A fast and furious African generation of poets says goodbye to Shakespeare
Posted Thursday, November 12 2009 at 19:51
The venue bubbles with excitement from an expectant audience, and the electric performances do not disappoint. The artists explode with energy, setting the place ablaze with vivid vocals in their quest to lift the word from the page to the stage.
Now a cringe every time the sister sees the scissors/It’s like seizures seize her. Cost more than what she sees as Caesar’s/Trying to A-xel but the C’s just cease her.
These lines by ‘Number 8’, a popular performing poet in Nairobi, capture the eccentric nature of ‘slams’, gatherings to recite poetry either for fun or competition.
Unlike the classical poems of yesteryears promoted by former colonial powers in Africa, where conformity controlled creativity, slams promote spoken word, a relatively new style of performance poetry that gives the artist a license for unprecedented wordplay. This is where the voices meet the verses, either to extol virtues or to condemn vices.
The thrust and gust with which this is done resonates with the beat and heat of hip-hop. Hence it’s no surprise that many underground hip hop MCs have drawn influence from this art form, with Mos Def, Common and several artists from the famous Ukoo Flani Mau Mau clan having started in slam gigs on their way to fame.
“The sudden surge in spoken word events emanates from a cultural revolution where the African youth has realised the stage potential of poetry in satirising and articulating social issues,” says Samo Obanda, a Nairobi-based performing poet.
Although the ‘discovery’ of slam is credited to construction worker-cum-poet Marc Smith in a 1986 cameo at the Green Mill Jazz Club in Chicago, looking further back scholars have established that slam poetry has its roots in the ancient African tradition of the spoken word and story telling, and ‘dub’ poetry from the Caribbean. Today, slams have spread all over the world, landing back in Africa with a big bang in the early 2000s.
Since the bottom line of slam is to take poetry to the people, the audience is the judge and the poets write in the language of the streets.
“The spoken-word-political-activism-performance-art phenomenon we call slam poetry is a democratic and egalitarian effort to tear poetry down from its cold and academic pedestal and, through accessible language and the communicative power of performance put it in the hands of the public,” says Alix Olson, a spoken word artist.
However, some academic poets have challenged the authenticity of the spoken word, describing it as the “death of art” and a macho, masculine form of poetry suffering from lack of stylistic diversity.
Others have complained that it is the quality of the performance rather than the quality of the poetry that wins the day in slams, with the judgement being swayed more by the subject matter than the actual content. This is reinforced by the fact that a lot of spoken word artists shun these slams besides the ever-present debate about whether or not they add any value to the participating poets.
“Being a champion for me is not the foundational mark of success as a poet, my victory is in articulately and effectively speaking the word of God through poetry. So in slams focus should be on content rather than just winning titles,” says Dan ‘Number 8’ Mwangi, a former Slam Africa champion.
But despite the condemnation by the literati, several slammers and spoken word artists have gone on to publish popular books some of which are being studied in institutions of higher learning. Tony Mochama and Philo Ikonya in Kenya, Comrade Fatso from Zimbabwe, Veronique Tadjo from Ivory Coast, Bongani Mavuso and Mzwahe Mbuli from South Africa are just a few examples.
Attempts by academia to cross over to slam have been rare and most often futile. Henry Taylor, an academic poet and winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, competed in the 1997 US National Slam and was beaten to a distant 75th in a field of 150.
According to its exponents, the point of spoken word is to challenge the authority of anyone who pretends to have absolute knowledge of what poetry entails.
The genre, through its engaging performers, gives the audience the power to become part of every poem, which Bob Holman, a poetry activist and a slam-master, once called “the democratisation of verse”.
Imani Womeera, a veteran spoken word artist from Kenya and a co-founder of Slam Africa, says she “built the Slam Africa platform to nurture the spoken word movement on the African continent and bring healing through the vibrant art form”.