A shorter version of this article was originally commissioned by the Goethe-Institut and published on www.goethe.de
Black Alice. Photo Credit: Black Alice
For many years, spoken word in Cameroon was like the anecdotal man with the iron mask— faceless and denied recognition as it played second fiddle to other forms of art such as music and poetry. While Makossa and Bikutsi were fighting a popularity war in the eighties in Cameroon (a warfare largely dominated by Makossa), visionary Chicago poet, Marc Smith, performed poetry live at the funky Get Me High Lounge in 1987, and with like-minded poets Regie Gibson, Cin Salach and Patricia Smith, launched a movement which, as the Chicago Tribune puts it “lifted poetry off the page, liberated poetry from academia, outflanked the arbiters at the helm of literary magazines and publishing houses, and brought poetry directly to the people.” But the history of spoken word hardly starts with Marc Smith, because the ancient Greeks included spoken word in their Olympic Games and modern spoken word as we know it was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and blues. Nevertheless, Spoken word poetry came more towards the mainstream in popularity a short time later when Gil Scott-Heron released his spoken word poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” on the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970.
Spoken word or performance poetry is a kind of oral lyrical poetry which is performed with focus on the words themselves, the dynamics of tone, gestures and facial expressions.
Until the arrival of Kathy Amfray in the mid-2000s, most spoken word artists in Cameroon groped in the dark without recognition. With Ak Sang Grav, she went ahead to organize a couple of workshops and a competition, and the seed was sown. From that moment, the spoken word scene would never be the same again. Workshops and competitions flourished, and spoken word could now be identified with artists such as Stone Karim, Eben, Sadrak, Lady B, Eric Akam, Boudor and Koppo among others.
La Phraz Slam, started by Stone and Eben in 2007 remains seminal in the development of spoken word. Stone later moved on and started Ali Bavard (to give spoken word artists the opportunity to share their talents) and also organized workshops.
The evolution of spoken word in Cameroon has occurred without much media coverage, and it goes without saying that it is still unbeknown to a large public despite the activities of collectives and institutions such as La Phraz Slam, the French Institute, KIF’s Poetry Café, Ali Bavard, Ongola Slam Café, Koubalanta (Boudorium Prod), the Goethe-Institut, FIIAA and Centre Culturel Francis Bebey among others where spoken word artists have evolved and put up performances in French, English and Pidgin (creole) over the years.
One of the most prominent spoken word artists remains Stone Karim, a multidisciplinary artist who has participated in photography and spoken word events in Haiti, Senegal, France and Germany, and was artist in residence at Petit Pierre, Dakar in 2011. He experiments with words, sound, and pictures, and performs in French, English and Pidgin. He is a member of KHaL!SHRINE, an artist run alternative hub.
KHaL!LAND is a creative utopia. KHaL!SHRINE, an artist run alternative hub with base at the foot of Mont Eloundem, Yaounde, is a consequence of this utopia. It was founded in 2007 by multimedia artist Em’kal Eyongakpa and focuses on lens based media, sound and multidisciplinary experimentation. In addition to the art/wine/coffee/tobacco quarterly; 180 Minutes @ KHaL!SHRINE, it hosts alternative art events, informal art residencies and community outreach projects.
Stone refers to his art as poetography because he uses words to explain pictures in his mind and he uses pictures to describe things that words are not able to describe. He further refers to his spoken word poetry as ‘smoken word’ poetry because he likens the effect of his experiments with sound and visual art on the public to ‘poetic doping’, given that the medley is being absorbed by most of the senses. So far as he is concerned, his poetry and photography are inextricable and are full of social themes.
Another household name in the Cameroonian spoken word scene is Boudor, who represented Cameroon at the Slamophonies and Dire en Fête festivals. His music label Boudorium Prod. is very involved in the production and dissemination of Cameroonian music, and has recently produced artists like Duc Z and Sahvane. He is a former member of Négrissim’ and also organizes a get-together every two months in Douala known as Koubalanta, where spoken word, rap and other performances and workshops take place. With two and a half albums out, Boudor’s spoken word and music style is full of social and political commentary, and is very critical of the status quo.
When Negrissim’, a pioneer Cameroonian hip-hop group which started in Yaoundé around the end of 1994, surfaced, no one would have guessed that one of its members, Sadrak, would emerge to be an accomplished spoken word artist, or that he would leave an imprint on the Senegalese spoken word scene. Sadrak has been very instrumental to the evolution of spoken word in Senegal, especially when he teamed up with Diofel in order to start Vendredi Slam, a regular spoken word session where performances are done in French and Wolof. Prior to this, Sadrak made Diofel discover spoken word when in 2007, he gave him Souleymane Diamanka’s CD and it changed Diofel’s conception of spoken word as an art form. In an interview with Agendakar, a site that covers the cultural scene in Dakar, Diofel looks back at his discovery of spoken word with fondness, and further says that even when Sadrak was not in Senegal, he kept the project alive. Diofel, originally from Congo-Brazzaville currently does hip-hop and spoken word and is a household name in Senegalese spoken word circles.
Meanwhile, Negrissim’, a hip-hop crew from Cameroon, relocated to Dakar, Senegal (technically they spend their time between Europe and Dakar), and it members—Sadrak, Evindi and Soundjah have been in Dakar since 2001 in search of greener pastures and because they could no longer cope with unfavorable conditions and censorship back in Cameroon.
Another spoken word artist worth mentioning is r’N, who started as a poet, but after the publication of his maiden collection Je t’aime en splash, turned to spoken word to express himself and created a spoken word group known as Nda Slam which was made up of Faithful, Dark Spirit and himself. In addition to organizing workshops at the Centre Culturel Francis Bebey, he is working on a spoken word album.
In 2009 Lydol (anagram of Dolly) was semi-finalist in the “Challenge Vacances” competition under the Karaoke category. The following year, she competed in the Spoken Word category and came out as the national winner. This marked the beginning of performances at Urban village, la Tanière, the French Institute and FIIAA, and she won the first edition of the “Ressort Jeunes Talents” competition organized by the Francis Bebey Cultural Centre and in 2013 was the winner of the Cameroon leg of the Spoken Word Project, a competition organized by the Goethe-Institut in sub-Saharan Africa which enables stories to travel across Africa.
With the release of Another Part of Me in 2010, acclaimed female rap artist Lady B, who started as a dancer, marked a transition in her style as she dived into spoken word. Lady B has featured in festivals from Johannesburg to Libreville, and recently, she was part of a multidisciplinary performance at the Goethe-Institut Kamerun.
Despite making great strides in spoken word circles—with performances in English, French, Pidgin and indigenous languages— spoken word remains not very popular with the general public, and part of the reason has to do with the culture of apathy that has been existing for a while and plaguing most art forms. Nevertheless, like every form of art, spoken word has the power to comment on and transform our time and it is gradually becoming a form of art to reckon with, especially via the social commentary it provides on our epoch and the graphic experiments with poetry and pictures, creating a multi-disciplinary flux in the name of poetography which gives young people a voice, a raison d’être and at times pays their bills.