Interview With Kenyan Poet Kikete

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Afroway’s Musungu conversation with Poetry Slam Africa 2017 winner in Kenya Kikete on his future plans and the upcoming participation in Africa Cup of Slam Poetry (ACSP).  

Hi Kikete, tell us about the Africa Cup of Slam Poetry (ACSP) when is it being held and where?

First off thank you for featuring me here, it’s a great honour. And my appreciation for the work you’ve been consistently and competently doing to highlight and promote art and culture in this country.

The ACSP will be happening this November 5th-10th in N’Djamena, Chad. So, just like we have an annual Poetry Slam competition here (Kenya), something like 40 other countries around Africa do too. This will be the first time the national champions will be gathered to compete for a continental crown.

You are set to perform at Goethe Institut in Nairobi, how will the event prepare you for the Africa cup?

Oh yes, I’ll be presenting an extended showcase of my poetry at the Goethe Institut on the 29th of September. See, a lot of the performance opportunities I’ve been getting have been rather restrictive; just five or ten minutes on stage doing one or two poems. With this show, I get to explore various subjects with a little more depth, over a 90 min performance, and I am collaborating with musicians on the project, to make the overall audience experience more entertaining. 

I think the show will most certainly energize me before I head out to the ACSP, but it’s not exactly a “preparation” because the format of the ACSP requires a different style of content and delivery.  I have written a specific set of poems for that.

Are you going to the competition as a representative of Kenya or on individual effort?

I will be representing Kenya; unfortunately I have to personally foot all costs to the competition. The hope is that I can raise some of the funds needed through tickets sales to the Goethe show.

Your poetry elevated you to poetry Slam King in the country last year. How was it like participating on such a platform?

Winning the Slam was almost surreal. I started performing just last year so it was a major validation of my work, even though my primary motivation for writing and performing isn’t to win competitions. It was also through Slam Africa that I met a lot of the poets from whom I’ve learned both about improving my craft and just generally how to navigate the “industry”.

How can you define your poetry?

To be honest, I really don’t know. I was hoping observers of the scene such as yourself would tell me, or perhaps the audience that has interacted with my work. But words, to me, are a means to transcend disillusioning realities, to the realms of possibility. I hope to challenge and inspire minds with my work, but have no grand illusions about my art – I simply have an impulse to voice my opinions about love, politics, culture, the quest for self-actualization and such and poetry just seems like such a beautiful means to do so.

Any poets you aspire to emulate?

There are lots of poets whose work I admire in Kenya. I have had the pleasure to interact with Dorphan and the thing I’d emulate about him is the seriousness with which he approaches the art form, and his deep and sincere sense of social justice, Pan Africanism and the yearning to learn.

Where do you and have you performed? Tell us your experiences?

Late last year I curated a poetry reading and performance event at the Storymoja Festival and it was quite exciting to share a space with established international poets, performing and discussing each other’s work as if we were peers. This year in April I was featured in Mufasa In Concert; over 500 people out under a starlit sky at the Alliance Française Garden makes for a very exhilarating experience. 

Poetry performance has been in Kenya for over a decade now. Do you feel the industry has had an impact on the Kenyan society?

Let me say this, it’s wonderful to see so many young people getting a voice through poetry to express themselves. Changing societies however is an altogether very different, difficult and frustrating endeavor, one that needs multiple approaches sustained over long periods of time. What impact poetry has had in that regard I really can’t quantify, but I’m certain that it is positive.

What do you believe will be your own contribution to the industry?

Every time I’m asked this question my answer is the same; I simply express myself and leave the rest to the authors of my eulogy.

Where do you see yourself in the next ten years, as a creative?

I hope to have a body of work that can meet the standard to feature in discourse in the literature and performance arts departments in universities in Kenya and beyond.

Let’s talk about your masterpiece ‘This is my Country.’ The piece brings out strong sentiments on national building. According to you, is the country headed in the right direction? What do you want your audience to learn from it?

I think it’s fairly obvious that the country isn’t headed in the right direction. The thing that irks me the most is that every five years we vote for the very same people we admit are responsible for corruption, impunity, police brutality, ethnicity and so on. We seem impervious to learning from experience. The message in the poem is simply that the country isn’t some already baked cake we should haggle over slicing, but rather one we must all contribute to baking; in a sense that each one of us must do their little thing to lay the tracks so the change train can have a path.

‘An Ode to Africa’ has a positive vibe about the continent. Tell us about your views of 21st Century Africa and what the continent should learn from Creatives like you?

There’s all this talk about this being Africa’s century; you know, that we’re reclaiming our glory, taking our place as an influencer and leader in global affairs. I certainly hope that happens. But when you look a little more critically at the situation you find that a lot of what’s fueling, say, the infrastructure growth witnessed on the continent is Chinese debt.  That’s going to come back to bite. There’s not nearly enough investment in education and skills development especially in the industrial vocations, and that seems to me the surest way to economic freedom. Just as in the colonial era, our top exports remain largely in the extractive sectors. We still consume more than we produce, and trade very little among ourselves. 

The creative is (or at least should be) an informal educator; we may not necessarily prescribe solutions, but we strive to keep some of these conversations alive so people can attempt to re-imagine their paradigms.

What are you reading currently? Any must read book for a book lover you could recommend? 

Garth Steins’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. The Zeitgeist Movement Defined: Realizing a New Train of Thought.

Do you watch movies? If yes, Which is your four favourite? What is your opinion on the much acclaimed Black Panther? 

There are people who don’t? I watch lots of them, and documentaries. If I had to choose, I’d say the Coen Brothers’ movies; they have a knack for intriguing without the typical fancy Hollywood plot lines and cinematography.

Well I think the Black Panther film was important because it provoked introspection on the place of people of colour in Hollywood films. I hope to see more of our actual stories on the big screen, not just comic book based representations.  

Any place in Nairobi you go to cool off after a hectic week?

Actually, I prefer getting away from the city to cool off. I’d say farming is my favorite unwind; the smell of the earth, the feel of it on my bare feet, and just the magic of planting a seed and watching it grow and bloom and fruit. There’s a farm on the outskirts of Nairobi that I visit regularly to sate that need. 

At Afroway, we serve the Indigos Gourmet that is, the best and unique about culture, music and art. What is your ‘Indigos feeling about Africa?

Africa is itself a masterpiece of art. The nuances of our culture, our geography, our people form such a rich tapestry. I have this line in my poem Ode to Africa that says “…her soul you couldn’t define, like the noon shine of light when it makes love to the rains in her savannah plains.” I think that sums my Indigos feeling. 

Your parting word to creatives out there?

I’d say, we should continue to educate ourselves; both to grow the skills of our craft and to understand better the issues we try to address through our art. Artists are public intellectuals, so it’s only fair that they attempt to get to a place where their output is actually intelligent. Form and substance, both of those things are important.


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