Long overdue is this article, partly because like many of you I fear treading unchartered waters; for I neither posses the navigational skills nor do I have Christ-like talents that enable me to maneuver flawlessly on liquid forms. A little while back I had the great fortune of meeting Myesha Jenkins (http://consciousness.co.za/interact/spoken-mind/passages-to-an-evergreen-spirit/), followed shortly thereafter by a rather fated acquaintance with two young slam poets. The outcome, amongst many other benevolent outcomes, of meeting these individuals was a dual sighted view into slam poetry.
In a letter that Myesha wrote on the subject, she said, “I walked into a room full of people I’m used to seeing at poetry sessions, maybe a little younger, maybe more Rasta’s but it was the general cast of characters that I consider myself to be in community with. And they were competing! With score cards, mathematician and MC egging it on, the audience was voting on poets. They were deciding who was good and who was bad and dismissed the low vote getters from the stage… what was the criteria for judgment? It was very unclear; part pop-star, part idols. Poetry doesn’t stand with popularity but reflects individual voices, visions, social commentary and protest. It’s not a “big willy” contest. Being a winner doesn’t mean instant salvation and escape from poverty. I think the whole popularity route draws on the vulnerable and desperate to believe in instant success. Is poetry just another competitor sport?”
Marc Kelly Smith (born 1949) aka Slampapi, (http://marckellysmith.com) the gentleman credited as the ‘father’ of slam poetry, began the artform at the “Get Me High Lounge” in Chicago; USA, on November 1984. Perhaps unaware of the far reach and influence that this type of poetry would have. Now, my article is not about its history or any particular individuals view on poetry slam, (though I lean more towards Myesha’s thinking on this) but rather an in-depth review of the “House of Hunger (HoH) Poetry Slam” (hosted by Linda Gabriel at Alliance Francaise) that I attended on June 19. The two gentlemen I mentioned earlier are no strangers to this place, Donald “Neosapian” Mokgale and Lazarus “The LazarusMan” Mathebula have both won this competition a few times (five times between them to be exact)
So I arrive safely at the venue, which sits opposite the Zoo Lake, courtesy of a lift with Tujay Harmoniques and Paul Paunde. Chairs are swiftly set up for the open aired show and soon afterwards the competitors register their names and receive PS Chocolate bars sponsored by Cadbury. There are 18 competitors in total and only ONE would go on to win the prize which was a sponsored trip to Zimbabwe for a poetry slam which was held at the original home of HoH on the 3rd of July. (http://www.zimbojam.com/culture/literary-news/1595-poetry-slam-sets-up-regional-performance-circuit.html) Now, a typical Poetry Slam features three rounds with the best slammers advancing to the next round. The M.C chooses at least five judges randomly from the audience who will determine who the ‘best’ is. The ‘best’ and ‘worst’ scores are taken down and the three remaining scores tally up the performers overall score. For this particular slam the advancement in terms of ‘number of poets per round’ looked like this; 18-10-7.
The show begins with Linda outlining the rules and procedures of the slam and then calling up the days “Sacrificial Poet,” Donald the Neosapian, to demonstrate how everything works. This is also done to align the judges scores so that they may get a picture of what type of performance is worthy of a 10 or a 0. Something to note from slams, is that it is a “Competitive and Performance based platform.” All the people who enter know this or should know this. I’ve been exploring the different genres or rather styles of poetry and I find it is safe to say, “Slamming is not for the literary based poet,” the lady or gentleman who prefers poetry readings/recitals over performance which is subjected to all manner of theatrics. The crowd, too, knows this. The judges expect this. So, cursed is the still toddling poet who ventures on this judgmental platform and expects a sensitive response to his/her work from a crowd predominantly hungry for ‘sick’ metaphors, similes and punchlines. However, occasionally, such as on this day, some of the judges are not necessarily your hardcore slam judges and this reflected in how some of the ‘not necessarily slamming’ poets advanced to the 2nd round, but in their defense, this is also aided by the number of ‘slamming’ poets.
