On a bright Sunday afternoon, Jamil Suleman walks through the doors of Columbia City’s Royal Room and people instantly turn toward him and exclaim, “Hey! Jesus!”
Suleman, dressed in a white robe and wine-red sash, looking exactly like the Son of God, smiles back and hugs a tableful of folks finishing up their lunch.
Moments like these have comprised much of Suleman’s recent experience. Ever since last year, the 32-year-old Seattle rapper and activist who identifies as a South Asian Muslim has dressed like Jesus, taking the name Josh (short for the Hebrew Yeshua) and popping up at charity events and demonstrations to spread a message of peace, love, unity and harmony amidst a rapidly changing political climate.
“The character produces a lot of positive energy,” says Suleman, who’s been vocal at recent #NoDAPL, #NoNewYouthJail and #BlockTheBunker protests, dressed as Josh. His remarks are less Sermon on the Mount and more “average Joe” comments he says “everyone can relate to.” Still, he says, the persona helps sell the message. “Folks who probably wouldn’t have liked me before, love me when I’m Jesus,” he says.
It’s virtually impossible not to notice Suleman as Jesus at a City Council meeting. And it’s practically just as impossible not to open up to him once you do. As such, Suleman is frequently flocked by kids and adults alike, wanting to know more about him and his message. “Everyone has a relationship with Jesus,” Suleman explains. “And usually it started when they were children.”
While Suleman admits his “social justice performance art” may come across humorous at times, there is also a great deal of risk involved for him each time he wears his outfit. He’s made supremely visible, a potentially polarizing figure, vulnerable in his thin cotton robe and sandals.
“I’m a symbol,” he says. “One of unconditional love. But I’m also a Muslim man dressed as Jesus in America. Of course I’m at risk. I come from an oppressed class, an oppressed culture. And, as Jesus, I can’t physically fight back.”
Suleman’s persona, however, didn’t begin via any divine inspiration. As fate would have it, the whole thing began by growing out his hair. “I read that many cultures thought your hair gives you power,” he explains, “that some think it’s an extension of your nervous system. So, I decided to grow mine out.”
Suleman now sports a dark, thick mane – and matching beard – that rolls behind his ears or ties in a ponytail elegantly. Later, he was gifted his celestial uniform and began reading up on the historical Jesus. All of his efforts culminated recently on Christmas for his first annual Josh Day Celebration, a community event that brought together cooks, artists, volunteers, local folks and those in need for a day of giving.
Josh Day took place at the Mount Baker Artists Lofts where Suleman and friends secured clothes, financial donations, musical performances, food and gift certificates for low-income and houseless folks to make the holiday a little warmer for hundreds in need.
“We invited the street community in,” says Suleman, “we gave everything we could and, in the end, they were the ones giving to us. One thing I’ve learned as Josh is that those who have the least are always the fastest to give way, if they have the opportunity. It’s amazing.”
And while the end of 2016 may have culminated in a day of giving, Suleman is not done with his work as Josh. In 2017, he hopes to throw an Easter event for the community and write a musical about what being “Jesus in Seattle” is like during an era of gentrification and political uprising.
“I want my work to point to all that needs to be done in the city,” Suleman says, “specifically all of the great organizing being done by women of color-led collectives in Seattle. They need to be centered in the story for social justice in our city. And we all need to work together. That’s what Jesus would do.”