Moving Forms: Individuals, Institutions, and the Production of Slam Poetry Networks in Southern Africa
In late 2016, nineteen-year-old Zimbabwean-South African poet vusumuzi mpofu posted the text of a slam poem entitled “Foreign Searching for Rain” to his personal Facebook page. The poem uses mpofu’s personal experience of economic displacement to trace the joint history of Zimbabwe’s failing economy and South Africa’s growing xenophobia. The post drew dozens of likes, comments, and shares in its first day. By the time mpofu performed the poem at an open mic in a local café, his audience knew it so well that they responded in anticipation of upcoming lines. Several people audibly inhaled after the simple setup, “I leave Johannesburg, traveling further south, to Cape Town,” anticipating the emotional follow-up: “My mother’s presence calms the storm in me. She is a home in motion, housing the broken boy.”1 Together with many of mpofu’s friends and fans that night, I experienced the performance—otherwise typical of the work performed at Cape Town open mics—as a digital piece come to life, and our shared knowledge of it drew us together in sympathy with the performer. The poem’s digital life had molded its meaning prior to its performance, shaping its audience into a community linked through mpofu’s words. [End Page 153]
The production, circulation, and reception of Mpofu’s poem—inspired by slam poets on YouTube, developed in local workshops, performed at small open mics, and now published on YouTube—speak to the role of multimodal encounters in producing the seemingly global genre of slam poetry. Mpofu’s performance style, characterized by conversational rhythms punctuated by dramatic imagery, exemplifies the style of slam poetry that has become increasingly popular in Africa over the past decade.3 Moreover, the poem’s circulation reflects the multimodal nature of slam poetry itself: printed and performed, audio and visual, verbal and bodily. In each case, audience interactions and expectations shape the form’s meaning and reception, producing a networked poem that builds on the globally popular genre. In these encounters between form and function, each element of poetic meaning-making is transformed, creating a globally recognizable form that nonetheless varies in its aesthetics and production: consistent length and tone mark a poem’s exposure to audience judgement, but the forms of the poems allow variation in rhythm, rhyme scheme, and message that mark the poems’ different influences.
This article explores the decade-long rise of slam poetry in southern Africa, situating it at the crossroads of literary culture, shifting media paradigms, and the [End Page 154] ascent of what Doreen Strauhs calls “literary NGOs” (LINGOs).2 In doing so, it asks: How does a literary form move? What institutional and infrastructural support facilitates the geographic spread of a particular literary form?
Slam poets and the institutions that support them negotiated a place for poetry performance in contemporary urban landscapes by bringing locally conventional attitudes toward poetry into conversation with spoken word styles from the Global North. In the process, they used available technologies and genres to shift the structure of the form itself. Slam poetry is transmitted both digitally and in performance, in each case responding to the norms of individual platforms and aesthetic communities. For instance, where local events often require cohesive twenty-minute sets, the disjointed structure of a YouTube feed encourages briefer excerpts and soundbites. New media standards have influenced slam poetry’s form, cementing the three- to five-minute standard for slam poetry. At the same time, slam competitions’ emphasis on participation produced new poetic communities, centered on urban youth organizations that take advantage of the form’s openness to produce a wide range of poetry and to center themselves firmly in what they see as a globally salient, culturally valuable form. Throughout, social media circulations shape live performance venues and genres, transforming poetic form through both the direct action of institutions and the indirect influence of internet platforms. Even as institutional networks establish new poetry slams, slam poetry’s publication online constrains its form to the works most readily rewarded by digital audiences: brief, highly emotional pieces that deal with contemporary problems in everyday language.
Indeed, despite common claims to slam poetry as a liberatory form, its institutionalization implicitly standardizes the works that receive recognition. In this article, I evaluate the joint influence of digital aesthetics and institutional norms on slam poetry’s spread through Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa. I argue that the digital and the institutional work in tandem to standardize a hybrid literary form, promoting those artists who innovate within its limits to mark their investment in a world literary order. In southern Africa in particular, [End Page 155] young poets work within and against formal boundaries, both highlighting the institutionalization of a seemingly democratic form and illustrating how artists from the Global South mobilize that institutionalized globalized form to new ends. I begin with a brief outline of slam poetry’s history and its primary formal characteristics. I then trace its institutional history in the region, beginning with the Zimbabwe-based House of Hunger poetry slam. House of Hunger’s institutional spread reveals the intricate networks of international cultural organizations that have facilitated slam’s global spread. I next evaluate Qabaniso “Q” Malewezi’s influence on Malawi’s poetry scene, where slam’s performance aesthetics have, in conjunction with local forms and expectations, engaged audience performer interactions toward collaborative rather than competitive ends. I conclude by analyzing Cape Town’s Lingua Franca Spoken Word Movement, a collective whose work illustrates how the conjunction of slam aesthetics, traditional forms, and multimedia performance modes can engage an Afrocentric performance form. Poets transform audience-oriented consumerist competitions into collaborative venues promoting youth voices apart from the competition framework.
BUILDING AESTHETIC NORMS: THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF POETIC FORM
The competition format of the poetry slam has facilitated its rapid spread over the past three decades, from its starting point on Chicago’s North Side, through cities and universities around the world.4 According to the official rules of Poetry Slam, Inc. (PSI)—rules that have been adopted by every major slam I’ve attended—poetry slams require that each poet perform a work of their own creation in no more than three minutes. In the words of former PSI president Scott Woods, “[p]oetry slams are not an art form. Poetry slams are a device, a trick to convince people that poetry is cooler. . . . By dressing up poetry in the raiment of a fight or a contest, it appeals to the modern taste for sensationalism in art.”5 Woods goes on to suggest that the contest format draws attention to the poetry, making it a “gimmick” that serves the production of socially conscious poetry. As Susan Weinstein has shown, though, the competition format can overshadow the production of poetry, blurring the line between gimmick and goal.6
Slam competitions are judged by audience members. Interactivity is therefore key to winning, and audience members are encouraged to shout out to the [End Page 156] poets if they feel moved to do so. Woods notes that this interactivity “offers a way to experience that work in a way that no book or computer can capture.”7 Poets often engage their audience directly, making them co-performers in a communal poetic experience. The conversational style of most slam poems invokes this personal relationship between audience and performer, while its emphasis on wordplay and jokes keeps a potentially fickle audience attentive. Across media, slam poems tend to be highly emotive, often evincing exaggerated anger, heightened enthusiasm, or solemn sadness. The poem relies on the inflection and bodily presence of the performer for its meaning, with dramatic gestures helping render it immediately legible to an audience who must fathom its entire world in just a few minutes.
