“After this, he knew his record would never be gone,
And worst of all they cuffed him right in front of his mom,
They threw him in the back, as his mother’s eyes filled with tears,
He spent that night behind bars,
And crushed his fantasy of having money and fast cars”
Wali (Flo) Shah, 20
Two poignant and powerful moments in Wali Shah’s life put it into context.
Wali was voted one of Canada’s 20 under 20 in 2014, but before he reached there, he journeyed through some pretty rough waters.
He hit rock bottom five years ago when cops showed up at his doorstep and slapped him with multiple assault charges. Just as he was being escorted out of the building, the troubled teen noticed his mother—who had stepped out for some errands earlier— enter the lobby. As she took in the scene, a look of utter dejection crossed her face and seconds later her eyes filled with tears.
“Even now when I think about it, it’s hard to comprehend that I put my family and myself through that,” he said.
At the time of the arrest, Wali was a rebel and a hotheaded kid that was part of a local gang. He routinely got into scraps with the law. After he was hauled away, he spent the night in the slammer where in solitude, shame and confusion, he decided to turn his life around.
“I was 15 when I was arrested,” he said. “I spent the night in jail, alone and cold. It was a wake-up call. I realized I was trying to be someone I was not. The whole night, I was haunted by the look on my mother’s face.”
Fast-forward to February 2013: As Wali pulls out a stack of unopened mail from the very lobby where he did the prep walk years before, he notices an envelope from University of Toronto. It turns out to be an acceptance letter.
He can’t wait to tell the news to his ammi (Mom) who he discovers is feeling under the weather that day. But, one look at her son’s flushed face, ammi’s concerns — and old fears — surface, “Oh, Wali, what trouble have you gotten into, now?”
Ammi somehow gets busy and couple of hours later, she summons Wali and demands to know the cause of his earlier agitation.
“She starts reading the letter and by the time she’s finished, she has tears in her eyes,” Wali said adding his mother’s tears have the power to create a seismic effect on his own emotions. “That was the most powerful moment in my life because my mom has always been so keen on me having an education and becoming a better person. The letter was finally something tangible that I could show her…”
The poignant moment did not end there.
“I then thanked her for all the days she struggled in this country to give me and my siblings a better education, life and opportunities,” he said. “I told her the letter was a small testament of the new me.”
Wali, 20, is a spoken word/rap artist with an album, Rhythm & Poetry, under his belt. His video, King of the Castle, which highlighted issues of bullying and violence in schools, garnered more than 70,000 views when it was released a couple of years ago. He’s also a second-year student at U of T, Mississauga.
Most people assume poverty does not exist in an affluent country like Canada. But, for many immigrants that end up in low paying and transient jobs because their foreign credentials are unrecognized, poverty is real. Wali’s family was one of them. As a child, he remembers eating cereal without the milk and being hungry all the time.
“We struggled a lot and there were a lot of tough days,” he said. “I didn’t really know where I fit in. I wanted to be a cool and popular kid that people respected. There was a whole phase where I didn’t know where I belonged. So, eventually I started leaning more towards the not-so-nice peer group in school.”
His parents tried to knock some sense into him, but as he became swept in a powerful current, Wali became immune to common sense.
The night in the lock-up delivered a much-needed dose of reality. He began to hit the books and was soon rewarded with good grades. Then, slowly other piece fell into the place. The angry young man found his voice— and his place — and graduated high school with decent grades.
Through the transformative power of his music and spoken word, Wali began to reach out to others in the community. He became an ambassador for United Way of Peel Region and began sharing his life lessons with other at-risk youth.
“As I started shaping my life, I wanted my music to represent something positive,” he said. “I wanted something that would have an impact. So, in my last year of high school, I made King of the Castle, which was about anti-bullying. Tens of thousands of people have since watched the video.”
MTV Canada featured the video at We Day in Toronto and Wali’s chest puffed in pride when Selena Gomez introduced the segment.
“The video is testament that if you believe in the right things, people will support it and it will spread,” Wali said. “You can use music or whatever your art form is for a good cause.”