Griot uses stories to inspire youth and preserve culture

MOORESTOWN, N.J. (AP) - Sitting in the bright living room area of the Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown, Karen "Queen Nur" Abdul-Malik's face lights up and her eyes dance around when she talks about storytelling and her artistry.

Abdul-Malik is an international storyteller and teaching artist. She travels around the country and sometimes around the world telling stories. She's been to Canada and Ghana on storytelling trips, and does about 170 storytelling appearances and events each year.

"It's my passion, it's my mission," said Abdul-Malik, who has performed in 38 states. "The one thing that I don't have to think about is what my purpose is. Between the storytelling and tradition keeping and helping people to understand the value of their tradition.

"And even in tradition keeping, even in folklore and folk arts, how does that come to be known? Through story. The story has to be told and the story has to be passed on," she told the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill (http://on.cpsj.com/2x681d7 ).

The longtime Willingboro resident is also the director of the Folklife Center for Perkins Center for the Arts, which has locations in Moorestown and Collingswood. She's had that part-time position since November but has worked with Perkins as a teaching artist for about two decades.

"I've been an artist since I was 9 years old," the 59-year-old said. "My father used to record me - I used to write poetry - and he used to record me to jazz. So my father was my first producer, so I've been an artist, I guess, all of my life.

"Even in high school, I used to recite poetry. Between that, between being an artist. And my father steeped us in black history and the precedence of always looking for the African precedent. When we did reports, and I went to Catholic school, when we did reports I always had to research on African Americans and some part of our history."

Those combinations of passions led her to her life's work.

While she's lived in Willingboro for about 30 years, Abdul-Malik is a Philadelphia native. Her family moved to the Pennsylvania suburbs when she was 9. She attended Abington High School, then graduated from Northeastern University in Boston with a degree in criminal justice.

She selected her major, because she believed she wanted to work with juveniles. She has, just in a different way.

"It ends up that this gift is the way that I deal with children," said Abdul-Malik, who received a certificate in dispute resolution from Harvard Law School. "I've been able to work with children that are challenged . I've been able to do that through storytelling, through my work and through workshopping."

It was at Northeastern that she met her husband Karl Abdul-Malik. When he passed away in 1992 after a collision with a truck while on the job as a juvenile detention officer, Abdul-Malik was left with three children, ages 2, 5 and 10.

She became a professional storyteller after her husband passed. One of her children was in preschool and she went to teach them about Kwanzaa.

"I said one of the things you do is tell stories and share stories and I shared one of my husband's favorite stories, 'Abiyoyo,' " said Abdul-Malik, the founder of Willingboro Kwanzaa Fest. "They asked me to come back the next day. They couldn't find the book. I said, 'I think I can do it by heart.' I then went to my son's kindergarten class and told it there. Two kindergarten teachers said, 'You really ought to do this as a profession.' "

The rest is history.

Abdul-Malik, who performs under the moniker Queen Nur, has shared her stories at such places as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Equity Theater on Broadway in New York to just about everywhere in between.

She has been the recipient of Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation's Artist as Catalyst grant for her work with at-risk teens and women's shelters. She also received the National Storytelling Brimstone Grant for her innovative community-based programs.

Abdul-Malik has even released two CDs, "Sweet Potato Pie and Such" and "Live and Storified."

Karen 'Queen Nur' Abdul-Malik displays one of the dolls inside the Dolls of Distinction Exhibition at the Smithville Mansion in Eastampton recently. Queen Nur is a storyteller and teaching artist, who resides in Willingboro. She is also the director of the Folklife Center at Perkins Center for the Arts.

Her children, daughter Coniqua, 35, son Nile, 30, and daughter Sarai, 27, have blossomed. Her eldest works with nonprofits, her son is in the Army and her youngest is an artist and singer, who has done storytelling with her mother. Both of her daughters are mothers.

"Being a single mother of three was probably extremely difficult for my mother," Nile said. "Through her stories also comes life lessons. I was exposed to other storytellers who became extended family. I was coached and mentored about struggles and challenges I might face when growing up and also to be proud and to love my culture. I'm very proud of what my mom accomplished in her career."

"Raising my children is part of my story," said Abdul-Malik, who also has four grandchildren.

The international storyteller and Willingboro resident performed at an event called BYO-Bra held at Perkins Center for the Arts. The night benefited a local nonprofit called Distributing Dignity. The Courier-Post and Perkins helped put the event on. Celeste E. Whittaker/Staff Photographer

She practices the African tradition of "Jaliya" in her storytelling, which she says is about passing on the stories, but also passing on the morals and values, telling a story with a need and telling stories that effect change.

She performed several years in a row at a camp in Maryland for children whose family members died from suicide. That's an example of Jaliya, she said.

Another example of Jaliya with her storytelling, she said, occurred soon after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005. She had performed at 72 schools in New Orleans two years before and was scheduled to go back in 2005, but the deadly hurricane hit.

She was performing at a conference in Miami a few months after the tragedy and worked with a drummer from New Orleans. He shared video with her of people telling their stories and he told her his story, and then she heard other stories.

"I put those stories together and I started by doing some research on levees," she said. "And I started with the men working on the levees, then went into telling the stories. It was riveting in terms of, you could see the response. The audience was tearful and crying but then they stood up. It touched the hearts. It was so fresh. This is in November and that happened in August. That's Jaliya.

"Storytelling can be a healing art. Besides being a performing art and carrying on family tradition, it helps to heal. And right now, Jaliya, the stories that we need to tell and share as well has to do with the healing that needs to be going on right here in the United States."

Abdul-Malik never sits still but her pursuits are all tied together with one theme.

She also has a nonprofit called In FACT, Inc., which is a "cultural sustainability organization" whose mission is to "preserve and perpetuate folk like traditions and use those traditions to sustain communities and effect social change." Her nonprofit is presenting a "Dolls of Distinction" exhibition through Sept. 17 at the Worker's House & Gallery at the Smithville Mansion in Eastampton, featuring hundreds of black collectible dolls.

Abdul-Malik said she loves being the director of the Folklife Center, which has been "identifying and documenting cultural traditions in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties for the past several years".

"What we do is we look at the folk arts and the folk artists," said Abdul-Malik, who received her masters in arts in cultural sustainability for Goucher College. "One of the first things we do is field work. I go and find the folk artists, who make traditional arts and it might've been passed down through generations, locating them."

Abdul-Malik has been doing research and field work for the next exhibition by the Folklife Center next year called "Tastefully South Jersey" which is on food arts and folklore on the arts of food.

Perkins Center for the Arts Executive Director Karen Chigounis said they are fortunate to have her on staff as the director of the Folklife programs.

"Queen Nur has been a critical part of Perkins Center for the Arts education outreach for nearly 20 years," Chigounis said. "As a nationally recognized storyteller her ability to connect individuals and communities with story and performance has been magical to experience. Her graduate work (and degree) in cultural sustainability has deepened her capacity to address diversity and difference through her art form, engaging hearts and opening minds in the process."

At the National Storytelling Network conference June 29-July 2 in Kansas City, Missouri, Abdul-Malik taught an all-day Master Class to storytellers from all over the world called "Everybody Comes From Somewhere: Designing Storytelling & Civic Engagement Residencies." She said "Everybody Comes from Somewhere" is a Perkins Center for the Arts Folk Arts & Civic Engagement model.

"The breadth of fieldwork and activities of the Folklife Center helps us recognize and celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of the tri-county area," Abdul-Malik said.

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Online: http://on.cpsj.com/2x681d7

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Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/