By Parselelo Kantai in Nairobi
How hip-hop met the printed word across a crowded room, and gave a voice to a generation of Kenyans shocked into silence by the violence of 2008
Every first Sunday of the month, a blogger called Wamathai hosts an afternoon spoken word event at a former strip club in downtown Nairobi. He has been doing it since late 2010. Turnouts are encouraging: an average of 200 people show up – a mixed crowd, aged from 25 to 45. There is usually an accompanying band.
Wamathai got into performance poetry almost by accident. To commemorate a year of his creative writing blog he threw a party. Several poets showed up and everybody had such a good time that he made it a regular event.
He talks about the poetry like an account executive describing a product launch: "We're selling it as the kind of poetry this kind of demographic can relate to. They were used to much more bourgeois fare. The way we're selling it is more contemporary. The audience is able to relate to many of the themes covered – love, life, politics and sex."
When we caught the event at the end of August, 20 poets were performing. "There are those who mostly do it for entertainment. They are very good at freestyling and that kind of thing. But performance poetry is not just an outpost of hip-hop, it is also an extension of Shakespeare. Fifteen of my artists tonight are also published poets," Wamathai says.
Nairobi, fad-city, where changes of scene and taste occur almost by the week, now has among its urban legends the tale of a genre whose transformation has made it almost unrecognisable from its incarnation half a decade ago. What started out as a marketing gimmick by the literary journal Kwani? quickly became a catchword with young Nairobians. Kwani?'s Open Mic sessions at Club Sound in downtown Nairobi became one of the magazine's most popular events, eclipsing literary readings in leafy suburbia.
"Essentially, it was started by a young generation of poets, what I would call the first-media generation," says Kwani? editor Billy Kahora. "They had grown up watching 24-hour TV and listening to FM radio. This was a pop orator space." At that point it was little more than a series of animated reading sessions, but when another set of poets joined, "whose influence was American but not exactly hip-hop – a rhyming flow that also ventured into freestyling, it started to take on a life of its own," Kahora says.
As the genre has diversified, it has been taken up by the FM radio stations and other media and has split into several distinct forms.