The Sophisticated Players - Spoken Word in Kampala

Moses Serubiri © Bwette Gilbert DanielMoses Serubiri © Bwette Gilbert Daniel

'Society has deemed me worthless'

The origin of the word sophisticated comes from medieval Latin, sophisticatus, according to The Oxford English dictionary, which means 'tampered with'. To be sophisticated thus implies, a state of being influenced by cultural expressions other than one's own; language in particular. Spoken word poets have become significant on Kampala's poetry circuit for their idiosyncratic approaches, which combine the personal with the foreign. It has become clear that such fearless sophistication can hold a certain power over society.

“Society has deemed me worthless..." are the confessional words of a "little girl in the mirror". Spoken word poet, Norah Namara, performed this line during last month's NuVo Festival with such conviction that it became clear that this was not any ordinary Friday night entertainment but rather a defiant declaration against society's neglect of the intellectual arts.

The Saturday Monitor's review of the show confirmed this notion by reporting that "the showcases and the strong reception proved there is an unstoppable hunger; this new breed will not brook anymore about the things that affect them, but will through such art forms continue to speak out and spread awareness till they are heard and attended to."

The journalist, Dennis Muhumuza, here referred to the predicament that such young performers - mostly born in the 1980s - are working against, observing their efforts of breaking through the ceiling to be heard.

Public acclaim for spoken word poets

In what has been the most celebrated poetry reading of the last three years, Broken Voices of the Revolution held at the National Theatre in 2012, the performers came out dressed in the costumes of guerrilla soldiers. This was a deliberate throwback to the 1970s and 80s civil wars. The statement seemed to offer a surreal rebirth of Museveni's revolution; Start Journal wrote, "the Lantern Meet of Poets are Museveni's children." Participants of this poetry movement - as it is called within poetry circles - have chanced upon similar public acclaim. Roshan Karmali can be heard on the radio reciting a sensual poem in an advert for Daima juice; Jamain Nada's poems have been used in a nationwide anti-AIDS campaign titled "Get off the sexual network"; Rashida Namulondo and Ugly MC have each lent their poetry voices to a government sponsored "Tobacco Kills" campaign; Slim MC, Babaluku and MC Flower have together crafted a spoken word radio advert titled 'Get Online!' for the telecom company Orange.

Kwivuga, a niche poetry reading started in 2011 by Gabs and Nunu, has found ways of drawing in larger audiences by commercializing their event. It has, since its conception, partnered with advertising and beverage companies to sponsor performances by Hip Hop musicians. The audience both for music and spoken word at this event can grow so large indeed that the venue has to improvise for additional seating even with a steep entrance charge. The Independent weekly made note of this, "Be warned, however, late comers have a problem finding seating and could end up in the lawn."

The catharsis of spoken word

However, while majority of the spoken word scene has become crowded and sometimes lost emphasis on poetry itself, Poetry in Session - another niche poetry reading started in November 2010 by Roshan Karmali - remains a space solely for the pleasure of listening to spoken word. Start Journal observed of the reading, "It allows a catharsis in an age where to speak freely is becoming increasingly infringed upon."

Such opinions reveal not only the purpose of spoken word but also the nature of Ugandan society today: a community that prioritizes capitalist enterprise over freedom of expression. Still in the aftershock of the tidal wave caused by Idi Amin's military regime - which among other things oversaw the expulsion of the Indians in August 1972 - oppression of intellectualism subtly continues.

Against all odds, these young poets have found a way to express themselves through the medium of spoken word offering insight and renewing intellectual discourse amongst poetry goers.

The Players

Jungle-the-Man-Eater insists on performing in his mother tongue, Lusoga. His poem 'Mukisa' (Fate) is a monologue of desolate prayer by a character, whom we are told is from the rural setting, to the god of Fate. The poem's philosophical tendencies are carried by a finely woven performance. Opening with the chant, 'Fate ... Fate ... Fate ...' the poet swells in a torrent of words, a polyphony of double time drum beats as he cries to this god of how he toils in the world. It is this intense vulnerability that leaves the audience spellbound.

