Starred: Interview with Kenyan poet and spoken word artist Raya Wambui
“As an art form, it is particularly expressive and direct, which are two things I am, so it sits well with me”– Raya Wambui
In an interview with Afroway’s Musungu Okach (MO), Kenyan poet and spoken word artist Raya Wambui shines a light on her poetry, ambitions, dreams, experiences, future plans, fun side, music and much more…
MO: Just before we begin, in one word, tell us who is Raya? Raya: Energetic.
MO: What is your earliest memory of being into poetry?
Raya: It was an early cartoon of The Lorax by Dr Seuss. Especially the last line: ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to change. It’s not.’ MO: What inspires you in your poetry and spoken word? Raya: I guess one major thing, is that I have a lot on my mind. I’ve been accused of being too woke. So, poetry helps me get stuff off my chest, and provoke thought and conversation in other people too. I really think people need to talk about issues more openly, so performing poetry feels like a constructive way to encourage that. MO: What poetry influences do you have?
Raya: I don’t feel like I can answer that question fully, I’m always coming across new influences, but I’ll try: Dr Seuss, Maya Angelou, Julie Wangombe, Staceyann Chin, Mufasa, Thuli Zuma, FreeQuency, Quaz Roodt, Raymond Antrobus, Checkmate Mido, Maya Wegerof, Wanjiku Mwaura, Vangi Gantsho, Rix Poet, Kevin Man Njoro, Teardrops Elsaphan Njora. I think I should stop now, but I really can’t name them all.
MO: Now, why do you do poetry?
Raya: As an art form, it is particularly expressive and direct, which are two things I am, so it sits well with me. MO: Who are the ‘creatives’ that have inspired you and still inspire you?
Raya: Aside from a good number of the poets I mentioned before, also, Msingi Sasis and Boniface Mwangi. I believe photography is so powerful.
MO: Where do you and have you performed? Tell us your experiences Raya: Woof, that’s like asking me to tell you a CV. Um, I’ve performed mostly in Nairobi, started out at Carnivore in Star Search, a talent show they organize, Das Ethiopian restaurant at Slam Africa and Michael Joseph center at Wamathai’s events. Since then, I have also performed in Bamako, Mali and Durban, South Africa thanks to Pan-African competition and exchange project; The Spoken Word Project and the annual Poetry Africa festival.
MO: Given everything you have going on, what are your plans for the future? With regards to poetry and the creative industry?
Raya: At the moment, I’m juggling family and work time, so I try to keep my performances down to one event per month. I am also trying to direct and write or co-direct and co-write at least one poetic play per year. This year was ‘Sitting On A Tree’, which was co-written and directed by Checkmate Mido. MO: What in your opinion is the future of Kenyan literature? Raya: I think the future of Kenyan literature lies in people being exposed to more local imagery. Something magical happens, when you read a story that takes place in a place you have been, and or in settings that you recognize from memory.
MO: Poetry is studied in Kenyan schools as part of literature, have you ever thought of publishing your pieces for purposes of study?
Raya: It would be a dream come true for my poems to be studied in schools. I would really like to be published as close to home as possible and to be frank, that is a direction I could use some help in. MO: You have expressed your views on corruption in your pieces like ‘Define and Conquer’. What in your opinion should be done to end graft in Kenya?
Raya: Well, nothing will change it unless the general populous really want it to. Kenya has a complacency about bribery in any circumstance where it can ‘help’ us. Therefore, we are unlikely to hold anybody who is corrupt accountable; we get it, we would do the same thing. If we were to be shown somehow, how badly it is affecting the overall economy, maybe, that would help? MO: What are some of the challenges spoken word artists go through?
Raya: The ‘industry’ is not fully developed at the moment. There are hundreds of unpaid stage spaces, so there is lots of spaces for initial talent development. However, there aren’t a lot of paid spaces, so once poets get to the point in their lives where they need to pay their own bills, there is a high probability of losing them to another industry. It’s like an internal brain drain, which leads to a shortage of mentors, whose role is vital for the growth of a genre. MO: What else does Raya do? Raya: I run a pet spa. MO: You are a manager of a pet grooming enterprise, tell us about that Raya: I love spending time with animals and we have a very happy work space. Entertaining and caring for beings that give you back what you give them is very fulfilling. MO: Tell us about your piece ‘As She Should Be’ and your thoughts on animal extinction and environmental degradation Raya: I don’t look forward to describing to my grandchildren how rough a rhino’s skin is, when they will only ever be able to feel the texture of rhino leather. It breaks my heart. I tried, when I wrote to describe how far reaching the effects of the extinction of our wildlife would be. It’s a very serious problem for the country.
MO: Who or what is Raya Wambui during her free time?
Raya: Poet, Painter and Reader. MO: Where is the best place to stay in Nairobi or Kenya for that matter?
Raya: Hmmm, Diani Beach, Ukunda. I spent my early childhood living there, and the air still smells the same. I love warm weather.
MO: What are some of your best cultural experiences?
Raya: I would have to say, the week I spent in Bamako. Those guys use their traditional instruments as the main instruments they study performance arts at University level. So the music they produce is just out of this world. Sounds you cannot recreate elsewhere, because you simply would not have the instruments to do it. When I mentioned, that we don’t have that much modern appreciation of traditional music and dance, they seemed not to quite understand. They have eighty tribes. Those eighty tribes don’t all get along. But they have TV channels dedicated to coverage of cultural creativity, song dance… It made me wonder what our reasons for trying to forget our cultural heritage really are.
MO: Where would you meet your friends for a drink?
Raya: I usually just ask where the people I’m going to meet want to go, I like seeing new places, but as close to home as is possible.
MO: Where are your favourite places for lunch and dinner?
Raya: Mama Rocks, Burger Hut, Misono.
MO: Best place to club it up?
Raya: I love what they do with the music at Hypnotica, but again, if the people I’m with are having fun, I’ll have fun.
MO: Where would you take a first time visitor?
Raya: Ooooh. Depends a little on who they are, but The Giraffe Manor is definitely one of them. Oh, and one of the Maasai Markets.
MO: What would you tell them to avoid?
Raya: Lol. Well, that feels like a trick question. Anywhere where tourists would not be so safe. At least until they have been around for a bit of time. Oh! Especially jail.
MO: What are some of the quirky things about you that people don’t know?
Raya: It’s difficult to know what people know and don’t know. Especially for someone who stands on stages in front of strangers and tells them personal things. Everything that is coming to mind, I have mentioned in one poem or another.
MO: One more thing… Apart from art that is poetry at Afroway, we identify ourselves with unique and the good stuff including music. So we got to ask what is your favorite music?
Raya: There is really no such a thing, I go through phases of almost every genre, and very many artists. I tend to listen to a lot of Elani though. They are amazing.
MO: What do you think of Kenyan music and its place on the African music map?
Raya: That is an interesting question, I think we may still be finding our own voice. The more we can gather from our own experiences and tell our own stories in our music, the closer we get to that. There are a good number of artists that are creating beautiful music that translates. So, I think, we are on a brink, of the African music map.
MO: Okay finally, what is your Afroway thing about being African?
Raya: You don’t return a ‘Kikapu’ empty. When we remember to give, we have more.
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