Picture this: a skinny twenty something year old dude in a white T-shirt with cool grey illustrations on the front, brown checked pants -conspicuous pants, pants he might have inherited from an early 1920s clown – with a foot and a half long fly, canvas shoes, dark sunglasses and a green homburg hat. Under that hat are a bunch of spiky, half inch foetus locks, but we are not going to talk about those. He is swaggering around, microphone in hand, a sneaky grin on his face. Immediately behind him, a tired fountain spouts water two feet into the air, in a half hearted attempt. Further on, past the lazy fountain is a long plaque, the size of primary school blackboards. Bigger actually. On which are engraved columns of names; fathers, daughters, mothers, brothers, cousins that perished in the 1998 terrorist attack in the then American embassy in Nairobi. This place is The Bomb Blast Memorial Park and the fellow with the mic is Mark Joshua, commonly refered to as Tear Drops. The event is Poetry At The Park.
Tear Drops is a poet, obviously, and at that very moment, he is waiting for the guffaws to diminish, before he faces the entertained eyes beneath green tents again and goes, “… Tuliacha kuchora mistari kombo kombo, siku hizi si huchora mistari straight kama kabiro ama ruler, Hii poetry ni kingdom and I’m a ruler! Hii flow ni so sick, hii flow ni so thick kuliko sip ya Amarula…” Folks get crazy, shout, whistle and scream their heads off. Calm and unperturbed, he keeps going …
“Mi huface the music na naenjoy every bit of it hata ka ni acapella, Nina millions of cells kwa damu so huezi nishtua na story ya kunipeleka jela! Na sio lazima nikuchape na mawe ndio niseme nimerock a fella…” He’s good at it, having done this only a thousand times. Pauses, gestures, pitch rises and falls are all intentional, meant to serve one purpose: drive his point home. But there is something else Tear Drops is doing, he’s grabbing attention by the collar. The melange of punchlines and hilarious metaphors meant to give time to his guitarist to smoothen out technical hitches and to prepare the audience for a gripping ride in the roller coaster of sheng’ poetry. The poem he performs next, with the strumming in the background, is named “Hii street”: a thoughtful piece detailing the woes and pros of growing up in the city.
Many performers have held that mic Tear Drops has in his hand: Gufy, Msooh, Veon, Mufasa … incredible wordplay has been showcased, great themes touched, lives -hopefully- have been changed and most prominently young men and women have shown just how smoothly they have mastered the verbal art. I’m impressed, challenged and a tad intimidated. Don’t look at me that way, you step on a stage after these individuals and you can’t help but feel like you’re only there to sweep the creative confetti off the stage. Like you’re Lazarus – picking crumbs from under the table of the rich men of performance poetry.
I would love to, but I don’t wait to hear everything. It is 4:46 pm and I have another performance slotted at an event starting at 5:00 pm.
So off I go, headed for PAWA254, in the good company of one Kelvin Kaesa. It is Kaesa, not Caesar, to be clear. He claims the name has been in the family for ages, who am I to argue? Maybe Kaos are descended from Romans. Yes he’s Kao, what did you say? That that explains the name? No you goon! That is a tribalistic thought! I know lots of cool Kaos, their names always start with K or M, but so what? We all have favourite consonants hehe. Actually come to think of it, a Kao is called a Kamba or a Mûîkamba. That might explain the Kyalos, Mutisyas, Kiilus, Mwendes, Kaninis… and the Roman Marcus, Cassius… Away from that, Kaesa is a cool cat. He is convinced he’s a ninja, has an adolescent Mohawk, wears a winter cap and dances on the pedestrian crossings. I’m serious. Everytime we cross the road, he pauses and pulls several moves for the guys stuck in their cars waiting for the green light. I like imagining the conversations happening in those vehicles,
“Baba Sheila, What is that chap doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Looks like he’s dancing, My God! Is he dancing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Aki hawa watoto wa siku hizi… Do you think Sheila does this when she’s in town without us?”
“I don’t know.”
“I bet she does. Do you think if I stop forcing her to dance in church she’ll stop dancing on pedestrian crossings?”
“I don’t know…”
“My God! Do you know a thing?! ”
“I don’t kn… YES!”
“That if you ask me another question I’ll ram into this little idiot!!”
Apart from that, Kaesa is alright. We are headed for Fatuma’s Voice, an event that happens every Friday. When Kaesa isn’t dancing on the tarmac, we are running through a collaborative piece we’ve been working on and bitching about the government. He’s intelligent this guy, the things he speaks about and the verses he comes up with are reeking “well-read”. There is this time he’s speaking about Xperias and this farmer’s son is slowly caressing his ideos hoping for a change of topic.
Getting to PAWA254 is a whole gym session.You climb more hills than a Murang’a resident. They should record the slimpossible episodes there, requiring every participant to walk from town. No more exercise would be needed. The event is run by a great team lead by a prematurely balding Rix, Chris Mukasa and Nuru Bahati. A quick succession of poetry, music and, for today, skits. This particular session is themed around rape and defilement. There is a difference based on age, I was lead to understand. I find them both extremely despicable acts.
Anyway, after the show, we walk down to town with Neo. Neo was the featured poet on this blog a few days ago, her (Neo I’m not going to start that pronoun war here again, so chill.) first name is Sinoxolo. That “X” is clicked. Like Sinonktolo. It’s from Xhosa. Pronounced Nktosa. I like it a lot, it reminds me of a Warsan Shire line “…Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue.” You even use your epiglottis pronouncing her name. Everything on Neo screams rebel; different kind of earrings on each ear, on her head a bunch of short locks that look they grew up in some tough ghetto, they are weather beaten, those poor things, half coats, t-shirts, shorts and a gap on her upper jaw that seem like it bullied it way there. She has interesting opinions, some of which I agree with. One of them concerns the event we just attended. There always seems to be more artists than time. That is a good thing from one side of the mirror. The bountiful talent, the eagerness to perform, the thirst for art, but there is the angle many don’t consider. That of the unknown guy who will be pushed to the end of the program to give chance to the guy who never disappoints. Fatuma’s Voice is a great initiative that is quickly rivaling Slam Africa as a platform for first timers, but with that comes the risk of demoralizing many of them.
I hope event organizers will consider reducing the number of artists scheduled to perform, especially in spoken word events. Two years ago, I was unknown in the performance circles, a bunch of us grumbled all the way to town from the MJ center after being promised a slot at Wamathai Spoken Word then being pushed ahead till the time was up. None of us could complain though, it seemed like we being done a favour. Later on, after I proved my worth on a few stages, I would attend A Word and A Mic and get slotted immediately. It was unfair, but it happened anyway. Those platforms adjusted to limited slots, as did Poetry at The Park. I hope Fatuma’s Voice will too… and all others, making this business more exciting… heck! I wasn’t supposed to click that X.