The capsule quality of many slam poems—what performance poet and scholar Javon Johnson calls “our witty and often heartbreaking three-minute lectures”— has proven well-suited to digital circulation: slam poems are brief and easily digestible; they address common concerns; and they rely on strong rhythms and sonic devices that make them relatively repeatable.8 Moreover, slam’s general rule that writers perform their own work assures authenticity in the face of digital anonymity.9 Slam’s fit with digital publication has brought widespread popularity to videos like Neil Hilborn’s “OCD,” which was viewed over fourteen million times between 2014 and 2019. As Kila van der Starre argues:
Through a combination of the oldest form of poetry (oral) and the newest (digital) . . . poetry in the twenty-first century is a widespread, actively experienced and annotated, transmedia genre. . . . Messages in different media are “leaping across” all over the place: live stage performance to YouTube, from YouTube to social media, personal blogs and close reading websites, from the Internet to a printed book, from a printed book to television and back to the YouTube video.10
Digital video publication retains the embodied urgency that typifies slam poetry and that can be lost in print publication. The digital popularity of this work— itself largely U.S.-American—has given emerging poets successful models upon which to build in their own work, standardizing what had been a hybrid form.11 Many slam organizers I spoke with in southern Africa pointed to the documentary Louder than a Bomb and to videos published on YouTube as the source of their inspiration.12 [End Page 157]
Slam poets regularly suggest that the competition format and the egalitarian publication opportunities of digital platforms promise to democratize poetry. Urayoán Noel reflects this promise when he argues, “it is not that slam is inherently counterpublic in any interesting sense; it is that it opens up a space for (diasporic, feminist) counterpublic articulation.”13 What happens to that platform, though, when we account for the role of institutions in managing its spread? Over the past decade, slam poetry has been functionally managed by institutions like PSI in the U.S. and by international NGOs like the Goethe-Institut in Africa. The dominance of such institutional platforms complicates the slam’s claims to democratize poetry.
In southeastern Africa, poets draw on the structure of U.S.-based poetry slams in order to explore Afrocentric poetics. Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Christopher Ouma, and Katleho Shoro argue that “the contemporary spoken words forms in the [African] continent . . . draw from the evolved versions of slam poetry popularized by Russell Simmons,” even as they build on the “transgressive spirit” of oral traditions.14 Slam, like other performance poetry in Africa, carries an ethos of community engagement.15 Jules Banda, who won the University of Malawi’s annual slam with a poem entitled “My Story” in 2016, told me that he writes primarily about social issues because “I believe that when I’m doing my poetry, I’m both a missionary, an activist, and also more like a brother to somebody. So I share some of the most painful experiences I’ve endured, just to inspire the next man.”16
In each place the form has spread, slam poets aim to fulfill the social role they imagine poetry enacts. Moses Serubiri, for instance, echoes a common trend in scholarship on spoken word in Africa when he analyzes its Ugandan practitioners in terms of their continuity with oral traditions.17 South African poet Siphokazi Jonas connects slam to Xhosa and Zulu praise poetry traditions in that “it has a very social function. [End Page 158] It brought people together. But it was also used to critique leadership, to tell the chief, these are our grievances, and obviously to praise them and so on. . . . So that for me, when I write poetry that is around rallying a community, that’s the poetry that I’m drawing from.”18 For Jonas, slam poetry presents an opportunity to build connections between poet, audience, and broader cultural landscape, a modern and largely urban response to poetic tradition. Attention to the social function of poetry ties slam poets to the communities they address, while constraining their critique to recognizable forms.
While many poets and scholars suggest that slam allows a frank discussion of socially urgent topics pertaining to marginalized communities, each slam poem succeeds or fails based on its ability to convince its audience of its formal or thematic merit. The poets’ topics are therefore tempered by their social position and their audience’s willingness or intention to listen, which can divide poet and audience, as it does for the Louisiana youth slams that Weinstein studies. A slam poem’s themes must remain within a carefully moderated range, judged relative to its audience. In Malawi, where debates around homosexuality have been fueled by anger about international interventions, a poem arguing that homosexuality should be condemned became a popular sensation, where it would be unthinkable in most American and South African slam communities.19 Despite the common claim that slam opens up new venues for unspeakable stories, then, the competition format constrains the work that it promotes.
Community desires thus determine slam’s topics, leading many poets and scholars to claim that slam in Africa represents a populist and anticolonial impulse. In Kenya, critic Mwaura Samora lauded the “new poetry” as “[u]nlike the classical poems of yesteryears promoted by former colonial powers in Africa, where conformity controlled creativity, slams promote spoken word, a relatively new style of performance poetry that gives the artist a license for unprecedented wordplay . . . either to extol virtues or to condemn vices.”20 Samora’s sense of slam poetry’s utopic power reflects commonly held notions that youth poetry offers an expressive outlet for marginalized communities, from queer teenagers in the U.S. to anonymous YouTube viewers across the Global North.21 Slam’s investment in authenticity, its utopian positioning as a democratic future, and its association with youth politics all mark its engagement with a digitally mediated cultural shift under which the audience becomes paramount. [End Page 159]
This engagement is both metaphoric and literal: for many poets, digital platforms provide key spaces in which to engage their community. Johnson argues, “it is impossible to think about slam and spoken word poetry communities without considering how [ poets] make use of virtual space.”22 In Malawi, for instance, WhatsApp’s customizable data options allow poets to share recordings of poetry at relatively low cost. At the same time, emerging open mic nights tap into aesthetic networks through hashtag channels on Facebook and Twitter. Digital platforms support youth-led communities in places where infrastructure otherwise limits travel and communication. At the same time, they mediate poetry through algorithms beyond the user’s control. This paradox in many ways encapsulates the contradictions of contemporary slam poetry in southern Africa: made by and for independent youth operating outside traditional cultural institutions and yet reliant on institutional structures for its success.
