Spoken Word in South Africa: From protest voice to the empowerment of the youth

(c) Masimba Sasa

 Siza Nkosi © Goethe-Institut. Photo: Masimba Sasa

There are places in the world which have histories that are entrenched with long periods of suffering and overcoming; where the only way to be heard among the destruction was through art; where the flame of the collective human spirit remained kindled because a few brave individuals, though hands bound, channelled their life force through their throats to raise their voices and scream, shout and speak back to power. South Africa’s history is synonymous with the systematic disenfranchisement and brutalisation of forcibly marginalised people. Interestingly, this dark period bore witness to the ascent of some of the country’s richest art which is continually referenced with regards to the country’s artistic legacy, proving that beauty can indeed spring forth from something ugly.

Breaking the window with a poem

In the present, the youth of South Africa are in the process of re-imagining the art of poetry with the guidance of those who have graced stages and pages before them. All around the country, in communities, schools, churches and university social groups, people with a love of literature and performance are banding together to truly leave their mark on the artistic legacy of South Africa. This legacy dates back many decades but where it lends itself as the origin of slam poetry would be in the Apartheid era, where protest poetry was one of the ways that people expressed their angst against the system. Legends like Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, Don Materra, Dennis Brutus, and more associable to the slam poetry tradition, Mzwakhe Mbuli demonstrated, through their lives and art, how spectacular and powerful the human voice could be when used as a weapon. Tumi Molekane, a brilliant South African rapper (and often poet) once explained to me that not every time will it be the stone that breaks the window – sometimes it will be the little message – a poem – tied to the stone that does. Poetry becomes the voice of the defiance and demands of a people for a better life.

Slams in Johannesburg an beyond

Currently, the many generations of South African poets are interacting and the older poets have had platforms on which to share their wisdom with the new. In Johannesburg, sessions like WORDnSOUND, House of Hunger and Likwid Tongue have rejuvenated the spirit of competitive poetry – which is what ‘slam’ is all about. Slam encourages poets to pit their best poems against other poets’ works and through judges, find out who triumphs with regards to content, creativity, writing and performance, among other criteria. In such a space, the best of both worlds occurs as writers become athletes with the word and really challenge themselves by entering into a friendly competition with the best. The prize is often in the form of money, books, merchandise and of course, the recognition of peers and audience alike, which is the best part of it all. WORDnSOUND offers the addition of live music, House of Hunger regularly opens its stage to poets from all over the continent and Likwid Tongue have made it their mission to accommodate everyone and defy the stereotype that poetry has to be overtly intellectual. With sessions that have been held all over Gauteng, the art of poetry has spread and inspired many to write, make a change and also begin to inspire others as these literary communities support and share opportunities with one another.

Poetry on TV

Through the internet and wonderful television coverage such as the opening ceremony of the Africa Cup of Nations held in 2013, the ever-growing ability for poets to share their work, the art form has gained a ‘cool factor’. Although Johannesburg has been most notable in the ascension of slam poetry, platforms such as Cup O’Thought in Durban, Jam That Session in Cape Town and No Camp Chairs Poetry Picnic in Pretoria have also enabled young and old, alike to engage with one another’s stories and shared experiences through the word, rhyme, metaphor; an occurrence worth celebrating because there can never be too much literature in the world! Poets such as Kgafela oa Mogogodi, Lebo Mashile and Tumi Molekane have merged their craft with that of theatre, live music and Hip Hop and transcended the realm of spoken word to create a dynamic work of art which immediately has a greater ability to resonate with different kinds of art lovers. On a world scale, events such as Urban Voices and Arts Alive provide amazing opportunities for South African poets to experience what poets on other continents are doing with their voices. This also serves as a great form of inspiration. Many poets can speak of how performances by international poets such as Saul Williams, StaceyAnn Chin, Amiri Baraka and Linton Kwesi Johnson have expanded their view of not only their craft, but of the human condition and the world, too.

Give name to the nameless

As the ineffable Audre Lorde once wrote: “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” The above passage illuminates what the core of poetry is and also, what poetry symbolises for South African artists. Poetry has become a ritual of mass learning, teaching and most importantly, opening wounds so that they may heal, in the presence of art. In the same vein as empowering slogans such as “each one, teach one”, poets here share their lived experiences in all spheres of life including socio-economic circumstances, family situations and the many ups and downs of romantic relationships. Additionally, true to its foundation, the literary and spoken word tradition of poetry as a means of protest still survives in South Africa, mainly as an essential form of social commentary which allows for ordinary citizens to also have their say regarding their concerns and hopes for the country’s collective path. Indeed, poetry in South Africa moves, connects, galvanises, educates and comforts the masses.

To watch the Johannesburg video clips, please go to the homepage and click on Johannesburg on the map

Go to the Johannesburg event page

Go to the Johannesburg artists page
Nova Masango

Lebohang Nova Masango was born in Sweden and raised in Pretoria’s surburbia. Her poetry has been featured widely, including on SA FM’s month long series Poetry in the Air in 2012. Nova is a believer in the power of the word.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut South Africa, June 2013