16 July 2013

South Africa: Performance Poetry Takes Cape Town By Storm

There is a movement of art sweeping South Africa--spoken word and performance poetry. Though a relatively modern artform, most agree that South African performance poetry is rooted in the old tradition of the sharing of oral stories and histories and influenced oftentimes by music. Performance poetry is composed with the expressed goal of sharing it with an audience.

While many of the most famous South African performance poets, such as Lesego Rampolokeng or Lebogang Mashile, have never shared their work in a competition format, poetry slams are also gaining more and more popularity across the country. In a typical poetry slam, poets perform their work and then are judged on a numeric scale by randomly selected audience members.

On Saturday afternoon, about 60 people gathered for a poetry slam at Armchair Backpackers and Pub in Observatory. Many poets used chants and call-and-response techniques to involve the audience in their performances. Some audience members anticipated the words of poets and finished their sentences. The audience and the performers were racially diverse, spanning a wide age range, with a sprinkling of foreigners but mostly locals from across Cape Town.

Kyle Louw, a popular poet with the crowd who is in his early twenties says that diversity is one of the defining aspects of the South African poetry community, which only adds to the experience of local and national slams. Louw lives in Strand, but often commutes to Observatory for poetry slams and open mic sessions. "I don't mind traveling long distances to compete. I know that a lot of the poets come from all over and that some even walk to the events," said Louw. He believes such commitment and diversity offers further opportunity to build connections and strengthen the poetry community. "I have always seen the travelling as a blessing, a window."

Lingua Franca is a poetry collective that performs competitively in local, national, and regional competitions. It was founded in 2009 by four young poets and is, in their words, "rooted in the community of Delft." With a list of 18 poets, the slam was divided into two rounds and, ultimately, the top 3 scorers were chosen to join the Lingua Franca team that will go on to compete against other South African-based teams in the Poetica Slam for the Open Book Festival in September.

The slam bore resemblance to a concert. Poets often sang or danced while reciting their poems. One of the judges for the slam, Adrian "Different" Van Wyk, who is the events coordinator for a performance poetry collective based in Stellenbosch called InZync, says that his first introduction to poetry was Hip Hop and that music continues to influence his work today. He began performing poetry and competing in slams when he was 16, and he won his first slam that same year.

The poems covered several themes. Poets talked about pride in the African continent and South Africa in particular. They challenged ideas about identity and promoted social justice. This last piece, for Van Wyk, is particularly central to the concept of performance poetry and slam. He emphasized the special role that poets play in society as some of the only people who can highlight "social ills" and inform others. "It is important to speak about the unglamorous as well," he explained. "Because poets are seen as the prophets of society. If we don't talk about those things, who will?"

Louw agrees that spoken word "has a vital role in today's landscape" and emphasized the benefits that performance poetry has for the performer as well. "Spoken word specifically is about expressing yourself but it goes far beyond that, especially for my generation. Spoken word is a tool that allows us to say what we feel in a safe environment," said Louw.

The growth of the spoken word and slam communities in South Africa and Cape Town is exciting for Van Wyk but he noted that the community should remain true to its roots. "There's the danger of commodification of poetry, the danger of it becoming Americanized." He cited Johannesburg's poetry scene as one that became too focused on outside and foreign forces. "You have to stay true to your environment and write about what is important there."

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