The ice breaking poet, Lazarusman, began by defining the meaning of his Hebrew name (which he creatively extended by adding ‘man’ at its tale.) Lazarus means “God will help” and with its upgrade it becomes “God will help man.” Nifty… and an even niftier performance. The stage was also braced by the gracious words of Philani “TPP” Nyoni. Zuki was followed by the “Gentleman” himself, Paulsaid. Thabo was next, followed by Dee who read from his phone. This is what I mean, Dee went through and he was good (maybe even very good) but I wonder how the people before him, those who took time to memorize their work, felt about someone going through whilst they were reading from a phone. Don expressed this to him shortly after the show ended. You’ve got to respect that these guys do try to improve each other; positive criticism has never been known to kill anyone. A very nervous Themba Lunacy was next, he eventually relaxed when Paul suggested he picture us naked (proof that it works.) Phumlani was clearly one of the favorites as he went on to reach the finals. He scored a heavy 26 in the 1st round, better than the eventual winner of the day.
One of my 3 favorites for the day was a lady by the name of Emmah, not because she was a woman, but because her work actually competed with the best, sure in performance and articulate in speech. In fact, she was one of two gifted sisters to make it to the final round (not that there was an ocean of female performers) along with a sister by the name of Xtreme Sanity (all the way from Limpopo.) It is easier for me to ‘judge’ female poets, because the good ones aren’t trying to sound like Lebo. They are the ones who’ve found the strength of their own voices and have found a way to knit it all together into a performance oozing with their uniqueness. With guys it all goes flip side, ‘dopeness’ usually has an ego and our performances testify to that. We are too sure of ourselves. Xtreme was followed by an abstract sounding Magnum Opus, we share an ‘r’ problem. It was a very beautiful performance from the Opus. Nyameko was a mind shift for me, purely vernac spitting brother from Vosloorus who had the audience dancing to the rhythm of his tongue. Pace and flow are home to him. “Virgin” is the term used when it is ones 1st time in participation of anything these days and so Khanyiso fits the term perfectly. Majestic was another great performer on this day and the reason he stood out for me was that, despite the display of linguistic skill, he actually addressed societal ills and this is one of Slams raison d’être’s is it not? Had he continued consistently with such performance pieces, he would have gone on to the final on my score card. Chuznana was followed by Thokozane who broke all the rules of slam. Granted, it was his first time, but like I said, “NO FIRST TIMERS SHOULD GO ONTO THIS KIND OF PLATFORM.” Taxan was the final performer and qualifier from the first round with a piece titled “Devils recipe.” His poem left all present with a question, “Will you be part of the recipe?”
I must admit though, I had thought the session would reek with poems overly saturated with punchlines, metaphors etc, but I found that such rhetoric and figure of speech was frugally used. The crowd was VERY SENSITIVE as there were some poets who would have been subjected to a cold reception at even ‘normal’ sessions. The round was opened with an effervescent performance from the humble Tujay (Harmoniquez) who rendered a piece titled, “I write with the Pan African Movement, listen” from his forthcoming album. Tujay was not competing.
This round saw drama as poets drew swords to avoid split decisions, inevitable mixed reactions and to iron out the previous rounds uncertainties. Taxan was asked to make his mark and embrace the microphone. Not one to be caught in inertia, he quickly rotates his fiery tongue to propel his fate to the levels of 10’s and 9’s. “Points lick pages,” he says grabbing our attention. A poem thoroughly buttered with punchlines. One needs mental stamina to keep up with lines such as, “… when I hang coats with the same vocal chords I use to lace up my shoes to ensure that I don’t lose ties with my soul.” 24 is his final score.
Chuznana is next with a fault lined performance in comparison to Taxan’s, with a poem sweetly titled, “Guava Lover.” The judges give him a sour 20.
I sat up ebulliently as Majestic came forth. I expected a story and he gave me one. He told a tale which bordered on the ends of infatuation, an overly precocious love story which stank of a sour ending. Days merging with night rather too slowly for that long awaited ‘first time.’ The kind of first time that comes and goes too soon. Judges hit him with a handsome looking 25… and I smile.
Now, for that threat of a guy from the ghetto next door to my ghetto-ish suburb. Nyameko goes on a verbal treadmill set on the highest level and even my Isizulu literate tongue can not keep up to the story. So somewhere before I get it ‘nyana’ (a little) the flow intrigues me, so much so that I lose the plot and just wait for the judges’ scores. A heavy 27. Tjer this guy!!!
Magnum Opus’ comical voice aptly fits his poem like; ‘hand in a leather glove’ type of comfort. It begins with “a gang of stupid, Egyptian orphans searching for their mommies in pyramid schemes,” before he goes into the world of Popeye spinach, Zorro, Finding Nemo, Pinocchio, Tarzan… He “Cartoon Networked” us basically. Threading comical stories with a sharp pointed, needle like tongue. A gifted poet indeed. Judges decision? An unfinal worthy 22.
