In Kenya, modern spoken word artistry is still perceived as new: Echoes of ambition

Friday, August 20th, 2021 00:00 |

“Kama singekuwa msanii, basi ningekuwa conductor forever destined for the stage.

This is a letter to every beginner; I’ve seen amateurs grow into mentors and masters look like amateurs before those that they mentored, it’s a skill, that only starts with one stick, one stroke of brush on canvas, one word on a plain sheet of paper, one act can simply change how you gonna look like...”

These are words from Letter To Every Beginner, a poem by the riveting Kenyan spoken word performer Teardrops. 

Teardrops’ words arrest everyone in the room as he spits his lines accompanied by guitar strums.

He can inspire people, make them happy, and leave them in stitches with just a few lines.

The thing about spoken word poetry is that it marries the art of performance with the impact of the written word, enlivening the words on the page with the vision of the writer and performer, as most spoken word poets write and perform their own pieces.

Spoken word poetry refers to poetic pieces that buck the normal conventions of syllables and length yet still adhere to some poetry rules such as rhyme.

These pieces are normally performed with music as background or with bare vocals.


Just like poetry, they explore varied themes such as love, loss, and governance.

In Kenya, the field has been steadily growing in popularity thanks to people like Teardrops, who have stuck it out.

“This is my 11th year as a full-time spoken word artiste. I started off as a rapper in 2009, but I have always loved wordplay ever since I was young.

I realised what I was doing when rapping was spoken word poetry, only that it was performed to the beat.

I started writing pieces and performing them and have slowly grown and found my characteristic writing and performing style as well as my voice,” Teardrops tells Spice.

Words as tools

He has continuously upskilled and even recently learned how to play the guitar.

He is currently working on songs and has released several collaborations among them Frijumaa, an ode to hustlers with Ambasa Mandela, and Zima Stima with Ambasa and Eko Dydda.

He loves performing in Sheng and English, and believes artistes have a duty to be activists and address wrongs in the society.

He often highlights corruption and impact of  politics on daily lives even as Kenyans become more apathetic to governance with many youths vowing not to vote if it means installing bad leaders.

Teardrops believes in backing up his art with actions. He has numerous poems that talk about environmental degradation and speak strongly against it.

Mumbi Macharia.

He often coordinates clean-up exercises of the Nairobi River in the section near Mukuru Kwa Njenga slums, as he wants to do his part for the environment.

“Other people’s inaction should not be a reason for personal inaction,” he says.

Mufasa Poet is a full-time spoken word artiste who has been at it for the last seven years. He talks about the importance of collaborations between spoken word artistes and other creatives such as musicians and thespians. 

“This not only exposes them to fans outside their discipline, but also allows for the creation of more impactful pieces that transcend just one art form,” he intimates, citing as an example their 2016 song Tumechoka, a collaboration with Sarabi, Teardrops, Juliani and Maji Maji. 

The song was a clarion call for Kenyans to wise up and ensure they hold leaders accountable.

Mumbi Macharia, a spoken word poet who has been working on the art form for more than five years now, concurs with both Teardrops and Mufasa on the fact that words can be tools for change whether social, political, or environmental.

She uses her pieces to talk about governance, the inclusion of women, love, inevitability of heartbreak, and hope, among other issues.

“Just like my peers, it has taken me years of research to find a style that is purely my own.

Micheal Mburu.

Unwilling to let nascent spoken word poets go through the same struggle that I did, I have done several workshops across East Africa where I impart the tricks and skills I have learned,” she says.

She believes it is up to the industry players to ensure they help each other for the good of the greater collective group.

Teardrops echoes this, saying that he does regular masterclasses to equip spoken word artistes with the requisite skills.

During his most recent masterclass early this month, he held auditions to get more artistes onboard.

He says his highlight is seeing people grow and become more proficient in the art form.

But while growth in spoken word artistry is important, it is also vital to diversify one’s portfolio.

Mumbi and Mufasa have done this by publishing a book each. Mumbi’s book is called When I Learned How To Walk And Other Poems, and is available for delivery countrywide with orders placed at Nuria Bookstore. Mufasa’s book Raising the Sun is available via personal orders placed via his social media page Mufasa Poet.

“As an artiste, having merchandise is important as it means people can take a part of you with them to their homes.

It also enables you to share more content, including material that is not packaged for the stage.

In the case of a book, especially for a performance artiste, they can help your audience consume your content more keenly than they have before as they can reread the pieces as many times as they want,” explains Mufasa.

Highlights and challenges

The surprising commonality between these three artistes is that they have at one point in time performed at Kwani Open Mic,  a spoken word poetry gathering that happens every second Tuesday of the month.

Mufasa says he forum and participation in grand slam competitions have helped him refine his art and have introduced him to impeccable artistes who have widened and challenged his perspective on life.

He defines Kwani Open Mic as the space where someone new to the craft gets answers to most of their questions.

It can be a great space to try out pieces, as audience feedback can help an artiste trim a piece and leave only that which resonates with audiences.

“Kwani Open Mic started more than two decades ago as a literary space where people could read out their manuscripts and get feedback from an audience.

This slowly morphed into the spoken word monthly open mic stage that it is today.

We aim to provide artistes with a platform where they can share their art and get live feedback and interactions with the audience. 

“We feel humbled and honoured to have helped nurture great spoken word artistes such as Mufasa, Dan Mwangi, Teardrops, Eko Dydda, Juliani, and Mumbi among others.

We aim to keep doing this of course with the help of our partners and well-wishers who provide support for the events to be a success,” says Kwani Trust sales and marketing officer Micheal Mburu.

As to the challenges that the industry is facing, Mufasa cites Covid-19 pandemic as the main challenge now.

The pandemic has brought new challenges on performing poets, as one cannot perform live because of the restrictions.

He says having merchandise in the form of a book has proved significant as it serves as an alternative revenue source.

There is still the challenge of lack of public spaces to hold performances with the Kenya National Theatre the only equipped public space, but it cannot sufficiently cater to the growing number of artistes from all sectors of the arts.

 “In a country whose population has up to 75 per cent youth, there’s a need to invest in spaces that support and showcase talents and skills of the young people for them to be active and positive contributors in the society.

The other challenge is the misrepresentation of spoken word poetry, as anyone can claim to be a spoken word artiste since this is a relatively new art form in Kenya.

This has led to increased mediocrity in the performance of the craft, which has in turn affected how the audience receives and perceives it,” Mufasa elaborates.

For Mumbi, the biggest challenge is the common misconception that spoken word poetry is not mainstream entertainment.

She hopes this changes over time and looks forward to the day when spoken word poetry pieces will be played on the radio and spoken word poets will stop being relegated to open acts during festivals and instead be the main headliners.

“The fact that the industry has grown enough to invite spoken word poets to perform during entertainment festivals is testament to the fact that everything, even my lofty dream of spoken word poets being headliners at events, is possible,” an optimistic Mumbi says in conclusion.

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