His impassioned rap, "Sikh Temple Shooting," moved many of the 500 worshippers to tears Sunday at the Spiritual Life Center's services at Sacramento City College.
Syed also performed at the state Capitol during a candlelight vigil Friday night. It touched on basic Sikh beliefs of tolerance and community service, as well as the magnitude of the tragedy when a 40-year-old white supremacist went on a rampage Aug. 5 at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, killing six people and himself.
The devils and the hate mongers are in the shadows lurking – but when we see each other as persons, goodness starts working ...
All I see in the Sikh community is the greatness of love, faces of love, still rising above.
Syed, 24, is a sociology graduate student at California State University, Sacramento. The son of Pakistani immigrants, he was born in Santa Clara. His family moved to Roseville when Syed was 10.
He attended Woodcreek High School, Silverado Middle School and Quail Glen Elementary School. In the rap he described what happened to him in his eighth-grade class after Sept. 11, 2001.
"The next day after the shooting bothered me alot, and brought up PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) memories I thought I had forgot."
As a Muslim and Pakistani American, Syed said, he empathizes with the pain Sikhs feel when they are attacked.
After 9/11, he wrote about being singled out in a rap entitled "Islam is P-e-a-c-e."
Went to class, opened the door, staring at me like I robbed a store … Sat down in my seat with a glare hard to beat … Kids all screaming 'They hit us at dawn, they hit us at dawn.'
Kid said 'Zaki's a terrorist,' punched him and I hadn't missed … But violence is never the way, I still had a lot to learn that day ...
The Rev. Michael Moran, who had invited Syed to perform that rap at the Spiritual Life Center, said Syed and other Muslim youths from the SALAM Islamic Center worked with church youths after 9/11 to spread peace and understanding.
Moran made Syed the centerpiece of Sunday's service featuring Dr. Gurtej Singh Cheema and four Sikh youths.
"Our practices are different, but our beliefs are identical," Moran said of Sikhism and his Christian congregation.
Cheema, clad in a saffron-colored turban, declared, "When you look for God within, not with empty rituals or outward dress, only then can you see God in others."
Then Syed took the stage and explained how Sikhs are often confused with Muslims, though their beliefs are quite different.
At high school in Roseville, "Sikh kids stepped in when I was about to get hurt and said, 'He's with us'."
One of his Sikh friend's fathers was beaten up on a bus for wearing a turban, Syed said. And another friend's grandfather was one of two Sikh elders slain while on their afternoon stroll through Elk Grove in March 2011.
"Not once did anybody blame me as a Muslim. They just protected me," he told the crowd. "Hope people can finally understand they're peaceful people, and what great friends they are."
Syed first began rapping after he was cut from his middle school basketball team. When he realized his raps inspired people and cut across race, age and religion, he rapped about 9/11, the struggles of South Asian kids caught between ancient traditions and American-style freedoms, and disasters such as a Pakistan earthquake, a Bangladesh flood and the tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011.
His words have moved people across racial and ethnic barriers.
"Zaki's an amazing young man," said Andy Noguchi of the Florin Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights advocacy group for people of Japanese descent.
"He came on our pilgrimage to the Manzanar internment camp a couple of years ago, performed for hundreds of people, and blew people away with his thoughts and feelings about events like this and civil rights."
Syed said his CD production team, Desi 916, includes several Sikhs.
The soft-spoken Syed roared like a lion once he took the microphone Sunday. He recalled the faces of the slain Sikh's family members.
I felt my anger rise as I thought about the daughter who would never get to hear her father's voice again …
I understood that racism was something to which we could both relate, so we promised each other we would do something great – one day teach the United States not to discriminate based on religion or race.
Sunday's crowd gave him a standing ovation.
"It made me search my soul, and question how I can change," said R.J. Bullen, 52.
"It opened me up," said Richard Mullock, 24. "We all feel the same way; we are all human beings and a reflection of God, regardless of pigment."
Jasmeet Kaur, a 16-year-old Sikh girl who also spoke Sunday, remarked: "Zaki was brilliant. He said he didn't have any money, but what he has, he gave it all."
Maybe Hasan Ali, Ibrahim Ali and UMNO could learn a thing or two from Zaki Syed about caring for one another in a society we live in, and who knows, our country may still be a wonderful place to live in.