Meet spoken word poet Abu Sense – Kenya’s best storyteller
How did you get into spoken word?
I was introduced to creative writing while in Form Two in 2007 by a friend called Ahmed Akil aka El Poet, a brilliant performer.
At the time, I only wrote poems to perform at the school music festivals, but I enrolled to full public displays of my creative work after high school.
What did you study before getting into spoken word artistry?
Well, the normal 8-4-4 subjects from kindergarten to high school. After which I enrolled for piloting lessons at 99s Flying School.
I have actively been a spoken word artiste, an actor and a writer for close to 12 years now.
What does it take one to be a spoken word artiste?
Having creatively arranged words to speak out. Honestly, I do not fully know if a spoken word artiste can be defined in any other way.
The same way a writer is defined by writing and an actor defined by acting.
How was your first performance like? Did it go well?
No. I had invited my aunt to come watch me on stage at a gig called ‘Open Mic Hosted By Adelle Onyango’.
Two minutes into my piece, I forgot everything that I had written and memorised. She had driven from far to watch me choke on stage.
What challenges did you face as a rookie?
I entered the fray of spoken word when it was morphing into a battle rap form. It was too competitive and it almost became an event of showcasing rhymes and metaphors for fun, as opposed to display of passion and affection for language and performance.
Thank goodness everything worked out fine, creatively, for many artistes who started during that period. Also, money seems to elude all creative spaces, especially spoken word artistes.
How is it like performing in different settings and audiences?
It is much harder performing to a small crowd because they listen keenly. The silence sometimes may influence your performance.
But it is so discouraging to perform for suits-clad corporates figures because of the ‘if you’re not talking money…’ you know.
Performing for fellow artistes gets you a barrage of finger snaps and you get to inspire a whole lot of aspirants.
Performing in studios and closed spaces is sometimes pale because you do not get a reaction from static machines.
Performing in stadiums and arenas would be ideal for all spoken word artistes. We have to make it happen!
Your poems are passionate, both in delivery and content. Have you ever had to force a piece out of you?
Yes. I have had fortunate experience to write for brands and corporate gigs. Since they understand art in numbers, at times I feel ‘plastic’ talking about luxury topics that appeal to their imaginations and desires.
Some things might be miles ahead from my grasp, but still have to passionately deliver. The key is to find a balance between honesty with your delivery and making sure the audience rides along.
Where do you draw inspiration?
Mostly from real life experiences. I consume a lot of entertainment products and within the span of that consumption — just like producers who sample works of other artistes who’ve impacted them — I draw a certain aspect and run away with it.
What has been your best and worst moment as an artiste?
Best moment is being paid before getting on stage. Worst moment is waiting for months for company pocket change.
There is a certain level of respect when your work is valued from the moment you get a call from a paying client.
Best moment overall is performing at Ubumuntu Arts Festival in 2017 in Kigali, Rwanda, and having full control of around 3,500 people. I choked on words.
What’s the highlight of your career so far?
Meeting Ngartia, a fellow spoken word artiste and creating the fifth edition of the blockbuster theatre storytelling show Too Early For Birds in 2018.
Get tickets to the next show and figure out for yourself why it is such an above industry standard show.
What is your favourite poem you have written?
Fighting A Continuous War. ‘I’ve been pushing through the city’s backbone with my vision narrow.
Unhorsed on crisscrossed course seeking validation, you never sought to sight insights, each a unique creation.
You mold a chameleon out of me then loath colour, handpicking heroes matching me with their valour, strengthening weaknesses, paralysing sicknesses, numbing, dumbing tendency to impress you with sequences. Keep me changing, ranging your frequencies.’
What’s the most challenging thing about organising spoken word events in Kenya?
There are thousands of fans of spoken word and they all, just like the organisers, stretch and dig deep into their pockets to make events a regular thing.
But the spaces conducive for such (theatre halls and sound favouring venues) are expensive.
The rates keep going up with each financial quarter of the year. Hiring equipment is a challenge too.
Thankfully though, the obstacles make performers think of alternative avenues where they can share their work such as podcasts, social media and blogs. Monetising such channels would be ideal as an almost perfect solution.
Where do you aspire to performing in future?
The Grammy Awards gala.
What advice would you give to young people interested in performance poetry?
Write for you. There are many people like you who want to hear what you have to say; not what they want you to say.