A critical look into Kenya’s Poetry Slam Africa, a premier Kenyan spokenword festival that turns 10 this year
When Marc Smith an American poet started the now infamous slam poetry in 1984, he probably had no idea that the movement would grow to reach the furthest points from his homeland in Chicago. The movement, in Kenya has become one of the biggest art shows to watch out for. Churning new kings and queens every other year, Slam Africa Festival will be celebrating 10 years after its inception in 2008 by Imani Inc. and Spark Africa.
Initially known as Poetry Slam Africa in Kenya, the show was revamped in 2016 by Cre8ive Spills to a two day affair known as Slam Africa Festival. It is the same year that the organizers felt that the show would be crowning royalty on a yearly basis instead of thrice a year. Secondly, the event would also feature a Women’s Slam to choose a female who would represent the country at the Women of the World Poetry Slam (WOWPS) in the US.
Unlike previous Slam events, the 2017 event did not bear all that glitz associated with the festival since it registered a few attendants, this was widely viewed to be a result of the tense political environment. In retrospect though, the poets were glorious presenting an outstanding talent on stage.
The 2017 festival came to a close on December 10, with Kikete F.M being crowned the 61st Slam King. The season finale of the show would see the final four contestants; Kikete F. M, Yours Truly (Kimathi Kaumbutho), Stella Kivuti and George Agak put the judges into a tight spot with their competitive energetic deliveries. The 2017, festival did not produce a female contestant for the WOWPS due to logistical issues but the organiser Ian Gwagi promised that the women slam was still on course.
Slam festival has been a hot bed for live bands and amazing music. Over the years, the organizers have brought on stage gifted musicians and poets from across Africa to inspire the Kenyan talents. Last year, the stage was lit by the likes of Huldah Serro, Fadhilee Itulya, Beatbox Flow flani and Jamedari. Other acts included poets Raya Wambui, Dorphanage and the 2016 Slam Queen Becky.
The Kenyan slam poetry, besides other fronts like Fatuma’s Voice- a monthly poetry showcase, Ink Overflow, Revolution Kenya, Poetry after Lunch and some events dotted around Kenya in places like Ongata Rongai (Gumzo), Nakuru (Upgrade Poetry) and Eldoret (Sanaa Hub) have played a substantial role in re-introducing poetry to the popular mass. However, just like in other regions across the world, this has not been taken well by some intellectual critics who view spoken word as the death of traditional poetry. Susan B.A Somers-Willets in her book “The cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity and the Performance of the Popular Verse in America (2009) quotes Harold Bloom (literary critic and sterling professor at Yale University) as having said:
“I can’t bear these accounts I read in the Times and elsewhere of these poetry slams, in which various young men and women in various late-spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other. The whole thing is judged by an applause meter which is actually not there, but might as well be. This isn’t even silly; it is the death of art.”
Apart from Bloom, a number of critics have thrown a barrage of criticisms against this new kid on the block concerning its delivery, awarding criteria, style and form. Nathan A. Thompson of the Independent magazine says:
“The slams I have attended have little to do with poetry and everything to do with a Darwinian death match where the audience picks the winner like some blood-crazed Circus Maximus mob. Poetry, like all art, whispers its message and we must learn to slow down and take the time to hear it”
However, Susan B. A. Somers-Willets ticks some very significant positives towards slam poetry. Firstly, the craft promotes authenticity by encouraging performers to present original works. Secondly, by allowing audience’s response, the art becomes more interactive and competitive. Finally, the art can be presented in different media like CDs, DVDs and print affording more access to poetry. Besides, the Slam poetry has built a community around its practice.
Like many Slam Poetry events, poets address various societal issues in their pieces making the poems immediate critics of the decay in the society. In the last year’s festival, Kikete’s winning piece touched on the problems affecting Africa. Titled ‘An Ode To Africa’ the poem travelled across Africa highlighting key challenges and ended with a triumphant call for Africans to rise;
“Make no mistake
This is our century
Call me a dreamer
I’m a seer of the future
And I know, that my people never ever needed saving
Only an awakening
And the morning star is up
Dawn, is coming.”
With such powerful works, performance poetry has no doubt gained significant popularity among the Kenyan youth. They seem to have found a genre to vent and air out their optimism. Furthermore, since it’s a performance art, it builds their public appearance skills and audience management hence building more expressive leaders and critical thinkers.
As Slam Africa marks its tenth anniversary, it counts its prodigious achievements in the number of kings and queens it has crowned, as it boasts of being the premier festival in East Africa. It has undoubtedly been a road marked with great strides of churning poetry greats from the first Slam King Timothy Mwaura, to great wordsmith like Poet Teardrops (Mark Joshua Ouma), Mufasa Kibet, Raya Wambui among others and those who branched out into the music industry like Mordecai Kimeu and Wachira Gatama of H_art the Band, Flow Flani among a host of other great artists.
@KenyaPoetrySlam, @MusunguW, @AfrowayOnline
Photo by Ben Koorengevel on Unsplash