The goals of slam poetry—popularizing literature, engaging communities, and supporting marginalized voices—are at odds with the institutional mechanisms that support its spread, including universities and cultural NGOs. In the U.S., the “poetry slam” nominatively began with Marc Smith’s appropriation and institutionalization of poetry boxing matches.23 Moradewun Adejunmobi describes a typical instance in Mali, where “slam poetry was introduced formally . . . during the Etonnant[s] Voyageur[s] book festival.”24 These institutions ensure that slam poetry retains its essential form and theme, relying on audience adjudications that reward high emotion and surprising wordplay. Examining slam poetry’s spread therefore requires balancing attention to its counter-hegemonic ideals and potential to create new platforms with its reliance on institutional support. In southern Africa, this story begins in 2005 at House of Hunger, a monthly poetry slam in Harare that brought together the city’s growing poetry and performance community, shaping a generation of poets through the rhythm of the slam, before beginning a franchise that would spur slam poetry in South Africa as well.
SLAM’S INSTITUTIONS: HOUSE OF HUNGER, LINDA GABRIEL, AND ZIMBABWEAN POETRY NETWORKS
House of Hunger, as the first local slam in southeastern Africa to receive consistent funding, would go on to influence the form’s circulation and character throughout the region. Between 2003 and 2015, the program attracted around [End Page 160] a hundred regular attendees to its monthly slams in Harare. The slams culminated in annual competitions, the winners of which would compete in broader regional competitions. The monthly slams introduced upcoming poets to mentors who performed at the Book Café; winning the annual competitions allowed poets to travel; and franchising the slams began a regional network of competitions. The venue acted as an arts incubator for emerging voices even as it rewarded aesthetic forms developing in the Global North. Its spread would reshape the performance poetry landscape in southern Africa: even as the competition format emphasizes the labor of individual poets, the institution structured poetic accomplishment through the selection of venues and the instruction of judges.
The structure of the House of Hunger Poetry Slams captures both the complex funding arrangements that support slam poetry in southern Africa and the role of digital media in its spread. House of Hunger was sponsored first by Book Café and later by Pamberi Trust. Originally founded as part of the ruling party ZANU-PF’s push for cultural nationalism, Pamberi is now funded primarily through international cultural funds like Africalia, the Collinson Trust, and Alliance Française.25 It redistributes funds from organizations rooted in the Global North, reflecting Madhu Krishnan’s suggestion that, for many literary producers in Africa, “to accept funding from a Ford Foundation, Goethe Institute, or Miles Moreland Foundation is less a capitulation to the hegemonic norms of an asymmetrically-loaded system of capital and valuation and more a radical act of reparation and resistance.”26 Redistributing funds from these organizations enables Pamberi to support the arts in a struggling economy. For many Zimbabwean artists, Pamberi represents a light through a tunnel: poet and singer Vera Chisvo told me she felt, no matter what else the country went through, “As long as Pamberi’s there, it will be okay.”27 As simultaneously a funding, organizing, and production company, Pamberi symbolizes the country’s cultural heritage and future.
In 2016, Pamberi revitalized the Book Café. Originally founded in 1993, the Book Café had closed in 2015 following the death of Pamberi founder Paul Brickhill. The Book Café was unique because, along with poetry, it offered a safe space, allowing a level of political and cultural discussion that would otherwise be impossible in public. The venue’s regular open mics, its renowned featured artists, and its consistent location made it an important gathering point [End Page 161] for the city’s cultural producers and consumers. Its 2005 launch of the House of Hunger poetry slams opened a space for young, performance-oriented poets influenced by the spreading form, as was its founder Brickhill’s UK-educated son Tomas Brickhill. The slam poem’s local manifestation was carried through British-educated practitioners with a wide regional network, offering young poets an accessible, globally salient form in which to center their work.
These networks drove poetic production for nearly a decade. Between 2005 and 2014, the House of Hunger Poetry Slam was an annual event, beginning with a series of small monthly slams to whittle the contenders down to a small set of finalists prior to the major competition each May.28 Its stages helped launch many of Harare’s young poets, including poet/comedian Comrade Fatso, international slam champion Madzitatiguru, and poet/entrepreneur Linda Gabriel. According to Gabriel, the small size of the poetry community had at least one positive effect: because they were performing for the same audience over and over, poets had to bring in new work each month or risk disqualification. Gabriel reflected an attitude common among poets who had once performed routinely in the slam circuit when she told me that, while it did not necessarily lead to her best work, the slam forced her to produce new material regularly. The monthly competitions took on a workshop-like quality, encouraging rapid, highly topical productions and helping amateur poets expand their skills.
Gabriel’s poem “Sins of Our Mothers” won her the 2010 House of Hunger slam championship. The poem lists the myriad exploitations women endure in order to care for their family, from prostitution to outsourced labor. It typifies the slam form in its humanization of a taboo subject, its complex audience engagement, and its rhythm and wordplay. As the performance opens, Gabriel stares down her audience and asks them to consider:
Sins of our mothersThat are never told to usThat are written in silence, on their heartsPrinted on their palms and repeated in their footstepsThat stretches from As to Zs of life29
The opening metaphor of writing evokes the problem of poetry, telling and recording the invisible “As to Zs of life.” From there, the poem runs through a series of anecdotes about gender-based exploitation, each one relying on [End Page 162] wordplay to deepen its impact. The ambiguous plurality of “us” and “our” anonymizes the poem’s speaker to tell a story of cultural trends rather than of individual pain and suffering. The poem’s story, with details too numerous and contradictory to be any one thing, becomes a story of collectivity. It gains momentum beyond its immediate performance, drawing the audience into the accusatory gaze of gender-based exploitation and suffering.
