Spending time with a charismatic yet enigmatic artist can affect your way of being. Especially with one who utters poetically in normal conversation and can describe an ordinary scene with such vivid imagery.
For me, spoken word was for the cool, ‘deep’ people who wore head wraps, or had dreadlocks with bohemian style clothes and smoked weed, relating intrinsically on life’s triviality.
Enter: Inua Ellams spoken word/graphic artist.
Born in Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria ‘1984, Inua Ellams is a Word and Graphic Artist, a writer with a style as influenced by Classic literature as it is by hip hop, by Keats as it is by MosDef. Rooted in a love for rhythm and language, he crosses 18th century romanticism & traditional story telling with contemporary diction, loose rhythm and rhyme.
However, his first love was visual art; the first time he toyed with a pencil, he fell for the magic of line and form. He works extensively as a graphic designer / visual artist and also tries to mix the old with the new juxtaposing texture and pigment with flat shades of color and digitally created designs. He works in online and print.
We met at the South Bank Centre along the River Thames where many of London’s creative artists and tourists watch and enjoy the beauty and plethora of arts, culture, and poetry on offer.
sunchild – Inua, welcome to the Consciousness Lounge. Can you please introduce yourself and tell us who you are, where you’re from and what you do?
inua – Hello, my name is Inua Ellams. Currently I’m 25 years old, meaning I’m half as old as Nigeria is. I’m Nigerian and I’m a poet, playwright, graphic designer, visual artist, a writer and performer; so I work on the visual and literal side.
sunchild – Can you give us a brief rundown of your career progression up until this point?
inua – Well I kinda fell into this; I never wanted to be a writer. I just wanted to be a visual artist and spent the first years of my life learning how to draw and entertaining people with drawing, you know just expressing the visual side of me. I started writing because I couldn’t afford paint and still wanted to express myself with my fingers. Then I wrote this poem and I read it somewhere and the guy who ran the events said it was good. And that changed my life. I mean I’m a child of the Hip Hop generation and that really influenced how and what I wrote about, but I never ever considered it poetry…I never considered it good enough to be considered by anyone else as anything of worth.
sunchild – So were you a part of the whole ‘Ursula Rucker, Saul Williams generation’ of spoken word artists?
inua – I heard about them, in fact it was when I first heard Saul Williams album; Amethyst Rock Star; I thought wow people are considering that as poetry, then maybe I can do something as well.
sunchild – Who are your favourite artists, poets, and bands?
inua – Well Saul is one of my favourite artists, actually on the day my first book was launched, which was on the 23 Oct, 3 years ago (The 13 Fairy Negro Tales). I stepped out of Wagamama just below us here at South Bank and Saul walked past me. I ran over and I was like, dude what are you doing here? I had interviewed him a few times so he vaguely knew who I was and he told me he missed his connecting flight to California and was just gonna stay in this hotel. However something called him out, and he came out and saw this movie which was all about artistic expression and in the movie there was this artist locked in a room and how that was the ultimate death because he couldn’t express himself. I asked him what was he gonna do now and he said he was just gonna walk the streets of London. So I said “Well do you want to walk with me?” and he said “Yes” and then we walked for ages and ended up at my friend’s place until 3am reading poems back and forth and then he got his flight back home.
Yeah, so Saul in one of his poems he makes this statement; “Let your children name themselves”. Also there is something John Keats says; (who is also one of my favourite artists), he says that, “Poets are the mid wives of reality” by how we call things into being. So fooling around with that and bits of West Afrikan philosophy and tradition gave rise to my most recent play which is what I’m currently working on, called; Untitled.
So John Keats, Saul Williams, Joshua Idehem, Musa Okwonga, Benini City that I run Poejazzi with, Mos Def, a poet called Major Jackson, Nii Parks my editor and one of my closest friends, my mentor, my publisher as well a guy called Doze Green a graffiti artist and amazing visual artist, Kinsey, Vincent Van Gogh, a lady called Jay Bernard – an amazing British poet, a guy called Kayo Chingonnyi. On the spoken word side a guy called Polar Bear because of his narratives and how he works with subtle stories almost non stories. Yeah so those are a handful of my favourite artists.
sunchild – Tell us about some high points and low points and how you dealt with them?
inua – Well some low points are like when there’s this idea you’re chasing like a mad dog and you’re not sure if it’s going to make sense but it’s just killing you. I have had poems that sat on me for like 3 years and at the end I realise that the reason I’m writing it, isn’t worth writing in the first place. Things like that are low points where I find myself extremely vulnerable. Other low points are when; I let people influence how I do things and the reason why I do things. I mean obviously inspiration etc. is vital but when it comes down and shakes you at the core. I mean its good because it makes you realise who you are but sometimes if you let other people’s perceptions of what art should be infect yours then you not necessarily creating art, your creating an artificial response to other people. So that’s happened to me a couple of times. Other low points, well just a lack of inspiration where you completely demoralised and things that you actually believe in turn out to be lies.
