Kenyan Poetry Slam Finally Comes Home

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.

When 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.

Whether 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.

Now 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.

Gufy 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.

In 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.

In 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.

Last 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.

Another 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.

Apart 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.”  Ian added.

Even 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 few revolutionaries.

Even 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.

Some 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.

Despite 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.        

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