The sociopolitical force of “Sins of Our Mothers” relies on Gabriel’s performance, an embodied experience that is necessarily complicated by the poem’s digital remediation. Gabriel explained, “When I’m [live] on stage, my emotion, my voice, my body, everything is to do with the poem.”30 The relationship between embodiment and poetic meaning is preserved in digital recording. Yet the immediacy of digital publication—whose audiences can theoretically access the work from anywhere, at any time—comes at the cost of context, addressing a local poem to an unknowably broad audience. As Johnson argues, publication on YouTube creates a tension for poets: “Easily circulated videos [on YouTube] allow us to feature the body not just in poetry but also as poetry,” honoring the relationship between text and performance.31 Yet YouTube also fundamentally changes the poem, because “[w]hat was once a specific physical venue in which people shared their most difficult thoughts is now open to millions.”32 The relative abstraction of digital performances, which lack specifiable reception contexts, flattens the generalized critique that allowed Gabriel to avoid censure in her in-person performances into a rehearsal of stereotype and taboo. Online, it loses the local politics of its message to produce a totalizing narrative of women’s experiences.
Gabriel’s work highlights the tension of digital publication, which flattens a work by removing context-specific nuance, even as it builds connections across contexts. Gabriel capitalized on those connections in 2015, when she organized the Spoken Word Project, a digitally facilitated slam competition and collaboration meant to render visible the networks of spoken word artists spanning the continent.33 The event began with a competition in South Africa. From there, a series of competitions in Madagascar, Angola, Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and Germany asked poets to integrate elements from the previous country’s winning selections, dramatizing the networks of poetic influence in Africa. The project became a digital anthology of “traveling stories” that culminated in a series of collective performances by the winning poets [End Page 163] in Germany, when the memorial website was launched with recordings of the winning performances. Gabriel intended the site to become a central organizing platform for poets and networkers to announce events and festivals, collaborate on ideas, and share inspiration. Shifts in funding structures led Gabriel’s primary collaborator to leave the Goethe-Institut before these goals could be realized, though. The site remains primarily a memorial to the live event.34
With its networked focus and hybrid online/offline form, the Spoken Word Project is perhaps the clearest realization of Gabriel’s goals: to heighten awareness of Africa’s place in global literary production, to connect poets and performers across the continent, and to use the best of today’s poetry to encourage future artists. Gabriel offered a model for the spoken word artists I interviewed, most of whom shared her goal and who see digital networks as a key opportunity to connect communities in areas with limited or unreliable infrastructure. The digital, in this model, exists to facilitate grounded connections: beyond an artistic marketplace, digital distribution offers a means to community development. The Spoken Word Project made use of digital networks to spread a pre-judged poetry form, encouraging the development of a global, performance poetics. By the end, it had created a canon of its own, honoring its twenty-four winners with prizes and critical essays. At the same time, the project highlights the limits of digital connections that promise lasting collaboration but often produce static recordings.
Gabriel’s experience organizing poetry networks began during her work with House of Hunger. She began working in South Africa as a delegate for Book Café in 2008. Her goal was to found a satellite branch of House of Hunger in Johannesburg. While there, Gabriel worked with the Goethe Institute, who would fund the development of a House of Hunger poetry slam, and the Alliance Française, who would host it. The regular slam was a near-immediate success and remained so for nearly nine years, holding annual slams and workshops. House of Hunger’s success has inspired the launch of other themed slams, including Word N Sound, which features musical- and rap-inflected poetry; the network- focused Poetry dot Slam, organized by Joburg Theatre Youth Development and [End Page 164] Current State of Poetry (CSP); and the team-based Open Slam. Gabriel effectively mobilized German and French cultural NGOs to reshape Johannesburg’s poetry communities in the image of a Zimbabwean poetry organization.
House of Hunger’s institutional ties facilitated the development of depersonalized projects, venues, and performances. The complex support bolstered the audience that the events could reach by tapping into extant networks. At the same time, it rendered the project more fragile, since the loss of any one sponsor could mean failure. In contrast, individual passion endures: as Krishnan finds, “literary entrepreneurs and activists note that their own initiatives only survive because of the time, capital, and effort they are willing to bring to their projects, motivated by a wish to open up the space for new stories, new debates, and new modes of citationality to proliferate.”35 The stability of passion faced with unstable funding has created what Weinstein calls a “permanent instability” that is “not unusual in youth spoken word poetry.”36 For Gabriel, the motivation to support poetry networks across the continent exceeded the support any one organization might provide.
Because organizations in the Global North tend to be more committed to cultural diplomacy than to any one country, any given project within a given country is inevitably at risk. The Goethe-Institut Südafrika, for instance, seeks to “encourage intercultural dialogue and enable cultural involvement” as part of broader efforts to “convey a comprehensive image of Germany by providing information about cultural, social and political life in our nation.”37 Individual projects may be transformed as individual actors within the organization pursue alternative routes to these goals. Gabriel thus acted as a mediator, working to impose what she saw as a way forward for youth poetry onto the goals of these NGOs. However, the structural limitations of these organizations—which reflect their responsibility to funders in the former imperial seat—limit the possibility for forward-looking projects. Gabriel’s passion enabled her to foster new connections, but the institutional networks ultimately limited their durability.
CREATING A PERSONAL POETICS: Q MALEWEZI AND THE MALAWIAN SLAM SCENE
Aesthetic networks like Gabriel’s require individual artists, entrenched in local networks, to mobilize NGO funding and open aesthetic modes. However, [End Page 165] in countries where NGOs are predominantly focused on issues of health and economic development rather than on the arts, artists must establish funding opportunities of their own. Artists in Malawi, facing limited arts funding, make use of digital media to expand contemporary poetry performances.
Poetry is embedded in Malawian national culture: histories depict the country as a land of poets and singers, and communities define themselves by cultural memories preserved in song and by discourses perpetuated in song composition and dissemination.38 Since 2000, the country has seen a surge of popular performance poetry in concerts, radio shows, and commercial jingles. As part of this flourishing, MC and poet Q Malewezi has established a series of organizations, educational programs, and festivals, which harness Malawi’s cultural infrastructures to support a slam-oriented poetry community and audience. Malewezi’s performances of slam-style poetry bring his background as a hiphop artist into a poetry form addressing Malawian themes, using pronounced rhythms, wordplay, and call-and-response interludes to directly engage his audience as coproducers of his poetry. Their engagement in his performance connects them to the form’s political stakes: as Lupenga Mphande argues, “orality provides a forum for participation in the political discourse by ordinary members of the community.”39 Malewezi’s poetic form and style build on oral participation patterns, ultimately permeating youth poetry scenes across regional and linguistic divides through both the artistic force of his work and the organizations he created.
