The country’s premier poetry event was hosted for the first time at the headquarters of Kenya’s culture ushering in the ten decades of poetry slam existence in the East African Country.
Poetry Slam Africa began its maiden journey in Kenya ten years ago at Daas The
Ethiopian Restaurant in Westlands, no one imagined how far the journey would
take before the show was hosted at The Kenya National Theatre. The gathered
crowd in the theatre waited calmly for the magical words; “We are finally
home!” but no one was ready to say them. No one even noticed that the Kenya
National Theatre was under the auspices of Kenya Cultural Centre and that this
‘alien’ culture was now officially declaring itself as part of Kenyan cultural
fabric. But as is the custom, all that would follow would be punch lines from
the contestants and snaps and shrieks of excitement from the audience. Little
did they pay attention to this sweet victory, a victory that would usher in a
new decade of Kenyan poetry.
it was a sweet victory for Kenyan slammers to be hosted at the headquarters of
Kenyan culture or not, it is only time that would tell. But Saturday January 19
would go down in history as the day Kenyan Slammers brought home the show that
has seen better days in foreign purviews. First at the Ethiopian Restaurant,
then a minor detour at Pawa 254- an art hub at the heart of Nairobi then the
Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institut. In all its existence, the country’s
premier poetry showcase has steered clear from the Kenya’s mother of all
cultural performances- the National Theatre.
refurbished but still oozing the colonial designs, the Theatre would give birth
to the 62nd Slam King in a colorful competitive event. Yours Truly
(Kimathi Kaumbutho) emerged with his voice unscathed, as the winner from a
heavily competitive fete closely followed by Abe Rogato and Artieno. The
three-round competition saw eight participants go toe to toe for the coveted title.
However, by the third round it was clear that Abe Rogato, Yours Truly and
Artieno were both the judges’ and the Audience’s favorite based on the applause
and the snaps that made the air their temporary home.
and Njeri wa Migwi the MCs of the day would seem to enjoy the Judges
trepidation as they crunched the numbers. The judges’ bench made up of Kenya’s
top Poets Mufasa and Dorphan, Nana Poet and the invisible yet critical Kevin
Orato would seem heavily engrossed in the assessment that looked for among
other things, the stage presence, dramatic appropriateness, and voice
projection to determine who made it to the top. Determining the winner was like
looking at the other side of the best, but with their witticism and diligence,
they settled on one Yours Truly.
his victory remarks, Yours Truly thanked the audience for their incessant
applause. And prophesied a future where slam poetry would not just be a thing
of the select few but a movement of crowd hungry spectators who want to devour
the creative ooze of poetry that soothes the soul. His words were echoed by Abe
Rogato and Artieno as they cherished the moment none hoped would enjoy.
its ten years of existence in Kenya. Poetry Slam Africa has evolved from a
group thing enjoyed by few people to a movement. There are poets who have
created a trend that enjoys a huge following. They have become the pacesetters
of the spoken word. Such poets include Teardrops- known for his sheng poems
laced with singing games, Mufasa- a prolific English poet, Ngartia- well known
for his puns, Dorphan- a Swahili poet and Gufy among others. As the pack of
poets grows, there has been a shift from Sheng spoken word to English. Sheng
(Kenyan urban slang) has been the medium of entertainment in the East African country
for over two decades now. Popular musicians like the late E-sir, Jua Kali,
Johnny Vigeti, Khaligraph Jones and King Kaka are known for their lyrical
prowess in Sheng. Teardrops and Gcho Pevu-popular sheng poets are worried about
the new trend where English poets are trouncing their sheng counterparts.
year there was only one Sheng poet Ellie poet and he was humbled by English
poets in the first round of the Grand slam. In 2017, Kikete F.M would reign
supreme with a trio of well-crafted English spoken Word Pieces and in 2016 it
would be Becky Wairimu, another English poet, who would elope home with the
coveted prize in the poetry scene in Kenya. Although sheng poetry is lyrical
and rich in wordplay and clever twists, the judges seem to be looking for
something more than the snaps of the finger and audience grunts and laughs. It
could be one of the reasons Sheng poets are losing grip. Some sheng Poets I
talked to seem to believe that the judges may be unpopular with the language
that has dominated Nairobi’s East lands region.
notable trend is the reduction in the number of women poets. Out of eight
contestants last year, only three were ladies and one lady managed to make it
to the final round. Similarly, in 2017, it was only Stella Kivuti who made it
to the final round. This is as opposed to 2016 when a total of three ladies
topped the charts ushering in the 60th Slam Queen in style. It could
be that 2016 registered a higher number of women due to the women Slam fete
that saw a sheng poetess Qui Qarre win. Winning the fete earned her a place in
the Women of the World Poetry Slam festival in Dallas the following year.
from hosting poetry at the Kenya National Theatre, the country has adopted
spoken word as part of Secondary and primary school National Drama Festivals.
“We have been sending representatives to the national steering committee and I
am glad that spoken word has been adopted in schools,” Ian Gwagi Creative
Director of Cre8ve Spills said. He also said that some poets are currently
working with schools to facilitate the program. Besides, “In 2019 we are going
to involve schools in Slam preliminaries and the Grand Slam which may come in
September due to the schools calendar.”
though Kenyan Slammers can boast at having been the guests of Kenya National
Theatre, the country at large has not really adopted the culture of performance
poetry. Common in Nairobi, Nakuru and Eldoret, its audience seem to be drawn
from a small class of university and college students and sometimes and some
though Slam has made a huge milestone in the promotion of performance poetry in
Kenya, its main failing has been on what to do with the slam king and queens
churned, formerly every month, and now annually. A majority of them fizzle out
and are lost into Kenya’s rat race chasing the ever elusive jobs.
poets like Mufasa have managed to make poetry they bread and butter. However,
finding a venue and an affordable one is one of the biggest problems the poets
face. Even under the umbrella body Creative Spills, some of the popular poets
can only host at least two shows in a year. Sometimes the events are hosted in
a cul de sac that only those too willing to attend can manage. The rest of the
audience enjoys the shows as tweets and Instagram photos.
the challenges, the movement still moves on, churning slam Kings and queens and
sometimes, from their own ingenuity sending representatives to international
slam poetry events. In 2017, Poet Qui Qarre would become the first Kenyan to
represent Kenya at the Women of the World Poetry Slam (WoWps) in USA. When I
spoke to her in the last Grand Slam, she revealed to me that she will still
represent her country in the 2019 WOWPS which will be held in March. “I am still
the reigning champion since no one has replaced me,” she said. Last year, the
2017 Slam King Mae Kikete would represent his country in the Africa Cup of Slam
Poetry (ACSP) in Chad.