Spoken Word in Kenya: A Hunger for the Word

Anne MoraaAnne Moraa
Words have been spoken over fires, in fields, in mourning and in joy throughout Kenya. Not just the simple words of speeches and talk, but poems and lyrics deep in meaning and history. Across the 40+ tribes that are found in Kenya, words are revered and respected. Africa’s strong oral tradition is well-documented and known, and in modern Kenya there is a rising hunger for poetry that cuts across tribal boundaries and speaks both to and for each of us. The same differences at the root of the terrible clashes in our history have developed a richness and complexity in our language.

A Swahili Spoken Tradition

While every tribe has a unique oral history with its own rhymes and rhythms, the Swahili oral tradition, Kenya’s official language, helped us unite to develop a national history. Swahili combines Arabic and Bantu languages into a distinct language with a natural lyricism that lends itself to the poetic form.

Swahili poems are traditionally complex, working within rigid metres and rhyme schemes that, through their restraints, spur the poet to utilise words more carefully and creatively. The content is often political and/or philosophical, asking large moral in the frame of a few lines.

Poets such as Muyaka wa Haji are credited for moving Swahili poetry to the mainstream. He and his contemporaries moved poetry from a traditional space to a national one, leading the way for Swahili poets such as Nuhu Bakari and Amira Said and even poets speaking in English or Sheng.

A Hunger Emerges

In the last few years, there has been a tremendous growth in venues for spoken word and the audience has grown with it. In the 90’s, there were only a handful of professional poets, such as Caroline Nderitu, working outside of traditional spaces. Just over a decade later, it verges on the impossible not to find a spoken word event happening somewhere in Kenya on any given day.

Venues range from Slam Africa and Fatuma’s Voice to individuals creating exhibitions based on their poetry such as Ngwatilo’s acclaimed ‘Blue Mothertongue’ and poetry or play hybrids including Sitawa Namwalie’s ‘Cut off My Tongue’. Poets are performing on the radio(an example being Citizen Radio’s “Mseto), on television, on large stages across Kenya, on campus tours and even internationally. The blogosphere is filled with poets and Kenyan poets’ performances are strewn all over the internet. No matter how many venues are created, there is always a demand for more and there are always more ready to feed this hunger.

A Bite for Everyone

One of the reasons for this exponential growth is the sheer diversity of our styles. The traditional poet has not fallen by the wayside: Grand Master Masese with the obokano - a traditional music instrument from his Kisii community - in Swahili, English and his mother tongue Gusii. Hip hop and American Slam Poetry influences can be heard in the likes of Checkmate Mido and Kevin ‘Manjoro,’ whose beat boxing and free styling add texture to their beautiful words. Still other artists, most noticeably Kennet B, mix Sheng, Swahili and English to create a new language and rhythm and speak about common issues facing many of the country’s people.

Women’s voices, across all styles, speak proudly, representing womanhood and poets such as Namatsi and Wangari who are unafraid to challenge stereotypes. All these voices are unapologetic, speak their minds and talk, often to the youth, about complex issues ranging from tribalism and ethnic violence, to sex and sexual health, or even simply love and being in love.

The Food that is Word

Poetry is one of the truest forms of expression there is. Kenya’s spoken word poetry delves into the depths of humanity seeking understanding, speaking in languages from traditional to national, using forms as varied as the number of poets. We hunger for a medium that allows self-expression; for a medium that speaks to both the masses and the individual soul; for a laugh at a witty line or a tear at an honest one. We hunger for words.

Written by Anne Moraa

Anne Moraa is first and foremost a writer. A powerful spoken word artist, she has won several competions and has performed pieces at major festivals. Her strong feminist perspective and willingness to challenge norms led to commissioned performances on gender and sexuality, including the 2013 "Festivale CulturElles" at Alliance Francaise. A law graduate, she writes fiction prose as well as scripts, social commentary and basically anything she can get her hands on. Currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.