Due to his prolific program management and mentorship relationships, Malewezi’s poetry has influenced the broader national poetry community. In June 2015, for instance, Malewezi began performing his new poem “People,” before releasing it as a radio single. The poem’s structure is simple, linking together “people” as subject and “people” as object to plea for empathy. It begins, “People—like people. / People—know people. / People—love people. / People—make—people—happy.” From this pleasantly saccharine opening, it develops into a hurried, restless, redoubling refrain by complicating the premise: “People like people people like / People want people people have,” before turning violent, reminding us that, “People burn people / People bomb people,” and concluding with the rejoinder, “We are more than just people. / We / Are a just people.”40 [End Page 166]
The simplicity of “People” makes it easy to follow, and its structure has invited substantial adaptations. These poems use repetition and a single word’s many valences to carry their message—moves that were typical of “People” and that have become increasingly popular in its wake. In a similar poem, which she performed during the 2016 launch tour of Malewezi’s album, poet and singer Lily Banda contextualized its address, calling instead to the “Fire People” in reference to Malawi’s name, which means “land of fire.”41Her poem evokes Malewezi’s, repeating not “people” but “we the people,” and thus transforming the humanistic piece into an explicitly nationalist one. Lily Banda is not alone in her adoption of this structure: Robert Chiwamba’s popular poem “Flames Sidzamva” (“Flames Won’t Learn,” a reference to Malawi’s failing national football team), repeats, “Flames sidzamva, Flames sidzamva, Flames sidzamva,” to frame the team’s failures.42 The anaphoric form quickly became a recognizable poetic subgenre linking poems about the state of the nation.
Malewezi’s influence began in Lilongwe, where he has run poetry workshops, organized performance venues, and judged poetry competitions since 2008. In 2012, he founded Project Project, which encouraged Malawian youth to “project” their voices in poetic expression. The “Project,” whose nominal repetition echoes Malewezi’s poetic style, transformed his informal mentoring efforts into a professionalizing endeavor to help young poets earn money from their passion. His mentees have in turn founded their own poetry programs. Jules Banda, for instance, launched an education initiative in 2016 to provide school fees and tutoring for secondary school students.43 Phindu Banda set up a poetry festival at Dzaleka Refugee Camp to encourage refugees to explore their experiences through poetry.44 And Robert Chiwamba worked with UNESCO to bring poetry programs into schools and community centers as part of broader literacy efforts.45 Together, through a series of small organizations, Malewezi and his mentees are building a youth-oriented poetry infrastructure in Malawi.
For each of these program organizers, poetry is a communal good realized in performance: each season of Chiwamba’s program culminates in a series of performance competitions, and Phindu Banda’s work at Dzaleka Refugee Camp culminated in a festival performance. Their work corroborates Weinstein’s observation that “[a]rt, justice, and cultural consciousness are core [End Page 167] concepts for youth spoken word poetry. Each is centrally about communication, about claiming voice and being heard.”46 But unlike most U.S.-based spoken word organizations, many of these performances are commissioned for international agencies. As in Zimbabwe, the primary funders of poetry in Malawi are foreign NGOs with their own goals: in 2014, for instance, the World Bank ran a poetry competition on the theme “What will Malawi look like in 50 years.” Many poets reported that they rely on commissions from NGOs and commercial organizations for their income, performing jingle-like poems in support of the group’s message or programming. By promoting certain works, these organizations implicitly draw attention away from others, often filtering out critical poems in favor of flattering ones.
These institutions gate what poetry is heard and promoted. Organizational gatekeepers like Malewezi in turn allow poets to make a name for themselves based on less purely ideological evaluations. While the apparently global audiences opened up by television shows, YouTube channels, and international festivals remain a goal for many poets, emerging poets rely on local recognition and validation before their work can gain traction in the transregional spaces of YouTube and Facebook. In some cases, this movement is direct and surprisingly quick: in late 2015, just after he had recorded “People,” Malewezi posted to Facebook requesting names of promising young poets to join him on his album launch tour. The tour would culminate in a performance at Lake of Stars, the country’s largest arts festival. Open calls for collaboration allowed Malewezi to reach a diverse cross-section of youth poets. Fans of Phindu Banda, who was then a student and had just begun performing, suggested her name. Through their contact on social media, she went on to work and perform with Malewezi, launching a national presence from a few local successes. The digital thus opened opportunities and networks well beyond that which traditional, geographically bounded writing workshops could provide.
Interactions online shape the poetry performed in person, even as live performances create new communities to interact online, highlighting the inter-penetration of these seemingly incompatible spaces. The poem Phindu Banda presented at that year’s Lake of Stars evoked the repetitive trend popularized by Malewezi’s “People.” Her poem begins quietly, but as it progresses, her volume and tempo rise in the rhythms of slam poetry: [End Page 168]
This is a nothing poemWritten byA nothing poetFor a nothing nation with nothing to show the next generationThese / are nothing lettersMolded into nothing wordsJoined together to form nothing sentencesTo highlight your nothing prison sentences47
The wordplay, rhythm, and repetition are common features of slam poetry, but the clear political message sets this poem apart. It indicts the largely international audience’s perceptions of Malawi as an impoverished, “nothing” nation populated by uneducated, “nothing” people. Because of the circulation of this form across languages and media, audiences could recognize the poem when they heard it. They learned from Phindu Banda’s cues how to respond to her poem: by the end, they sighed in time with her rhythm, creating a collective performance.
[End Page 169]
Spoken word requires cultural legibility to take hold, a specificity that may translate more readily across national spaces than within them. In Malawi, the rise of poetry radio programs has helped poets get exposure, but such programming has also standardized poetic production, with most poets falling into a few distinct stylistic camps, whether serious or comic, intensely rhythmic or lightly conversational. Digital publication allows poets to share work for an international audience on their own terms but lacks the built-in audience of the radio show. It opens gates specifically to those poetic works that suit its publication and aesthetic norms: ones that are multimodal, interactive, and emotional. In other words, this digital institution—absent deliberate intervention by individual gatekeepers—implicitly promotes slam-influenced poetry styles.
