The rise of spoken word poetry

Lexas Mshairi is making waves and, through Rafinki, uplifting peers

In Summary

• His multilingual approach opened a range of possibilities and avenues for progress

The exterior of the refurbished Kenya National Theatre
The exterior of the refurbished Kenya National Theatre
Image: FILE

Alex Muthama, popularly known as Lexas Mshairi, is a performing poet from Machakos but based in Nairobi.

He is also an art therapist, author, musician, songwriter and instrumentalist.

Lexas Mshairi uses spoken word poetry to explore the human experience, touching on topics such as politics, social reform and climate justice. Lexas holds a BA in psychology and a minor in sociology from Kenyatta University. He is also the co-founder, events coordinator and digital marketer of the artist collective Rafinki.

I caught up with him to talk about his most recent concept show, Roga Nisiroge? which was staged at the Kenya National Theatre. The interview also covered his multilingual approach to poetry and the state of spoken word poetry in the country.

Lexas Mshairi performs
Lexas Mshairi performs

Congratulations on your show Roga Nisiroge? How did it feel seeing people turn up in such great numbers and witnessing the reception they gave your performance?

Lexas: Witnessing the reception that the audience gave the Roga Nisiroge? experience filled me with so much life. Since then, I’ve been filled with a stronger sense of purpose in the creative work that I put out. I endeavour to continue inspiring others to be self-aware and fulfilled in the lives they lead.

Does your selling out a poetry show at a venue as big as the Kenya National Theatre imply the growth of the spoken word scene in Kenya?

I feel that the poetry performance scene in Kenya is growing gradually. Poets in the country are investing a lot of resources into their art form and consequently, we are seeing a lot of positive change.

In the last few years, we have seen a significant growth in the number of poets staging their own concept shows, releasing albums and anthologies, and earning a living from the same. This, I believe, is just the preamble to much more.

You are part of the collective Rafinki. What is it about, and do you think such artiste organisations are essential to the growth of spoken word poetry in Kenya?

Rafinki is derived from two words: “Rafiki”, which means friend, and “Ink”, the thing we use to write our poetry. The collective is a dynamic literary organisation that empowers literary artistes to explore, express and cultivate their creativity.

I started it back in 2019 together with other poets: Richard Oyamo, Alex Muthama, William Ogutu, Imou Eparis, Mary Kamanthe, Mark Odhiambo and Fredrick Santana. We wanted to bring together poets and writers from Kenyatta University and beyond to form a community that could fuel their growth.

Spaces that are being created by Rafinki and other like-minded organisations are crucial for the growth of the literary and spoken word scenes in Kenya.

One of the many ways that Rafinki is supporting creatives is by providing a community where up-and-coming artistes can showcase their work, network with peers and deepen their connection to the arts. Rafinki is doing this through workshops, open mic events, collaborations and numerous showcases.

Speaking of collaborations, you tend to incorporate music to add flair to your performances as witnessed in Roga Nisiroge? What are your thoughts on the relationship between music, poetry and other art forms?

Music, for a start, borrows from poetry. To this effect, I see other forms of art equally related to it. What keeps me awake at night is the seamless integration of these other forms to aid in my storytelling.

This has led me to learning film production, how to play instruments and a recent desire to grasp the ins and outs of music production and digital art. Such and more pursuits enable me to be fully immersed and take as much control of my work as possible.

You are a multilingual performer who uses English, Kiswahili, Kamba and Sheng in your work. In your similarly titled debut poetry collection, you have used a mixture of both Sheng and Kamba. Why the multilingual approach to your poetry?

The greatest goal for artistes, such as myself, is to be able to express themselves as they communicate. Over time, I’ve grown fond of writing and performing in multiple languages.

What this has done is open for me a range of possibilities and avenues for progress. I love that I’m able to use and manipulate language to evoke emotions, create vivid imagery and convey complex ideas in a condensed and human form.

With Roga Nisiroge? I wanted to take everyone who read it on a journey that explores the complexities of healing. My use of two primary languages, Sheng and Kamba, was out of the need to authentically express my feelings and thoughts in a way that my readers would relate with through our shared realities. The poems in the book were inspired by true events from my hustling in this city.

I have known you to talk about using spoken word poetry for therapy. Can you tell me a bit about this? How does your background as someone who graduated with a major in psychology intersect with your spoken word poetry?

My degree in psychology and the minor in sociology have played a significant role in my understanding of human patterns and behaviour. Often, I’m just writing for one person in the audience, the struggling one who is in need of some sort of reprieve.

There have been many times where I’ve used this same art form to reclaim myself, on days where the gloom has darkened my world. My desire is to allow others to tap into how art can heal and serve as a wonderful reflective surface.

There is a quote by the Greek poet Menander that says, “The spoken word is man’s physician in grief; the only art with soothing charms for the soul.” What are your thoughts on this?

I totally agree with the Menander quote. Poetry, particularly when spoken, has a unique ability to offer solace and healing. It is magical in how it resonates deeply with people from all walks of life. Perhaps it is through a poet’s vulnerability as well as the audience’s openness to it that brings empathy as a communal, shared experience. Spoken word poetry speaks to the soul, anchoring us in hope at times that we are grieving.

We know every creative derives their inspiration from somewhere. What inspires you to keep creating your art?

In terms of my inspiration as an artiste, most of it comes from life itself. But also so many other spoken word artistes who have come before me have inspired me. I am grateful to people like Dorphan, Qui Qarre, Kym Chokera and Slim Shaka, who have held my hand.

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