Spoken Word in the Ivory Coast

From keeping up tradition to the search of a confident performance

The Ivory Coast is, like all of Africa, characterised by orality. The best way to convey knowledge, be heard and understood is to raise your voice. The heroic deeds of history and traditions are passed on from generation to generation; through grandfather to father or grandmother to mother, from father to son or mother to daughter through oral tradition. The village elders gather the youth around a log fire after nightfall to tell the about the journeys of their ancestors and other important figures in their history. In addition to remembering history, these evenings have an educational function as each story teaches a moral lesson.

The importance of keeping up traditions

Since ancient times, the griots have obtained the art of orality from tribes originating from the Mandingo Empire. During festivities and mourning ceremonies, the griot fills the gap with language, but is above all a living memory of tradition and history. He recalls the descendants of large families, heroic battles and years of famine when he praises the symbols of his people. There have always been two kinds of griots: the political griot and the griot of hunters. With a few exceptions, both kinds abide to the "Spoken Word".

Alongside the griots, the true keepers of history and tradition, the modern storyteller arises. Among these were pioneers Obin Manféi, Adou Yam's and Alexis Djisso to name a few. They have taken the aesthetic form of traditional stories in order to create a nourishing art. They manage to bring the story back to its original character; both playful and educational.

Today the succession is secured by Taxi Conteur and his troupe Naforo Ba. Around him and the activities initiated by him - especially the days of orality and many other initiatives - provide young storytellers with the talent and inspiration to put their own skills to the test. Beyond individual fates is a hotbed of young storytellers to keep the torch of the "Spoken Word" going. A torch that has been passed down to them by their ancestors. In addition to this, many other means of exposure can be mentioned such as the literary festival "Karawane der Erzählung" organised by the Goethe Institute to promote the art of storytelling. In addition to storytelling, the Spoken Word also presents itself in the form of Word Art in which the language again finds its lexical power, poetry and aesthetic depth. Here texts are presented to a musical background, raising awareness about society's stigmas. Advocates of this new oral expression such as Alain Tailly and Bomou Mamadou put emphasis on stylistics. But what matters the most is that the presented lyrics form the basis for the profundity of the message.

Search for self-assertion

When we analyse these lyrics, we notice that they are close to Slam, a sign that a new type of storytelling has emerged. These young people were born in the city and grew up with different realities confronted with crime, unemployment and violence. Their heroes are not Soundiata Keita, Sonni Ali Ber or any other symbolic figure from African history but often their heroes come from the movies, music and sport, particularly soccer. In order for them to escape the hardships of everyday life that restricts them to this compressed environment, they raise their voice in anger and let the words hit the bell jar. These new storytellers are the actual modern poets. Their weapons are Slam and Rap, which allows for a "new" art form to emerge - an art form that consists of speaking out about anything and everything when others only dare to dream.
This "new art" emerged in the Ivory Coast in the early 80's in a society characterised by economic recession, unemployment and poverty.

As a sin offering in this difficult situation, the youth finds a way through Slam and Rap to scream out their rage and anger, and to assert themselves in a society that appears to ignore them. In the early 90's in underprivileged urban areas such as Abobo and Adjamé but also in exclusive suburbs such as Cocody, this results in a posse, a community of young rappers. Among these were "Minister Otentik" in Adjamé, "Flotte Impériale" in Cocody and "NGowa Posse" in Abobo. Their first lyrics are rough; they denounce society's growing poverty, the misery of youth, drug problems and high criminality - but above all the corruption of those in power. Rap is more than art for the youth: it is a form of catharsis. They can rid themselves of the shackles of pain and reject the hand that fate has dealt them. Simultaneously, it expresses the search for a fair society and the rejection of a society, in which the rich only get richer and the poor only get poorer. In order to give the message an artistic vigour, the lyrics rhyme. It would take until the early 2000's for this poetic dimension to gain importance when it emerged as "Slam". However, it must be pointed out that it did not appear ex nihilo.
It would mostly come from Rap or having grown up around Hard core Rap such as Public Enemy's Flavor Flav or Soft Rap such as LL Cool Jay.

Speaking to cry out your pain; speaking in order to exist

In November 2011 Zakala, David Djoko and Gilles Tusty aka Boss Mike were gunned down. Today these Slam pioneers play an important role in the Spoken Word phenomenon in the Ivory Coast. With carefully chosen words they want to shake the general public's conscience regarding the grievances of a depraved society.

For them, Slam is a spotlight as it explains to those who cannot see and shows the reality to those who do not want to see. These Slammers' lyrics are less jerky than the average Rap lyrics and take its grandeur from poetry. This allows the lyrics to maintain their full meaning and each word its full range. This poetic prose between stylistics and direct speech embodies the pain of a street child and the suffering of an orphan. It denounces the idleness of the young that do not want to fight or struggle in order to earn their daily bread. Even when they struggle to rebuild society through words and depend on true values such as courage and honesty, they are still moving in informal circles. The advocates of the Spoken Word have no organisation or a common ground where they can meet. Everyone struggles on their own to present their lyrics at events or among friends in their area. However, the future looks bright because of different initiatives such as the Reggae artist Kajeem's Slam projects and Zakala and friends' creation of the collective "Tout Feu, Tout Slam".

The Spoken Word as a phenomenon is not limited to the artist alone. Intellectuals also play an important part, beginning with researchers from GRTO ( Groupe de recherche sur la tradition orale). This group was created by the now deceased Professor Zadi Zaourou to study orality. He was an adamant advocate for the African orality, which he devoted years of his energy travelling around the country collecting historical speech and epic music. Alongside identifying orality, GRTO are also concerned with the diligent detail work of securing the different aspects of orality for the future.

A certain influence on the Ivorian society

Alongside the GRTO theorists, as a linguistic expert for the science of orality at the Félix Houphouët-Boigny University, professor Firmin Ahoua is an expert observer when it comes to the Spoken Word in the Ivory Coast.

„You could say that the written word came later to the African society. Nevertheless, it must be considered a fact that that orality was the fundamental source of intellectual and spiritual education" the prominent university lecturer analyses. There are different means of expression within orality according to professor Firmin Ahoua: "We are within our rights to speak of an oral literature as it is a fairly complete system". The expression "oral literature" presupposes that it is possible to distinguish between a literature that is supported by writing and reading, and an oral literature which is supported by orality. "What they have in common is an extensive documentation and they are each other's equal". Oral literature is certainly structured in many different ways. There are century old variations. There are some that convey spiritual teachings, such as the ones we know from the wise Amadou Hampaté Bah. There are others that are historic collections", Professor Firmin Ahoua continues. He is also convinced that the development of Rap and Zouglou as forms of orality in order to educate society is a kind of literature. The kind that challenges us, especially as the sources of orality draw breath from African classic structure by taking over its music and rhythms.

However, professor Firmin Ahoua says that the Spoken Word should not be content with commenting on oral literature, but also write down excerpts. Even if oral literature is transferred from word of mouth, he proposes that it has to be preserved in writing in order to secure its productivity and creativity.

Yacouba Sangaré