High points well my play ‘The 14th Tale’ was a high point. Performing it at the National Theatre, and because of how amazing that space is, there are times when you can feel the audience breathing with you, like really breathing, you can hear their intakes of breath and the line between a giver and a receiver are so blurred it’s as if you are just one people. The times where that happens where you realise your power and the power of what you’re doing, that was amazing. One of the most incredible poetry experiences, which I’m yet to write about. However, I will by the end of the year.
There was this worst gig that I did at Glastonbury. It was so horrible that year I mean I woke up and my feet were under water. It was just disgusting, there was poo floating everywhere and my feet were cold and wet. I tied Tesco bags around my shoes to keep them waterproof and I just stepped up and was reading poems at the poetry and spoken word tent. I thought people were far too stoned or far too drunk to care about anything I said. However I stepped out, and the sky was overcast, with my Tesco bags around my feet and this lady comes up and she was wearing a poncho with this huge handmade scarf around her neck. It looked like she was wearing an old rainbow just dirty and filthy and she was holding this baby and her voice was almost gone and she could barely speak. Her voice sounded like smoke. Yeah, like mist or something and she just said in this dying, dusty breathy voice about my performance; “That was amazing!” and literally when she said that I swear, the clouds parted from behind her hair and sunlight came streaming through her dreadlocks onto my face just bathing me and I just I just felt like man, I could die happy right now. It was amazing, so that was one of my best highlights just that small interaction, just those 3 words changed my day completely.
Another experience was when I was reading this poem somewhere in Dalston, this love poem that I had read before and I thought, ok this is probably gonna be the last time I read it. I stepped off the stage and 3 women approached me, all of them bawling in tears and I was like what happened and the lady said “What you talked about in the poem my daughter has just gone through something like that about 6 months ago and she said she was never gonna date anyone ever again, but because of your poem it has given her new confidence to do that, so thank you very much”. This was a mother, daughter and grandmother all just bawling, holding me and kissing me on my cheeks and embracing me and with that, you just never know how you can move someone.
Just thinking about what I do and how personal, and at the same time global, one poem can be you know even just one line; yeah that has been one of my high points.
sunchild – What inspires you and how do you channel your inspiration into the final product that we the audience see?
inua – Well one thing that is the root of all my work is the belief that the idea of someone different from you does really exist, that is just being created by the meaning that we give to skin complexion, the gift of the size of the nostril. That our leaders say ok this is a border, this is my country and this is yours. All of those things go towards building up the perception of someone who’s different from you and I fundamentally don’t believe that. I mean even language, you know thought precedes language, if you have ever heard the statement I know what I’m thinking but I don’t know how to say it in words, well thought precedes language. So I think by that commonality we are fundamentally the same. The same pair of eyes that looks into a fire place and sees a spark, that is something that everyone shares and everything else is conditioned by our backgrounds, by our parents etc. But fundamentally we are all the same and that is one thing that fuels my work and I think a lot of people found in my play the 14th tale, regardless of background you can sit down and say dam I know exactly how you feel because I have been in that situation. So that basic thing is what fuels everything that I write.
sunchild – Is being a spoken word artist a lucrative career choice?
inua – Because I spent all my years before I started writing as a visual artist, whatever I begin to create I expect the work to be interrogated 2 dimensionally, something that can be picked up and read. So I see spoken word just as an extension of that. What is lucrative is that people pay, to come and see me read but I’m quite happy for them just to buy a book and read it in their own time. I am great performer of my work and it begins first and foremost with fooling around with language to get across an idea well enough and clear enough that whoever, you know Joe Bloggs from across the world, can pick it up and understand what I’m talking about. So yes it has been lucrative, I have done amazing and incredible things that some people spend their whole lives trying to do and I’m just on the tip of the iceberg. I’m starting to get deep into a career that could span the rest of my life and could even change and evolve etc.
sunchild – What would your advice be for people aspiring to become poets or spoken word artists?
inua – I would say that you should be aware of what has come before; this is to read a lot and to try and figure out what other spoken word artists have done. Also to read classic poetry because the idea of spoken word is sort of strange in that sometimes it could be you just talking and if that’s the case then it isn’t really art.
