After a decade of slam poetry in Kenya, the flame seems to be losing vigour as older poets disappear into the buzz of the town while chasing the ever-elusive jobs. The remaining few grasps with harsh economic reality and fewer audience to blow inspiration to the younger mentees who come bathed in stage nervousness and weak lines.
“For slam poetry to grow in Kenya, there is a need for collaboration among the existing poets and the new ones. We need both moral and material support from our very own before we can solicit help from outside.” Ian Gwagi, Cre8ive Spills director.
The lights dim in the small Goethe Institut auditorium in Nairobi. The audience, having waited impatiently look at the grim figure on the stage- tension builds up. Gufy; the MC adjusts the mic and says something funny: dry giggles. The figure on the stage now shifts the weight from one leg to the other, moves near the mic and clears her voice. Words ricochet on the walls as she solemnly appeals to the judges who sit mute observing the stage the way a disinterested dog looks at a dry bone. She leaves the stage to the applause of the audience led by Gufy. The MC takes the stage again, he bellows in the microphone dishing cleverly coined puns before ushering in another contender. This time a guy with rumors of beards on the face- the chest thrown forward like Johnny bravo; he exudes confidence.
One by one, nine contenders will come to this stage, some succumb to the heat and stare of audiences in the dark and forget words- while others make it impress the audience who respond with snaps and shrieks. Sheng (Slang) poets especially come packed with witty wordplay and deeply engaging lines which meander into the horizons carrying the audience with them. However, despite their witty humour and clever puns, they rarely make it to the top.
“I have seen great Sheng poets on this stage before whose poetry is well packaged beyond the scrutiny of the judges.” Ian Gwagi Slam poetry director says. “This is a beautifully packaged piece but the poet has concentrated more on flowery language than the intended message,” he adds commenting on the just concluded piece that was at home with the audience. He goes ahead to mention great Kenyan poets who perform in slang otherwise Sheng like Teardrops, Gcho Pevu and Virusi Mbaya- poets whose work he believes younger poets should aspire to emulate.
It is Saturday evening June 8, 2019, and Ian and I are sitting on the bench behind the auditorium watching the events unfold before on the stage. As Ian talks about poetry performance, I remember the conversation I had with one of the Judges Kevin Orato. Orato gave me a judge’s perspective of what they look for in the performance. Apart from the stage presence, voice projection and engaging the audience, the judges look at the content of the poem, how it is packaged and delivered. “Some poets have good poems but it tends to leave out the main message,” Orato said. According to the judges, many poets concentrate on structure and language as opposed to theme, tone and mood which tend to carry the day. In some cases though, the participants come equipped with a theme packed poem that lacks structure and the flowery language that has become the bane of performance poetry.
Judge Orato said the judging does not begin on the evening of the performance. It begins after the submission of the pieces by the participants. According to the organisers, the calendar for slam preliminaries is released early enough providing for entry submission, shortlisting of participants who will be contacted and meeting of participants to gauge whether they are capable of performing. Prospective candidates can submit pieces in word/pdf/audio or video. “We meet prospective participants in different venues including cafes,” Orato added. Apart from judging, the judges would throughout the competition identify the participants’ weaknesses and advise them accordingly. It is through this rigorous training that makes some poets shine on the stage after several attempts.
Talking about the participants, as I observed, it takes several attempts to make it to the top of Slam poetry in Kenya. For example, last year’s winner Yours Truly (Kimathi Kaumbutho) was the first Runner’s up in the 2017 Slam Poetry feat and this year, we have seen last year’s Sheng poet who flanked in the final Ellie Poet qualify to the finals to be held somewhere beyond September. Another poet, Ranx (Joel Mbuvi) would come top at the just concluded 2nd preliminary rounds.
Ranx participated for the first time during this year’s first preliminary round. After the initial shock, the Machakos based poet came armed to teeth with wit and charm that left the audience in stitches and the Judge’s squirming in their chairs. “To the slam judge who says I am giving him too much details… here is my response: screw you,” Ranx said to the applause of the audience as he began his piece. This was the first time a poet took on the judges and he didn’t disappoint, the judges swallowed their pride and Ranx would be declared the winner of the June preliminaries.
Kenyan Slam poets are indeed top of the cream. Despite reticence from the judges, the young minds come bearing vim and verb and powerful quotations that reflect what makes the society. On commenting about what goes down in the news a poet observed, “The truth wasn’t in what we were told. It was in what was omitted.” While another poet lamenting the extrajudicial killings said, “Our blood is sacred but not sacred enough to be passed in glasses.”
Such powerful lines go beyond critiquing society to set the mood of the entire show. During the first preliminary on 23rd March, the participants created a sombre/defiance mood with their delivery. As it were, the message evasively caressed death in its pun intended meaning. Ellie poet said, “They say life is a game but I’d rather play dead.” Sun, a Japanese-Kenyan participant, on the other hand, observed that; “Life is cheap but death is free.” Poetry has been a tool of defiance over totalitarian laws and regimes. It has also played well as a song of the oppressed- a situation that has made it a tool for Kenyan youth who forever find solace in the bosom of poetic words. Ellie poet edged out eight contenders to emerge the first qualifier for the 2019 Grand Slam Championship.
Even though poetry continues to thrive in this East African country, its well-intended aim of emancipating the masses from ignorance has not been achieved by the organisers. Under the leadership of cre8ive Spills, this art seems to blossom and dwindle like a star. Ian Gwagi observes that the reason as to why this performance art behaves like Beltaguesse Star of the Orion Constellation is because many of the poets who previously participated disappear into the rat race leaving no personnel to run or contribute towards bettering the poetry industry in the country. Out of the over 60 poetry Slam Kings and queens, only a few have actively remained in the performance industry. “Poets do not find support from fellow poets,” Ian said. Ian believes that the industry can survive if all current and former poets came together and worked toward bettering the performance art movement. Two months ago, Kenya’s leading beatbox, rapper and spoken word Act Flow Flani officially announced his retirement from the industry he had dedicated over a decade of his time. This painful outcome, Ian observed is due to the lack of the essential support that comes from a united group.