When Ife Piankhi walks onto the stage, her cocoa butter skin and Erykah Badu head wrap gives the impression of a Black goddess. Her eclecticism is hard to pin down as it spans 20th century environmentalism, Black feminism, Intergalactic Jazz, Garveyism, and Bob Marley's One Love manifesto. And yet, even as the audience is already bewitched by her cool sophistication, it is her pure emotion that moves the audience to deeper connection.

Fashion icon and poet, Xenson, carries with him an air of mystery. No one quite knows where he gets all his explosive energy and creativity. Before he gets up to perform, often in his mother tongue Luganda, he is usually the most attentive listener, never talking, never drinking beer. He looks sometimes like the mimosa plant whose leaves are clasped but which bounce out with vitality when touched. Start Journal reviewing a talk he gave on his work writes that his name as an ideal of Zen is "inspired by the concept of harmony ... of trying to find the balance in the natural world."

Jason Ntaro developed a following in 2011 after continually reciting a poem titled "3 years, 5 months, 2 days": a poem about an abusive relationship that results in death. The poet's fascinating ritual involved removing his shoes and walking barefoot onto stage, after which he would take a deep breath. His voice, always with crisp intonation and pronunciation, carries a perception which highlights his gifts of understanding the experience of - in the case of 3 years - suicidal women, drunken male antagonists and psychologically abused children, conveying it all better than the person, whose experience it is, ever could.


Despite public and widespread acclaim, the spoken word scene began as small backyard collectives within the ghettos of Kampala, where young people had developed their own coded languages through which they found unique expression with each other. When Hip Hop came along in the 1990s, it was through the Pentecostal church which used Christian Rap to reach the youth. The fusion of these coded languages developed within the ghetto and Hip Hop's turntable beats created the movement known now as Luga Flow. Certain fixtures of that early 1990s scene in fact started out as poets and only then transitioned to rap music.

Youth culture in Uganda, though predates the NRM (National Resistance Movement) era, with the colonial era YGC (Youth Group's Club) that became through British support the YMCA and YWCA, took root with chakamchaka, a youth schools army training program which embodied the revolutionary songs, philosophy and personality of the East African Community. This Pan African youth movement is what has produced today's "social conscious poetry" within the Lantern Meet of Poets.

These two histories of youth spoken word expression currently merge within the Bon Fire collective, a group whose poetry night includes both ghetto Luga Flow performances and the Pan Africanist "social conscious" poetry. One particular performer, Medals-The-Born-Again-Politician, seems to embody all this history within his poem Somebody Clap For Me: the poet's manifesto for Uganda in the future that can run up to 40 minutes in performance, and which has been the title and subject of a short-film by Luciana Cettah Farrah.

The current format of spoken word nights, in terms of venues, Master of Ceremony, and programming, which has fostered the growth and bolstered the local consumption of the art form within Kampala has been put in place by a number of Ugandans who have returned from exile in America and the U.K.

In conclusion

In the midst of a growing spoken word culture, it is such poets as Jungle, Ife, Xenson and Jason, who are offering a challenge to their audience in how they consume performance poetry. With their uniquely idiosyncratic and at times inimitable approaches, each of these performers aim at imparting responsibility; they aim at garnering a reaction from their audience that is not simply that accidental cheer, but rather one that will perhaps alter the very nature of that listener's thought patterns. These sophisticated players are ushering in a period in which performance poetry informs the thoughts of the immediate community of recital audiences

Written by Serubiri Moses
Moses is a known violinist, poet and critic on Kampala's arts scene. In 2010, he was shortlisted in the Hay Festival Poetry Competition and, in the same year, he graduated from New York Institute of Photography. In 2011, he started writing on arts in publications such as Start Journal, The New Vision and Another Africa. Moses is currently the writer in residence at 32 Degrees East, Ugandan Arts Trust.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, August 2013