By Chukwuma Ajakah
The tradition of rendering what is today known as the spoken word poetry to a live audience is an age-long feature of Africa’s traditional poems. Verbalization of poems in the form of songs, chants, praises, incantations, et cetera is characteristic of African traditional poetry. However, the emergence of the print media and subsequent preference for written literature had relegated this to an obscure background until recent developments in literature, technology and communication triggered its phenomenal re-emergence.
There appears to be a renaissance as a number of poets have begun to explore the resources available in their oral cultural heritage. Signs of the return to the oral tradition began with Okotp’Bitek, J.P. Clark and NiyiOsundare whose poems, “Songs of Lawino”, “Streamside Exchange” and “Village Voices” are respectively translated from African folklores. Donatus IbeNwoga, author of the famous anthology, West African Verse once remarked that “The poet combines various techniques to produce his meaning and it is on the success of these techniques that the beauty of a poem depends”.
The increasing need to make the poet’s thoughts accessible to a wider audience has led to the inclusion of diverse patterns of media and techniques in its production and transmission. Conversely, contemporary poetry operates on a complex medium as it requires a combination of the written and oral modes for documentation and presentation. Modern technology provides recording, transmitting and storing equipment that enables the performer to reach a wide audience.
The poets reenact the ancient African tradition of communal storytelling in performing the spoken-word verses. The oral tradition of involving the audience in the performance is rekindled in the presentations as the performer tactically engages the audience, using some conversational strategies to curry their support. Spoken-word poets such as Nigeria’s Dike Chukwumerije, Akeem Lasisi, Evelyn Osagie, Efe Paul Azino, Donna Ogunnaike, TitilopeSonuga and the renowned poet, NiyiOsundare have expanded the frontiers of the emerging genre, courtesy of their creative ingenuity.
At the 23rd National Economic Summit held in October 2017, Dike Chukwumereije who is arguably the most prolific spoken-word poet in Nigeria performed at both the opening and closing ceremonies, presenting a poem titled “The Wall and the Bridge”. Dike had an immediate connection with his audience as his prefatory statements, alluding to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and There Was a Country achieved the desired effect of arousing the interest of the audience.
Most spoken-word poets deploy on the spot improvisations to trigger spontaneous audience responses as in traditional oral setting where the audience claps, stands, cheers or pay rapt attention. Dike exemplifies this in his public performances as he uses hand and other forms of body movements to demonstrate his utterances. Such devices help to explicate the performer’s thoughts, thereby, making the audience response to the performance.
Exponents of the spoken-word poem strive to bridge the age-old gap between the poet and listeners as they elicit active audience participation through the infusion of diverse storytelling and dramatic techniques into the public presentation of poems as instantiated in Dike’s “The Wall and the Bridge” and NiyiOsundare’s “Invocation of the Word”.
Moreover, the poets’ imaginative use of language makes the poems to evoke vivid imagery of the embedded message, thereby creating a lasting impression on the audience. Unlike most classical poets that emphasize technical details of lyricism to achieve verbal finesse, modern poets tend to focus on the spoken word performance. The degree of audience participation in an oral performance of a poem largely depends on the poet’s ability to use the “right words” and employ devices that would make the composition to appeal to the sensibilities of the hearer.
Dike adopts the storytelling mode of traditional Igbo folktales which he uncannily combines with poetic devices to hold his audience from the opening to the closing lines of the poem as he expresses deep concern for the unity and development of Nigeria. The embedded message encompasses socio-economic, cultural and political issues. He merges the forms of prose and poetry as he directs his audience to events in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and There Was a Country. He fuses the fictional world of the novels with the realities of Nigeria’s socio-economic and political realities in the tortuous journey from the colonial era to nationhood.
The poet recites the opening lines in a manner reminiscent of narrative folklores: If a white man turned and called me nigger/ my blood would boil in righteous anger/ for the evil of discrimination is clearly established/ when a white man tries to treat me like rubbish/ This allusion to Africa’s colonial experience enables him to connect with the audience who ostensibly harbor similar sentiments. Having aroused their interest, the poet throws the punch line to prick their conscience: If Hausas say that Igbos are greedy and crude/ And the Igbo say that Hausas are haughty and rude/ And the Ijaw say that the Itshekiri must die today/ and the elders tell the zealots there is no other way/…If the Yoruba say that it is Awo or nothing…/And we use Federal character to share everything…
The lines depict the ethnocentric sentiments that impede national integration, peaceful co-existence and development. The poet couches his message in formulaic expressions that would compel an audience to keenly watch his performance until the very last line: The Wall and the Bridge are both in the heart. Dike’s preference for metaphorical expressions such as “the wall and the bridge is in the heart” poses some difficulty which is, however, quickly doused as he uses a sign language-indicating “stop” or “keep moving”, to explain the construct: “the wall” refers to the things that cause divisions while “the bridge” connotes progress.
Mythology – a characteristic of traditional folklore, also resonates in the line: No culture is older than being human and the poet’s reference to the creation story through the lines: /When God made man He gave him no facial marks.