The Spoken Word Scene in Cameroon: From Poetry to Poetography

Black Alice © For many years, spoken word in Cameroon was like the anecdotal man with the iron mask— faceless and denied recognition as it played second fiddle to other forms of art such as music and poetry. While Makossa and Bikutsi were fighting a popularity war in the eighties in Cameroon, visionary Chicago poet Marc Smith performed poetry live at the funky Get Me High Loungein 1987.With like-minded poets Regie Gibson, Cin Salach and Patricia Smith, he launched a movement which, as the Chicago Tribune puts it “lifted poetry off the page, liberated poetry from academia, outflanked the arbiters at the helm of literary magazines and publishing houses, and brought poetry directly to the people.” But the history of spoken word hardly starts with Marc Smith, because the ancient Greeks included spoken words in their Olympic Games and modern spoken word as we know it was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and blues. Nevertheless, spoken word poetry came more towards the mainstream in popularity a short time later when Gil Scott-Heron released his spoken word poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970.

Spoken word or performance poetry is a kind of oral lyrical poetry which is performed with a focus on the words themselves, the dynamics of tone, gestures and facial expressions.

Until the arrival of Kathy Amfray in the mid-2000s, most spoken word artists in Cameroon groped in the dark without recognition. With Ak Sang Grav, she went ahead to organise a couple of workshops and a competition, and the seed was sown. From that moment, the spoken word scene would never be the same again. Workshops and competitions flourished, and spoken word could now be identified with artists such as Ayrick Akam, Boudor, Koppo, Stone, Sadrack, Lady B, Em’Kal and Eben among others.

La Phraz Slam, started by Stone and Eben in 2007 remains seminal in the development of spoken word. Stone later moved on and started Ali Bavard (to give spoken word artists the opportunity to share their talents) and also organised workshops.

The evolution of spoken word in Cameroon has occurred without much media coverage, and it goes without saying that it is still unbeknown to a large public despite the activities of collectives and institutions such as La Phraz Slam, the French Institute, KIF’s Poetry Café, Ali Bavard, Ongola Slam Café, Koubalanta (Boudorium Prod) , the Goethe-Institut, FIIAA and Centre Culturel Francis Bebey among others where spoken word artist have evolved and put up performances in French, English and Pidgin (creole) over the years.

One of the most prominent spoken word artists remains Stone Karim, a multi-disciplinary artist who has participated in photography and spoken word events in Haiti and Senegal, and was artist in residence at Petit Pierre, Dakar in 2011. He experiments with words, sound, and pictures, and performs in French, English and Pidgin. In 2005 he joined khaliland, which is an art space that enables him and fellow spoken word artists-cum-photographers Em’Kal, Penko, and Sentury as well as others to experiment with their art. Khaliland regularly organises 180 Minutes at Khaliland, which is a mixture of poetry, sound, photography, projections and multimedia by Cameroonian and international artists and curators. One of the contributors to this project is Erin Bosenberg, a South African photographer. Khaliland also has a hall where spoken word events and improvisations are regularly held, and Khaliland is the only institution in Cameroon which offers residencies to local and international artists.

Stone refers to his art as poetography because he uses words to explain pictures in his mind and he uses pictures to describe things that words are not able to describe. So far as he is concerned, his poetry and photography are inextricable and are full of social themes.

Another household name in the Cameroonian spoken word scene is Boudor, who represented Cameroon at the Slamophonies and Dire en Fête festivals. His music label Boudorium Prod. is very involved in the production and dissemination of Cameroonian music, and has recently produced artists like Duc Z and Sahvane. He also organises a get together every two months in Douala known as Koubalanta, where spoken word, rap and other performances and workshops take place. With two and a half albums out, Boudor’s spoken word and music style is full of social and political commentary, and is very critical of the status quo.

Phatal, another spoken word artist, started the Ongola Slam Café at the French Institute in Yaoundé, which is held every Saturday and consists of workshops followed by open-mic sessions. The Ogola Slam Café is a collective, and workshops are handled by several spoken word artists.

Another spoken word artist worth mentioning is r’N, who started as a poet, but after the publication of his maiden collection Je t’aime en splash, turned to spoken word to express himself and created a spoken word group known as Nda Slam which was made up of Faithful, Dark Spirit and himself. In addition to organising workshops at the Centre Culturel Francis Bebey, he is working on a spoken word album.

With the release of Another Part of Me in 2010, acclaimed female rap artist Lady B, who started as a dancer, marked a transition in her style as she dived into spoken word. Lady B has featured in festivals from Johannesburg to Libreville, and recently, she was part of a multidisciplinary performance at the Goethe-Institut Cameroon.

Despite making great strides in spoken word circles—with performances in English, French, Pidgin and indigenous languages— spoken word remains not very popular with the general public, and part of the reason has to do with the culture of apathy that has existed for a while and plagues all art forms. Nevertheless, like every art form, spoken word has the power to comment on and transform our time, thus it is gradually becoming a form of art to reckon with, especially via the social commentary it provides on our epoch and the graphic experiments with poetry and pictures, creating a multi-disciplinary flux in the name of poetography which gives young people a voice, a raison d’être and at times pays their bills.

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Dzekashu MacViban

Dzekashu MacViban is a postgraduate student and freelance writer and editor. In 2012, he participated in the Kwani Literay festival in Nairobi as part of the Moving Africa Programme of the Goethe-Institut. He is the author of a poetry collection titled Scions of the Malcontent and is working on a collection of short stories. He is the founding editor of Bakwa magazine and is a columnist for the Ann Arbor Review of Books. His work has featured in Wasafiri, Fashizblack, Palapala, and The New Black Magazine among others, and has been translated into Japanese and Spanish.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut South Africa, June 2013