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HUNGRY FOR LIVE POETRY: NAIROBI'S FIRST POETRY SLAM
"What can poetry do?"
The question is so blunt and large, I don't know what to reply. But there's a mic in my face, a TV camera running, a journalist from Citizen TV waiting for my response. We're on the staircase leading up to Nairobi's Club Soundd. Above us, the final open mic poets are sharing their work in a space crammed with 300 people. The air crackles with the electricity of Nairobi's just-concluded first-ever poetry slam.
I say: "We just saw, upstairs, in the last 2 hours, what poetry can do. Poetry lets us see and feel what we numb ourselves against in everyday life. The full spectrum of being human – from ecstatic joy to burning rage to acute grief. Poetry allows us to break silence around what scares us most – whether it's HIV, or poverty, or political repression, or being left by our lover. Poetry moves us from paralysis into action. Poetry connects us to each other, invites us into each other's reality, makes us larger, more alive, in the world."
Club Soundd is one of Nairobi's newer bar / restaurant / nightclub venues, opened six months ago by Luai, charming entrepreneur of Lebanese heritage. His dream is to cre"""ate a space that nurtures arts and culture, while it draws people in to kick back with a beer in front of the large-screen TVs. He generously hosts the monthly open mic readings of Kwani, Nairobi's explosive literary organization, and hangs the red walls with original work from local artists. On the TV screens tonight, Ivory Coast plays Nigeria in the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations. Tough act for poets to compete with.
"Get Ready To Slam" said Kenya's Daily Nation 3 days ago. "Poetry Slam at Club Soundd" trumpeted another article. Journalists love the word "slam" . It's short, punchy, visceral, action-packed. Yet of the 300 people who showed up at Club Soundd, perhaps only half-a-dozen had any idea what they were in for. The rest were there because of the buzz, word-of-mouth and media-generated, that something exciting was going to happen tonight.
"What is Slam Poetry?" I was asked in interview after interview. "What is Spoken Word? How is it different from normal poetry?"
"Spoken word and slam poetry are NOT different from "regular" poetry," I insisted. "They simply reclaim poetry as an oral tradition, communicated live, through the voice and the body. Africa is where spoken word, the oral tradition, began. A poetry slam is a game, a device, to get people interested in poetry. Human beings love competitions. Slam in the US revived poetry as a vital, explosive, grassroots arts movement that everyone could be a part of. In a slam, poets perform their original work, without props, costumes or accompaniment, to a 3-minute time limit. Judges are selected from the audience, and they score the poets, Olympic-style, from 1 – 10, based on content and performance. The top-scoring poet at the end of the night is the winner."
first invited me to feature at their open mic on my upcoming trip to Nairobi, I threw out the idea of hosting a poetry slam. They leapt on it eagerly, and before I knew it, we were planning Nairobi's First Ever Poetry Slam
. I was initially wary about how it would go down – was it an appropriate form for the Nairobi scene? Would the competition intimidate rather than encourage, new voices?
"Your job," I told the poets who'd signed up to compete, "is to have the best time of your life. Don't get hung up on the scores, or the audience response. The moment you get on the stage, you've already won. Just by being there. By showing everyone in the room that they too, can share their creative voice with the world."
At the start of the night, we're worried that we only have 3 people signed up to slam. And we're concerned about the turnout; my performance at the Carnivore
, 4 days ago, drew a disappointingly small audience. We're hoping the city centre location, low cover charge of Ksh. 50, and press coverage in the last few days, will bring people in tonight.
By 8pm, when we close the slam list, there are 13 poets on it. Several more arrive in the next few minutes, too late to add to the list, but we promise them a place in the open mic reading. People are pouring in; all the seats are taken. They are sitting on the floor, on the edge of the stage, on each other's laps, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the bar at the back. I have never seen this in Kenya before – a space filled with people of every ethnicity, generation, socioeconomic background, hungry for something new, something they can't get from TV, video, surfing the web, something that feeds their souls and imaginations.
If we needed confirmation that we're breaking new ground here, the media presence supplies it. There are two TV crews in the house – from KTN and Citizen TV. Journalists from the Daily Nation, the Kenya Times
, BBC Africa. After the slam, when they interview me, almost all of them will tell me that they, too, write poems. A couple will show me their work. Share the secret longing to be heard. Tell me they thought about signing up for the slam, but weren't quite ready. Next time, however………
The slam begins. We hear love poems. Break-up poems. Political poems. A poem that explores the meaning of manhood. A rhythmic tribute to the heroes of Kenya's war of independence. A scathing indictment of poetry as useless – in the form of a poem! One poet comes out as HIV-positive, to a room of 300 strangers, in a poignant letter to his parents, infused with love and regret. Another does a hilarious improvised riff on the Ivory Coast – Nigeria football match, still running on the TV screen in the bar. I am especially happy that over 50% of the poets are women. I've been told by dozens of women in the US that they would love to perform their work, but are intimidated by their male-dominated local slams.
The audience is beside itself. They yell, cheer, clap, howl for their favourite poets, boo the judges when the scores are low. No football crowd, no rock concert crowd, could be more engaged, more enthusiastic.
One of my old friends, who stood in the back all night because the place was so jammed, sends me an SMS that night: "I was amazed and enlightened. I never knew poetry could be like that. To me, "poetry" was what we studied in school."
The word I hear most often afterwards is: Inspired.
"I was so inspired."
"That was so inspiring."
"I want to be in the next slam."
"I want to bring everyone I know to the next slam."
The poet who read about being HIV-positive comes up to take my hand. We both have tears in our eyes, a silent tribute to the power of what happened tonight. Another man tells me he wanted to sign up for the slam, but was afraid:
"I am Ugandan. I was scared to speak in a room full of Kenyans. When I heard your poems about being Indian, I thought: Next time, I will do it."
Kwani sells out of copies of its latest issue. Luai, the Club Soundd owner, says to me:
" I am so happy. This crowd is what Kwani has been working for, what they deserve."
It's only the beginning. What can poetry do, right now, in Kenya? Create community. Break open deathly silences. Give people a platform to share their deepest joys and fears. Open a space for dissent, debate, discussion, education, around everything from safe sex to constitutional reform. Make us larger, braver, more joyful, more contentious. Push us to engage with the world around us, capture it in language, work that language to its most beautiful and powerful distillation, pour it out like water for the thirsty. Inspire us to trust our own intelligence and passion, our hunger for art that is real and hard and truthful; messy and complex and bloody. Above all, art that is ours. Trust that our own voices are the thick grain, the juicy greens, we have been hungry for.