LOCALIZING THE SPOKEN WORD: LINGUA FRANCA’S SOUTH AFRICAN SLAM POETRY
In South Africa, where social media use and internet access are widespread among urban youth, digital networks have opened new fields for poetry that had been excluded from theater and performance arts venues dominated by Anglocentric literary forms.48 The shift to slam-influenced forms marks a broader move toward everyday literacies and away from the heightened aesthetics of traditional verse forms.49 The change threatens poetry’s traditional access to cultural capital, and younger poets are acutely aware of the insecurity of their artistic position. In Cape Town, Mbongeni Nomkonwana, founder of Lingua Franca Spoken Word Movement, disclaimed his own work before performing at a book launch in May 2016. He told the audience, “I am a spoken word artist. Notice I don’t use the word poet, because that word carries all sorts of problems.” Later, Nomkonwana clarified that his primary problems with the word “poet” lay in the formal expectations it carried. Rejecting the “lyric, haiku, blank verse” forms that fail to reflect “the state of our country,” “we write mostly about what happens in our daily lives, so most of the time, you don’t think form, you think, I want to say something,” and to do that, the most direct [End Page 170] way is best. Moreover, Europhonic forms necessarily fail: as he points out, “in isiXhosa [as in most Bantu languages] one word can have seventeen syllables,” making haikus and sonnets impractical.50 Instead, the key is to write a poetry of life, to produce a sympathetic experience between performer and audience. Against common arguments that only anglophone works can turn a profit in South African theaters, Lingua Franca’s collaborations highlight the attraction of Indigenous language poetry to contemporary urban audiences.
Led by Nomkonwana and Lwanda Sindaphi, Lingua Franca aims to mobilize the popular formulas of the slam in service of local poetic productions that honor Cape Town’s complicated cultural history and “multicentric” heritages. The collective embraces the goals of slam poetry but uses Xhosa instruments, a wide range of genres and languages, and collective poetics to produce a hybrid poetry that addresses the city’s past and its people’s history. Their work as a collective thus reflects, in Jahan Ramazani’s words, “the aesthetic complexity of literary texts . . . [and] invites the exegete to attend to the intercultural tensions and fusions at the level of language, style, concept, and genre”—in part because the diversity of the collective enacts these very fusions.51 Lingua Franca’s most recent production, Umzila ka Moya (“Spirit’s Path”), uses participatory poetics to confront the legacies of colonialism and urbanization. The piece features a series of poets performing pieces about their heritage and their home lives in their home languages, with music and dance incorporated to mark sonic continuities across the poets’ experiences. During the performance, each speaker moves fluidly between center and periphery, as easily claiming as yielding the speaking stage through a choreographed event that mirrors the structure of an open mic but abandons its atomizing effects in favor of a clear, cohesive whole.
Umzila ka Moya asks its poets and its audience to announce their heritage, their home place and tribe, or else to confront the absence of a past, the deracination and displacement that is the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. A poem developed for Umzila ka Moya was Nomkonwana’s “Dying Tongues,” which dramatizes his linguistically mixed background. The piece begins as Nomkonwana claims his identity in isiXhosa, sePedi, and seTswana, before spitting out:
We now write in English, we speak in English, we dream in EnglishI think my spoken word sounds better in English.Even computers don’t recognize our tongues: [End Page 171]
They underline every word red as if we degrade our languageI am sick up to the neck with spelling check
I do not loathe the English languageI am suffocating from the stench it has left on my people’s brains becauseIt has rotted underneath our languages, forgottenAnd our government is slumbering while indigenous languages are dying52
Audiences laugh along with Nomkonwana’s criticism of Microsoft Word but are stopped short by his outrage at having to abandon his mother’s tongue for the sake of globalization. Nomkonwana dramatizes the impossibility of finding roots in a neocolonial state while indicting the South African government for their Anglocentrism. The poem blends personal history with political acumen to insist upon the relevance of artistic expression to social progress.
But Nomkonwana does not take the stage alone. Umzila ka Moya is structured around audience engagement: the audience enters the venue through the stage, joining the poets in dance, song, and clapping, before they take their seats. And the performance itself takes over the space of the audience: one poem, which speaks of funerals, homesickness, and the eternal feeling of rootlessness, begins in silence as the performer, Katleho Kano Shoro, kneels on the ground to light the herb impepho. The cleansing smoke diffuses over the audience, entering their bodies as they inhale, and Shoro begins her poem in an incantation:
The lighting of impepho, Shoro’s resonating voice, and the rest of the performers standing behind her bring the audience physically into the performance, even those who remain seated. The interactivity of the poetry slam is transformed by the rituals of the impepho into a shared, embodied experience of the breath. Simultaneously a poetry performance and a ritual, the performance is a reminder of the spoken word’s many guises and powers: multiple audience members and poets reported feeling a “spiritual calling” during the work. At any given performance, audience members cry, wail, and weep, only to come away speaking of catharsis and an inexplicable sense of healing. [End Page 172]
After the success of Umzila ka Moya, Lingua Franca developed the program into a workshop for its youth mentorship program, the Cape Youth Poetry Hub for Expression and Rhythm (CYPHER). The workshop provides “a pedagogic approach that helps individuals who are longing for a place to belong. . . . Through songs, rituals, and [I]ndigenous/mother-tongue idioms, each poet goes through a cleansing ceremony by unlearning what was imposed by colonial forces.”54 The workshop offers what Lingua Franca calls “naked storytelling”: stripping away clichés and generalities to get at the personal specificities of each participant’s experiences. Through weekly meetings and occasional retreats over the past four years, CYPHER has fostered a community of young poets from across Cape Town’s suburbs and townships, moving beyond the institutional biases of poetry slam competitions—often based at universities and cultural NGOs like the Goethe-Institut—to instead draw on forms circulated in township theater, orature, and popular music. [End Page 173]
These workshops honor the host of cultural influences shaping young poets’ lives. Participants develop works that use personal experience to express political critique—including Vusumuzi Mpofu’s “Foreign Searching for Rain.” In the poem, whose multimedia circulations opened this article, national difference is expressed through Mpofu’s body, forced to reckon with a new place and a new language. The poems opens:
Zimbabwe was burningWe were burning along with itThese charcoaled skins we are mocked for are not by accidentWe come from burning homes
Clouds have burnt to ashesMy people are thirstyMigrating to the southern side of the border in search for rain, becomingForeign back homeWe spoke of South Africa as the blessed land where anyone could quench their thirst from the plentiful pouring rain55
Throughout Mpofu’s piece, Zimbabwe and South Africa stand at odds with each other, each framed through the speaker’s imagined understanding of the other and of his own lost home through each. As Mpofu enters South African life, the border disappears, and his story comes into focus as one of migration, displacement, and personal longing.