So Chuznana and Magnum Opus are out with Majestic in and Nyameko in the lead. With 5 more performers to follow, I nurse the butterflies in my stomach on behalf of the 2 perceived finalists. Xtreme Sanity gracefully braces the stage with Queen-like demeanor and I find myself wondering if she would tame the mostly female judges. “This piece is titled ‘Survival Techniques’…” and she introduces it as “one of my virgin scripts.” That is were I began doubting her pedigree as a potential finalist. The poem sounds too pro to be virgin in my ears and so I have hope for her. Her delivery is exquisite which further blurs my judgment. So I wait for the judges to decide my queen’s fate. “24” say the scores. She’s in.
I feel it is necessary to express who my 3 favorites where at this point. Majestic, Xtreme and the next poet… Emmah… these three were my MISJUDGED favorites**, As the small framed Emmah approached the mic, I doubt any in the audience could have fore-read the outcome of the slam. All in the audience shared one exclusive view, “This is going to be a very close slam.” Her poem was based on the expression, “Men don’t cry.” A poem she performed from a male perspective. I feared for her, but as she sat down the (male) crowd roared and hope was restored. 25 was her score. In.
Phumlani was next. I still do not understand, from my judgment, how he became the runner up, but he did. He spat a short, Vernac/English poem which was well written and delivered with some piquancy. Maybe it was my lack of judgment or maybe the competition just was that tight, but I just did not see him in the final. A 24 for Phumlani. He’s in.
Dee was next, reading from the phone again, a poem titled “Jozi Streets.” A well read, spiritual poem which focuses on walking the streets with figures of deity. 18 for Dee. He’s out.
Lazarus is called up to close off the round, I picture a weeping Jesus shouting, “Lazarus, come forth,” and a surprised, phantom looking figure hovering over to the mic stand. He drops a poem about a lady, constantly referring to her as a cell phone number, who left her panties at his house. A humorous, highly pixilated and well crafted story unfolds, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong, I’m saying you’re missing a silver brown thong with a metallic piece at the back…” A HUGE 28 for Lazarus, who is then penalized for going over board the 3minute time allocation. Anything within 3mins 30sec’s goes without punishment, the 30sec’s falls within the period of grace. Lazarus’ poem was 3min’s 35sec’s. So a good 27 for Lazarus. He’s in.
And then lo and behold, Linda announces the 3rd and final round. So I celebrate and re-check my list to make sure my favorites went through and what do you know, Christmas in June.
Mandisa performs a poem (not competing) dedicated to women. I guess in a society of so many inequalities, women still need to be affirmed now and again and they receive the affirmation warmly.
List of performers and points for round 3:
Xtreme Sanity (21); Nyameko (24); Taxan (24); Majestic (23); Emmah (24); Lazarus (27); Phumulani (25)
Phumlani was quite good in this round actually, so that is how he ended as a runner up. It is safe to say that a Slam is a genre of stamina. Your poems have to captivate the judges and 2 of the 3 pieces have to be top notch. Lazarus’ performances were clearly cut from the cloth of deity as he saw himself taking the Slam for the third time. Do you see the drama? Third place saw 3 ties between Nyameko, Taxan and Emmah. The 3 had to battle it out in a battle of wits. On the mic, Nyameko confesses of being nervous before he spits a poem called “Abathakathi” (zulu word for witches.) Either Emmah or Taxan were making him nervous or the witches. Nyameko scores a 24. Emmah is next with a poem titled, “My love for poetry rekindled.” She scores a 24. Taxan spits a poem titled, “Crazy Mans Journal, page 1.” 19 is his final score… Do you see the tie?
Let’s just say, finally the score between Emmah and Nyameko was 26 and 27respectively. Thus 3rd place was occupied by Nyameko. Humility (English translation of Nyameko) served him well.
Linda concluded the Slam with a set she performed accompanied by Morgan on guitar. She also said her goodbyes as she was leaving for Malawi (check out the article with Linda on http://consciousness.co.za/interact/spoken-mind/linda-archangel-of-spoken-word/
I left the Slam drained by the competition and cold from the winds unforgiving kisses. It seems even in South Africa, there is an audience for Poetry Slams. I am not a slammer, I am a poet, but I believe in giving all things poetry a try, so catch me at the next slam at the House of Hunger on the 31st of July, Slamming.