There needs to be a craft and that comes from what poets and the poets themselves; like the Byron’s, John Keats, you know – the wordsworths of the world, like the Pablo Neruda’s; to see what they have done and how they have crafted things on paper because everything has a narrative, everything has a basic structure and spoken word takes a leap from that and can sometimes seem to be divorced from that and the problem with that is that if it is you just talking , then that’s what it is…just you talking. It isn’t art and you need to figure out how that came about, and where it was grounded and if you can do that and it permeates through the heart of that, then you can create things that can’t just be classed as spoken word. It can be classed as a narrative, as a story or a poem in itself. So my advice to young spoken word artists is to read a lot, figure out what poetry is, you know fundamentally and then figure out how a verbal interpretation of a physical one or a present one is. Using the spoken word can lend weight to a poem.
Ja man I feel that, because for a long time when I was back in Johannesburg I was involved in the poetry scene and there were many artists who used to just look that part, you know head wraps and dreadlocks, and then come up on stage and just talk crap and until I saw your play I had divorced myself from spoken word and poetry.
Yeah man, I mean a good poet could wear a plain black outfit and conjure an entire world.
sunchild – What are you currently working on?
inua – Yeah well it’s the play I alluded to a little earlier.
sunchild – Is that the one called Knight Watch?
inua – Oh no that was something else I did which was that beginning of something I haven’t completed yet.
So what I’m currently working on is “Untitled”, which is my next play and it is set in the middle of a forest in Nigeria, well the first half is, and the second half is set in London somewhere. It’s about twin brothers separated at birth, the first grows up in the forest and the second grows up here. It stems back to this West Afrikan belief that a child grows up to embody his name. Therefore a kid named Freedom for instance; you can expect them to be troublesome you know just doing what he wants to do and if you couple that with what John Keats said, “Poets are the midwives of reality”, when you name something you call it into being, if you name your child Freedom after fashion you are determining their lives. Now Saul Williams says, “Let your children name themselves”, and if a child does that, keeping in mind the West Afrikan belief in naming them, they author their own destiny and get to decide who they are.
So those were the first few questions that got me thinking about what I am doing. Where’s this poem going and where is this play going? And that’s what it’s about. It’s about twin brothers separated at birth, one grows up without a name, the other doesn’t. The guy who grew up in London because of destiny ends up working as a brand consultant and works in the naming of things for commercial gain and at the end of the story he has to return to the village to name his brother because the spirits of the land go up against him, as do the villagers and the tribes etc.
So it fools around with philosophy and fools around with what it means to live in a western context and what it means to live in a Nigerian (Afrikan) context. It fools around with all these things and also questions the nature of destiny and of perception of family. Also I guess one of the overriding questions that I asked myself to do with Nigeria, is that Nigeria is 50 this year and those brothers were born in the year of Nigeria’s independence. So essentially they were born on the 1st of October 25 years ago, so together they unite to become 50 years old and the idea is that their characters, their identities are split two ways as Nigeria has been split between the diasporic community and those who are indigenous. The question is, if a country’s identity is split, where half goes here and the other stays in Nigeria, there is a disconnection and something needs to be resolved and I’m asking, what are these things that need to be resolved? How can they be resolved? And what sacrifices need to be made? Those are the things that gave birth to the play.
sunchild – Do you have any plans of visiting Afrika to promote your art and shows?
inua – No not as yet, my girlfriend works in international development and she would like to work in West Afrika. I’m not sure where, but if I get in contact with people who are interested or something like that then yes, there’s no problem to just get on a plane or boat and go over. So we’ll see what the future holds.
sunchild – Who do you think will win the world cup?
inua – Ahh I think it’s gonna be Brasil again.
sunchild – How about Black Stars?
inua – Hmm well you know about the brotherly rivalry between Ghanaians and Nigerians, so at first I was making fun of them saying like you guys only score from penalties and never from open play. I remember I was driving through Elephant and Castle after they scored their first goal and the Ghanaians were having a street party at like 5 in the afternoon. It’s a good thing they have gone so far especially after Nigeria’s dismal display, I mean I’m just so disappointed but glad that the president has grounded the team for 2 years cause they need to learn some discipline. I mean how do you just kick someone off the pitch when the ball wasn’t in play and spike him but I think Brasil to win though.
sunchild – How can people find out more about you MySpace, Facebook etc?
inua –www.phaze05.com //
sunchild – Any final words or comments?
inua – Final words, well I guess as much as possible is to try and be who you think you are supposed to be and to try and do this and divorce it from outside influence. You know if you sit in the dark when you’re completely at rest with the door shut. Whoever that is, that is who you are and at all times to try and be that person because at the end of the day nothing else matters. Shakespeare says; “This above all else, to thine ownself be true”. It’s fundamental you can’t lie to yourself, because if you lie to yourself in the dark then in the light you gonna be just a stage version of who you are meant to be and things like that don’t last forever.
sunchild – Cool man thanks so much for blessing us with your time.
Peace and thanks