Umzila ka Moya and Lingua Franca’s pedagogical work offer an alternative poetic structure that reimagines the potential of the slam poem itself. It animates poems like Mpofu’s: inspired by a global poetic trend, realized in local workshops, and using personal exigencies to address global experiences. The form encourages the type of international critique that Mpofu levies, challenging nationalist ideas that center cultural power in economically powerful countries like South Africa or the United States. Responding to slam poetry’s emphasis on the political elements of personal experience, on a performative collaborative format, and on the direct participation of audience members, Lingua Franca has produced a multicentric performance form that incorporates a range of poetic and musical attitudes. Their simple performance style—relying on acoustic instruments, simple costuming, the flow of individual bodies, and attentive listening— allows the audience to directly enter the scene, expanding the stage [End Page 174] to incorporate the entire performance venue and resist dichotomies of audience/performer inscribed in both slam poetry and traditional performance forms. The performance becomes a collaborative, populist endeavor, producing a local poetics of engagement through the global logic of slam.
CONCLUSION: THE REGIONAL CIRCULATION OF POETIC NORMS
Lingua Franca’s work in Umzila ka Moya combines the interactivist ethos of slam, the social role of performance poetry in southern Africa, and the hybrid aesthetics of Cape Town’s contemporary cultural landscape. Poetry slams brought Lingua Franca’s members together, and into the poetry scene, by offering a hybrid, anticolonial image of what poetry can do. The slam moved the poem beyond the classroom into a social space where it spoke to current issues in everyday language and in an exciting form. By maintaining slam’s participa-tory culture but doing away with the competition format, Lingua Franca offers a model of performative poetics that evokes both House of Hunger’s slams and Malewezi’s mentorship programs.
Slam takes on new form as it spreads, becoming local even as it maintains a global poetic ethos. In Malawi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, poets and organizations have adapted the poetry slam to the circumstances in which they found it, whether in a power-plagued coffee shop, where House of Hunger meets; a tight-knit, geographically dispersed community, like the ones Malewezi organizes; or a racially charged cosmopolitan city, where Lingua Franca works. Its spread is managed on multiple levels, through both coordinated institutional efforts and apparently spontaneous individual inspiration.
Slam poetry’s emphasis on current events and social relevance reflects culturally potent models of poetry as producing social affiliations and critiquing social action. Its competitive format and youth-oriented aesthetics have shifted its audience, producing urban communities of young poets who are making new stages for themselves. Its regional rise testifies to the importance of digital circulation and social mediation in contemporary poetic production and communities. At the same time, the ongoing role of cultural NGOs in establishing and maintaining poetry slams should encourage skepticism: how is cultural [End Page 175] power negotiated in these spaces? The relative consistency of slam poetry’s aesthetic form and thematic concerns speak to the ongoing cultural influence of institutions rooted in the Global North, including Button Poetry and Def Jam, but its variations illuminate processes by which artists reclaim their own cultural heritage. Although the form may be bound by global power structures, it is the practitioners who sustain its liberating potential.
susanna l. sacks is Assistant Professor of English at the College of Wooster. Her research investigates the relationship between transnational institutions, poetic forms, and aesthetic networks in Africa. Her current book project draws on anglophone, Chichewa, and isiXhosa literary traditions to map the interactions between embodied and digital literary forms and institutions.
1. Vusumuzi Mpofu, “Foreign Searching for Rain,” Facebook, November 16, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/vusumuzi.mpofu.395/posts/555487841315807.
2. Doreen Strauhs, African Literary NGOs: Power, Politics, and Participation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 5.
3. I use “slam poetry” to denote the styles of poetry commonly performed at competitive poetry slams. “Spoken word poetry” refers more broadly to contemporary performance poetry, including but not limited to slam poetry.
4. I use “poetry slam” to refer to the specific competition format inaugurated by Mark Smith and standardized by Poetry Slam, Inc. For a history of slam’s development and spread in Chicago and New York, see Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009) and Urayoán Noel, In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014); for a discussion of its connection to Black performance poetry in the United States, see Javon Johnson, Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017).
5. Scott Woods, “Poetry Slams: The Ultimate Democracy of Art,” World Literature Today 82, no. 1 (2008): 18.
6. Susan Weinstein notes that the rise of widespread broadcast competitions enhanced this effect, writing, “a partnership between HBO and Youth Speaks . . . changed the experience of the festival from one of communal camaraderie to one in which participants were vying to get on television.” Weinstein, The Room Is on Fire: The History, Pedagogy, and Practice of Youth Spoken Word Poetry (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018), 84–85.
7. Woods, “Poetry Slams,” 18.
8. Johnson, Killing Poetry, 89.
9. See Crystal Leigh Endsley, “Performing Blackness: Spoken Word Poetry and Performance,” Transformations 24, nos. 1–2 (2013/2014): 110–20.
10. Kila van der Starre, “How Viral Poems Are Annotated: On ‘OCD’ by Neil Hilborn,” in “On An/Notations,” ed. Scott deLahunta, Kim Vincs, and Sarah Whatley, special issue, Performance Research 20, no. 6 (2015): 58, 64.
11. Weinstein addresses the multicentrism of slam poetry in the 1980s, pointing to jazz poetry, poetic boxing matches on Chicago’s South Side, the Beat poets, and the Black Arts Movement as among its predecessors. Weinstein, “What Is Spoken Word Poetry and Where Did It Come From?,” in The Room Is on Fire, 87–118.
