Word Warriors: Rise of spoken word activism in Kenya

Success story - 2018-03-12
Spoken word artists like Mufasa are expanding the civic space from traditional opinion pieces and commentaries to innovative and alternative voices addressing social injustices.
Mufasa is leading a generation of spoken word artists in Kenya.
Mufasa is leading a generation of spoken word artists in Kenya.


Political positions do not just come with a fat salary and a brand-new car,
A briefcase is also handed to you full of two words, acquitted and no evidence.

Political leaders are innocent until they are proven guilty by evidence...
That never comes, never comes, never comes, never comes.
Death comes to starving citizens, to patients in unequipped hospitals,
But evidence never comes,
Never comes to convict pockets that carry a thousand times their allocated salary…

If you’re active on social media or a poetry fan, chances are you’ve seen this poetry doing the rounds on Facebook. This is a piece of spoken word poetry by Mufasa raising social injustices that exist within our community.

In the last few years, there are many such pieces coming from a burgeoning population of young people like Mufasa increasingly choosing spoken word poetry to talk about things as mundane as personal as relationships to critical social issues.

But what is spoken word poetry and how is it different from good old poetry recitation? Spoken word is the performance of poetry that is free of competition and places dual emphasis on writing and performance. This also essentially means that the poems performed must be original at all times. When this art of performing poetry becomes competitive is referred as poetry.

Spoken word poetry is driven by personal experiences, facilitating a true polyphony of diverse voices and making it easier for audiences to connect with. Importantly, it provides valuable insight into emerging social realities by illuminating the experiences and happenings at a personal and societal level.

Wajibu Wetu programme which is strongly anchored on supporting innovative advocacy mechanisms, partnered with Creative Spills for the inaugural Poetry Slam Africa last year that saw the convergence of poets and poetry enthusiasts from across the region to experience two days spoken word poetry covering a range of issues. Poetry Slam Africa seeks to strengthen platforms for works that ignite conversations and influence mindsets identify, nurture, mentor and support showcasing of conscious content and art.

Forum Syd Hub Manager Stephen Gichohi says that spoken word poetry can induce social action and offers a vehicle for voice, agency and activism. He adds that spoken word is inclusive and does not exclude due to language as it can be creatively performed in any language.

Despite its increasing popularity, spoken word poetry is still less accessible to women. This led to the creation of Women’s slam competition in the last year’s festival, ensuring that women’s voices are included, with the winner entering the Women’s of the World Poetry slam hosted in Dallas in March 2017.

The women Slam Africa champion Qui Qarre who represented Kenya at the Women’s of the World Poetry emerged among the best 30 women poets for 2017 securing position 29 with powerful peace touching on social justice, racism and inequalities. Qui Qarre has carried on establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in this emerging field.

Qui Qarre performs during the Women Poetry Slam.
Qui Qarre performs during the Women Poetry Slam.

Mufasa with his team members of Creative Spills, use the Poetry Slam Africa space to nurture a generation of generation of conscious artists that are not only able to better articulate issues through poetry but develop content that goes beyond entertainment value. Through Writing for Change workshops and mentorships, Mufasa says there’s already notable difference with immense improvement in the creation of conscious works by poets who were previously otherwise just entertainers as evidenced by the themes explored at the last Poetry Slam.

 Through Wajibu Wetu support, Slam Afrika was able to host auditions and scouting forums in low income areas of Kibera and Mathare.

 “As an emergent art form in the country, young people in informal settlements and rural areas are interested in spoken word poetry, but lack access to facilities that can hone and develop artistic expression, hence the need to branch out to parts of the country that have limited access to workshops and conscious events,” says Mufasa.

A spoken word artist performs his piece during an open forum by Creative Spills in Kibera, Nairobi
A spoken word artist performs his piece during an open forum by Creative Spills in Kibera, Nairobi.

Creative Spills has since hosted a workshop and mentorship sessions for upcoming artists as far as Lamu County, in a bid to create a caucus of conscious word warriors. Despite this progress, Mufasa says there is still a long way to go and is looking to expand beyond Nairobi and Kenya at large.

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