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A fast and furious African generation of poets says goodbye to Shakespeare

Thursday November 12 2009

Grandmaster Masese,right, plays the Obokano during a past performance of the unique poetry show, Cut off my Tongue. FILE

Grandmaster Masese,right, plays the Obokano during a past performance of the unique poetry show, Cut off my Tongue. FILE 

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.

Published books

“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”.

And if the numerous slams and open mic forums that have been taking place across the continent in the past one week is anything to go by, then spoken word is the new mode of self-expression for the African youth after hip-hop.

Besides Kwani? Open Mic that takes place every first Tuesday of the month at Nairobi’s Club Soundd, the Ignite Poets is launching their inaugural show in Kenya at Alliance Française.

“People have often told me violent action speaks louder than words of peace. However, I do know words of peace have united two poets from two vastly different countries for a conscious cause,” says Sheniz Janmohammed, president and founder of Ignite Poets, who jetted in from Toronto, Canada, to witness the launch.

These events coincided with the 13th Poetry Africa festivals, held from October 5 - 10 in Durban. Hosted by KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts, the carnival has lived up to its billing so far by igniting Durban with a week of words, rhymes, performances and ideas presented in the trademark eclectic mix of poetic voices, styles, forms and cultures from all over the continent.

Hot bed of spoken word

Among those who graced the stage were Nina Kibuanda (DRC), Susan Kiguli (Uganda), Odia Ofeimun (Nigeria) Tania Tome (Mozambique), Outspoken (Zimbabwe), Chigo Gondwe (Malawi), and Mogane Wally Serote and Lesego Rampolokeng (South Africa). Kenya, a hotbed of spoken word poetry, was a notable absentee at this continental gathering.

Across the border in Harare, where food and freedom of expression are scarcer than sanity in a market place, spoken word has ignited unprecedented sparks of excitement and creativity across the minds of the Zimbabwean youth. The inspired wordsmiths have been congregating every month for the past four years in a downtown Harare joint called Book Café for the House of Hunger Poetry Slam to protest in vocal verses against what they call a socially “sinking and stinking society”.

The word Zimbabwe in Shona means a burial place for the gods, but these gods seem to have been buried in very shallow graves because the country’s artists are bringing them back to haunt the political class through the flames of cutting edge protest poetry.
This is summarised by the words of Tafadzwa Muzondo, a budding poet from one of Harare’s ghettos:

Political mafia in national regalia/Economic raid in the pretext of aid/Egocentric leaders hovering over patriotic readers...

Spoken word is the new vehicle for spreading hope, perseverance and optimism to many with the House of Hunger Poetry Slam establishing outreach programmes in other cities like Bulawayo, Masvingo and Chinhoyi.

“Poetry is a gentle, healing, soulful commitment, one that seeks to transport us from pain to a serene world. A world that exists in our minds, and by its gentle inspiration, our lives has renewed hope,” says Victor Mavedzenge, a renowned Zimbabwean artist and a founder member of House of Hunger Poetry Slam.

Unlike their counterparts in Kenya who enjoy the slams in posh restaurants and joints while gorging on sumptuous meals and sipping soft drinks and beers, most attendants in Book Café are jobless youths sitting at empty tables nursing hunger and bracing for an uncertain tomorrow.
Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC might have lost the battle on the political front, but these ragtag artists are keeping the flames blazing through defiant verses, symbolised by sadistic stage names like Police State, Skeleton, Guerrilla Poet and Gatlin 45.

“I think it captures the gritty hope that there has to be for those who are hustling and struggling to get by,” says Comrade Fatso on his poem Streets.

“It’s an advisory voice from the streets saying that as the youth, with 80 per cent unemployment, we will win in the end because we’re in the majority and they are in the minority.”

Growing from poetic dynamism triggered by performances at the annual Harare International Festival of the Arts and encouragement from French artist Pilot le Hot, the slam takes its name from Dambudzo Marechera’s classic book, The House of Hunger. The book is a recount of the famous author’s painful experience growing up in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia.

But the founders of the poetry slam have given the title a new resonance, alluding to the whole nation as the house of hunger, where all but a privileged few feel the effects of the country’s economic crisis.

Runaway inflation has adversely affected the country’s book industry, which makes the chances of a young writer being published very slim, hence performance in live events is the only platform through which they can be heard.

Although some poets, in understandable fear of retribution from the brutal regime, prefer to live far from the edge by coming up with general poems, Comrade Fatso, born Samm Farai Munro, believes there is no reason for artists to be timid.

“Obviously the regime can’t control everything that happens,” he says. “The slam is a space for rebellious free creation.

It provides a platform where the youth can be openly political and rebellious without being necessarily connected to any political party”.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.