Spoken Word Poetry in Nigeria; Fad or Not?
Spoken word poetry isn’t a new art form in Nigeria as is commonly perceived. At best, its institutionalisation as a commercial entertainment art form can be considered new. Saying it is new art would be similar to thinking comedy was new in Nigeria before it became a mainstream and commercial art form.
Oral history tells us about griots in ancient kingdoms in Nigeria like the Old Oyo and Benin kingdoms, where performance poetry served both an entertainment, as well as a socio-historical purpose. These nameless poets and storytellers succeeded in preserving and passing on the culture and traditions of Nigerian tribes in the absence of textual and other forms of documented history. With colonialism came a lull in the activities of these griots as the ancient kingdoms they served fell one after another to the colonialists on one hand and domestic occupation by rival nations on the other.
Independence in 1960 ushered in a new age of appreciation for written poetry while oral or performance poetry continued to fade from the public’s consciousness. In short, it gradually became a relic of days past only to be heard or talked about on rare occasions. But then, art like a phoenix always reinvents itself and soon enough strong influences made their way from across the Atlantic and sparked off the spoken word fever anew in Nigeria.
Nigerian-born spoken word artiste, Sage Hassan rose to the occasion and is credited as the pioneer figure and leading voice of the modern spoken word era in Nigeria. However, some suggest that stylistic differences may have caused some other noteworthy pioneers of the craft like Beautiful Nubia to be overlooked. This is perhaps because their style is heavily influenced and steeped in traditional/folklore.
Since then, the movement has sustained momentum and so many landmark achievements have been recorded. Indeed, spoken word artistes are gradually receiving the recognition due to them in the entertainment scene in Nigeria, and every year it is usual to discover a new prodigy or have an important occasion graced by a renowned spoken word artiste. Such was the case when Basiru Sunday Anunebi a.k.a Bash performed spoken word poetry titled Is This the Moment? at the inauguration of incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. This was not only unprecedented in the history of the spoken word movement, it was also the first time it would happen in Nigeria.
Every other day, it’s routine to hear of one spoken word event or the other happening in Lagos and Abuja – both of which have a joint reputation for being the Mecca of the movement in Nigeria. Spoken word competitions have also sprung up all over the country since the movement’s resurgence. The ‘War of Words’ slam competition for instance, has been specifically instrumental in providing a stable platform for budding spoken word poets in Lagos.
All these creative vibrations haven’t escaped the international media. In 2016, Al Jazeera did a special feature article on female acts out of Nigeria among whom are Oyinkansola Oyeyiola-Ourias, Wome Uyeye and Donna Ogunnaike popularly known as Donna K. One good thing about spoken word in Nigeria is that women have been at the fore as much as men.
This is not to say there haven’t been challenges. Compared to their counterparts, spoken word artistes have not been widely accepted. The general perception is that the art is too far removed from the layman’s consciousness that it is yet inscrutable. Others yet believe that the art is structured to appeal only to an elitist audience, and thus hampered its reception by the majority. Sponsors are also still shy of endorsing or supporting spoken word events or artistes, compared to their more mainstream performing artistes in the comedy, music and movie industries, which the majority have no trouble identifying with.
Invariably, even though growth has been snail-paced, Nigerian spoken word practitioners are unrelenting in their efforts to reposition their art not only in the entertainment industry but also in the peoples’ consciousness and hearts. If there is one thing they are all agreed on, it is that spoken word has come to stay in Nigeria.
August 21, 2019