And then there were three. Becky, Mumbi and Tess. Lights, camera, action.
Tess recalled “The day I almost disowned my mother”. She stumbled twice in an otherwise eloquent narration, restarting from scratch each time.
Mumbi, in a poised delivery, took issue with the singling out of side chicks for blame in homewrecking. “The title to be a ‘main’ should never be your aim,” she admonished, “coz that just means you’re the first to lead a long-ass chain.”
Becky flipped the script and turned recital into theatre. She shuddered as though struck by stage fright, and assumed the timid, stuttering tone of a child while airing “Happy birthday wishes to Papa”.
Nine contenders, three finalists, one crown. A hallowed ground previously treaded by greats like Pepe Haze, El Poet, Mufasa, Teardrops, Dorphan, Nuru Bahati and Rixpoet of Fatuma’s Voice, H_Art The Band (Mordecai and Chira), Yung Nnoiz, Flowflani, Dan ‘Number 8’ Mwangi and Adelle Onyango.
At Poetry Slam Africa, potent social commentary flows from the stage and into the ears and hearts of the audience. Crea8ive Spills is the organiser, and creativity spills to the audience.
A youthful crowd laps up the verbal gymnastics and applauds every punch line. I’ve been to several festivals, but Slam’s had by far the most vibrant spectators.
A forum that started out with only 24 people at Dass Restaurant, 17 of them contestants, now draws hundreds. Three preliminary rounds on quarterly basis culminate in a two-day Grand Slam.
The event in question was the 63rd edition, where the 60th champion would be crowned. It ran from December 9-10 last year at the garden stage of Alliance Française, Nairobi, where performances and cheers reverberated around the city.
“We had about 400 people on the first day and 600 on the second day,” Crea8ive Spills director Ian Gwaggy told me.
With more female slammers than ever, girl power reigned supreme, resulting in the all-girl top three of Becky Wairimu, Mumbi Macharia and SocraTess (Tessy Aura).
They pulled through two rounds of elimination from a field that included Jaaziyah Shiraz, MC Elfra, Peter Saisi, Roger (Moses Gitonga), Rozet (Wanjiru Njeri) and Shingai Njeri.
Topics articulated included depression, gender discrimination, pain, spirituality and tribalism. Becky’s “Lessons from being an alien” vividly captured the unrealistic rules women are expected to live by in a man’s world.
Rozet stood out for slamming in Kiswahili with a strong, clear voice. She coined the term “heshtegi” (hashtag), which became a buzzword long after her performance.
MC GuFy Dox, in his trademark bowler hat, and Njeri Wa Migwi, alias MC Divine, punctuated acts with playful banter. When GuFy tried to rush the judges, for instance, Wa Migwi shut him down with: “They’re not a three-minute man like you.”
Interludes were further livened up by song, dance and even rapping. A children’s hip hop group called Maji Mazuri spit lines that had the crowd on its feet.
Freedom of expression was the order of the day, with the p-word mentioned several times. Even the kids got in on the act, dropping an f-word or two.
YOUR TURN TO SHINE
GuFy reminisced how far Slam Africa has come since its humble beginnings in 2008. He toyed with contestants’ nerves as he thanked the sponsors, Forum Syd, over and over again, before announcing results.
Judge Kevin Orato shared with me on the sidelines the other side of the Slam’s progress: seeing artists who could barely hold their own now commanding the stage after lots of mentorship. “It’s very satisfying to see that growth in someone,” he said.
I asked him what judges look out for in contestants. “We’re big on physical performance, useful or strong content and messaging, uniqueness in creativity, and one’s ability to engage, move, convince or alarm the audience in a thought-provoking and impressionable style,” he said.
Becky must’ve ticked all the right boxes. She took the throne and was awarded Sh30,000 in cash and a French language scholarship at Alliance. Forum Syd’s Louise Bermsjo handed her the prize.
A Women’s Slam featured earlier in the programme, offering Sh50,000 and a chance to represent Kenya in Texas, US, at the March 15-18 Women of the World Poetry Slam. Qui Qarre won it with an emotive piece on mob justice and a critique of artificial beauty.
Another category was the Group Slam, where Sh10,000 was at stake. Mumbi and Shingai clinched it after finishing each other’s lines in an intriguing response to the “What about the boy child?” debate.
Artistic expression, lively crowds and inspiring triumphs — that’s Poetry Slam Africa for you.
The first preliminary round of this year is on March 18 from 2-6pm at Alliance. Entrance fee is Sh500 in advance and Sh800 at the gate.
The road to the next Slam King or Queen begins today with free auditions at Phoenix Players from 9am. Take a shot at the crown. Greatness beckons.
Tom Jalio is a writer-journalist whose works include ‘There was once something special here’ (http://bit.ly/SthSpcl), ‘No rest for the wicked’ (http://bit.ly/NbiGrit), ‘Mama Africa gives birth to poetry’ (http://bit.ly/BabishaiFestival) and ‘Anatomy of a serial plagiarist’ (http://bit.ly/RdscrPlgrsm). He was a judge at the 2016 Kampala Toastmasters Challenge.