’s corrupt care system in the 1970s, Malik was left traumatised and abandoned by the state, with little to no education, and comparably low literacy. But by a chance encounter, and a wealth of kindness, he was taken off the streets and put on planes taking him around the world, learning how to read and write as well as how to survive in an unjust world — and how to reconcile that with his past. This was all achieved through the previously untold mentorship of Gil Scott-Heron.

“As receivers of his storytelling and art, we are left with the impression of an utterly remarkable life”

There’s a twinned motivation behind Malik’s memoir. One side, naturally, is to give space and praise to this giant of the poetic world, but the other is to highlight a darker, yet just as obscured, truth about his experience in the care system. The pain which filter’s Malik’s voice is palpable, and there’s an audial silence which covers the audience as he discusses the inhumane treatment of himself, alongside countless other children, which was suffered at the hands of institutions which were meant to safeguard and provide for him. Instead, he found himself serving the state — performing unpaid labour amounting to slavery — and lacking the typical tools which children would use to express themselves. The most important one, he discovered later, was a voice, something he utterly lacked, and worked relentlessly in his young adulthood to reclaim through poetry, music and reading. He is able to reclaim some of that power through spoken-word, which he performs with his band Malik & the OGs, as well as on an individual basis. Performing his poem ‘Power’, it was clear that Malik has used his pain and wielded it as a form of reclaiming justice, which he has also, fantastically, achieved through legal means — securing an official apology from Liverpool’s Lord Mayor.

Malik in conversation with Mary Simuyandi Tobia Nava

The accessibility of a voice, and the chance to learn, is therefore something that Malik is hyper-conscious of, and he discusses the importance of reforming institutions such as education and the care system. His own personal transformation from street-kid to PhD student made him realise the essentiality of potential, and now he advocates for the many children and people in similar circumstances whose talents are neglected, whose interests aren’t nurtured. The importance of opportunity, Malik argues, cannot be overlooked. With Gil Scott-Heron’s guidance, and his own perseverance, Malik was able to explore his own literary and historical interests, culminating in some amazing research on his ancestry and links to the slave trade, and gaining him several degrees, a place at the University of Cambridge, and a two-book deal with Harper Collins. He contrasts these achievements to the place he was in before meeting Gil Scott-Heron, and mourns for those who were not as fortunate as him. He tells us how he wants his audiences to be filled with the elite — company executives, policy-shapers, politicians, leading academics, so his impact can filter down to those in the highest echelons of power. He wants to avoid his voice being lost again, and to amplify the millions of voices from underrepresented backgrounds, so like him, they can have the chance to succeed and inspire others in the same vein that Gil Scott-Heron was able to inspire and support him.


Mountain View

“Totems of Power”: The Colston Statue Exhibit

Varsity were kindly invited by St Catharine’s college to see Malik speak, perform his poetry, and discuss his life story on Saturday the 24th of October as part of their programme for Black History Month. You can find out more about Malik Al Nasir’s book, background, and relationship to Cambridge at ’Letters to Gil’, Malik Al Nasir’s memoir, can be purchased here and his blog can be found at