12. See Louder than a Bomb, directed by Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs (Chicago: Siskel/Jacobs Productions, 2010).
13. Noel, In Visible Movement, 141.
14. Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Christopher Ouma, and Katleho Shoro, “Introduction: Spoken Word in Sub-Saharan Africa: Past, Present and Future,” in The Spoken Word Project, ed. Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Christopher Ouma, and Katleho Shoro (Johannesburg: Goethe Institut, 2014), 21, 19.
15. Ruth Finnegan provides a thorough accounting of the political and social uses of performance poetry in Africa in Oral Literature in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); Karin Barber reviews their use in public spaces in her recent A History of African Popular Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
16. Jules Banda, in discussion with the author, August 2, 2016.
17. Moses Serubiri, “The Self-Making of Spoken Word Poets in Kampala,” in Buthelezi, Ouma, and Shoro, Spoken Word Project, 100–15.
18. Siphokazi Jonas, in discussion with the author, November 22, 2016.
19. For more on local debates about homophobia in Malawi, see Crystal Biruk, “ ‘Aid for Gays’: The Moral and the Material in ‘African Homophobia’ in Post-2009 Malawi,” Journal of Modern African Studies 52, no. 3 (September 2014): 447–73.
20. Mwaura Samora, “A Fast and Furious African Generation of Poets Says Goodbye to Shakespeare,” Daily Nation, November 12, 2009, https://www.nation.co.ke/InDepth/Africa-Insight/625262-685700-9uralt/index.html.
21. See Mia Fiore, “Pedagogy for Liberation: Spoken Word Poetry in Urban Schools,” Education and Urban Society 47, no. 7 (2015): 813–29; van der Starre, “How Viral Poems Are Annotated.”
22. Johnson, Killing Poetry, 94.
23. See Ibid., 78.
24. Moradewun Adejunmobi, “Revenge of the Spoken Word?: Writing, Performance, and New Media in Urban West Africa,” Oral Tradition 26, no. 1 (March 2011).
25. ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front); Peter Churu, in discussion with the author, December 15, 2016.
26. Madhu Krishnan, Contingent Canons: African Literature and the Politics of Location (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 77.
27. Vera Chisvo, in discussion with the author, December 15, 2016.
28. House of Hunger’s name references Dambudzo Marechera’s 1978 short story collection, marking its connection to the Zimbabwean literary canon.
29. Linda Gabriel, “Sins of Our Mothers,” Lyrikline, https://www.lyrikline.org/en/poems/sins-our-mothers-11361.
30. Personal interview. 14 December 2016.
31. Johnson, Killing Poetry, 95; emphasis in original.
32. Ibid., 103.
33. Following the festival, the Goethe-Institut published a collection of critical essays on The Spoken Word Project (2014).
34. “The Spoken Word Project: Stories Travelling through Africa,” Goethe-Institut Südafrika, https://web.archive.org/web/20131013181429/http://www.goethe.de/ins/za/prj/spw/enindex.htm.
35. Krishnan, Contingent Canons, 77.
36. Weinstein, Room Is on Fire, 67.
38. For a history of the political and social role of performance poetry in Malawi, see Leroy Vail and Landeg White, Power and the Praise Poem: Southern African Voices in History (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990); for its connections to Malawian national identity, see Francis Moto, Trends in Malawian Literature (Zomba, Malawi: Chancellor College, 1998); and for an analysis of its use in political regimes, see John Lwanda, “Poets, Culture and Orature: A Reappraisal of the Malawi Political Public Sphere, 1953–2006,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 26, no. 1 (2008): 71–101.
39. Lupenga Mphande, “Texts and Contexts: Traumatic Motif in Literature on the Migrant Labor System,” in Reading Malawian Literature: New Approaches and Theories, ed. Tito Banda and Joshua Kumwenda (Mzuzu, Malawi: Mzuni Press, 2013), 22.
40. Q Malewezi, “People,” Music from Malawi, https://lyrics.malawi-music.com/single.php?mylyrici=5719&t=people.
41. John McCracken, A History of Malawi. London: James Currey Press, 2012. McCracken points out that the name ‘Maravi,’ often associated with flames, was common in the region through the early 19th century, but faded for more than a century until Hastings Banda reinstated it with the introduction of the Malawi Congress Party in 1960 (21, 366).
42. Robert Chiwamba, “Flames Sidzamva,” Sapitwa Poetry, https://sapitwapoetry.com/chiwamba/857/flames-sidzamva/.
43. Jules Banda, in discussion with the author, August 2, 2016.
44. Phindu Banda, in discussion with the author, October 1, 2016.
45. Robert Chiwamba, in discussion with the author, August 20, 2016.
46. Weinstein, Room Is on Fire, 23
47. “Nothing Poem,” written by Phindu Banda, performed at Lake of Stars, Chintheche Inn, 1 October 2016.
48. According to the World Bank, South Africa had a 57% internet penetration rate as of 2017, compared to 49% worldwide and only 14% in Malawi. “Individuals Using the Internet (% of Population),” World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report and Database, 2017, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IT.NET.USER.ZS.
49. See Natalia Molebatsiv and Raphael d’Abdon, “From Poetry to Floetry: Music’s Influence in the Spoken Word Art of Young South Africa,” in “Contemporary African Music,” ed. Maurice Taonezvi Vambe and Urther Rwafa, special issue, Muziki 4, no. 2 (2007): 171–77; and Denise Newfield and Raphael d’Abdon, “Reconceptualising Poetry as a Multimodal Genre,” in “Multimodality: Out from Margins of English Language Teaching,” ed. Margaret Early, Maureen Kendrick, and Diane Potts, special issue, TESOL Quarterly 49, no. 3 (September 2015): 510–32.
50. Mbongeni Nomkonwana, in discussion with the author, October 31, 2016.
51. Jahan Ramazani, The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 26.
53. Umzila kaMoya, written and performed by Lingua Franca Spoken Word Movement, Poetry Foundation, 4 April 2018.
54. Javier Perez, e-mail correspondence with the author, 14 October 2017.
55. Mpofu, “Foreign Searching for Rain.”