Cape Town Prêt-à-Protest: the Word and the Blues
There was one year when my favourite day of the week was Monday. I would trek to one of the city's 'liberated zones': a small, crowded caf� bearing a mysterious Khoi name. Besides through bad recordings of Mzwakhe Mbuli, Café Camissa was probably the first contact I had with a local tradition of performing poetry.
'Monday Blues' was the name of the night, and it used to attract members of the black intelligentsia who had come to get drunk, along with drunkards from other walks of life. Editor Sandile Dikeni was the MC, an added bonus as he would regularly read his own work, as incendiary as the Guava Juice (slang for the lethal brew in a Molotov cocktail) after which he named his first anthology.
But before long the Camissa's lease expired and thus ended an era in the city's nightlife. 'Monday Blues' moved for a brief time to the Piano Lounge, an uncomfortable, feng shui-resistant night spot that was also host to the town's sweaty drum 'n bass weekly. Yet it was here, at a mid-90s 'Monday Blues session', that I first saw the incredibly talented Jethro Louw.
He'd already been performing for at least a decade, but to a newbie his poetry about life in the informal settlements was startling, delivered in a guttural Afrikaans with epileptic gestures approximating the language and trance dance of this place's first inhabitants.
With luck, sometime in the future, Jethro Louw will become known as the godfather of Cape Town spoken word. In this city we tend to lionize our most original creative artists only when they're dead or otherwise impotent. Perhaps it's the price paid by innovators for not obeying the silent rules of scene and genre.
A couple of years after that revelatory 'Monday Blues' session, I decided to try my hand at my own poetry gig. 'Slam poetry' was about to become a household phrase, and everybody was looking for a way out of the turgid stylistic lexicon of hip-hop. It wasn't actually a poetry gig, but there were a whole bunch of artists that I wanted to see on stage together, and it so happened that the gig could be neatly niched as a 'spoken word and hip-hop poetry' affair.
'Word of Mouth' was not the only spoken word platform in town, only one of the more peculiar. There was a minority of nominally spoken word artists on the bill, which might typically consist of an equal mix of hip-hop comedy, acoustic soul strumming, excerpts from plays, dancehall MCs and an old school poetry reading.
Black Noise, Tumi and the Volume and Khwezimalaika all had their turn, as did paper and pen poets like Rustum Kozain and Diane Ferrus. Somewhat stranger was when Benguela pulled up at one gig to accompany Warrick Sony, who, over the trio's hypnotic grooves recited poems filled with conscription-era paranoia and dread. The tone for all this deviancy was set by the very first performance at the very first gig by a drunken, foul-mouthed Kozain reciting about Charlie Mingus, pigeons in the Gardens and Oprah, who's
... on TV fucking crying again
crying crying at all those gentle folk
The crowd was not a 'typical' spoken word audience. The whole thing took liberties with genre, with political affiliation, with aesthetic. It was fun, irreverent at times, and yet very complicit in creating the idea of a 'spoken word scene' in Cape Town.
There were other nights, 'Native Yard', 'Collective Journals', Monday nights at Off Moroka, irregular happenings at the Lounge. Like 'Word of Mouth', these have mostly faded away. What happened to this brief spell of activity? Truth be told, there has always been more hype and more follow through in Johannesburg. In Cape Town, even our fabled hip-hop scene is, like, still undergound, while in Johannesburg newcomers cash in with beer sponsorship, SAMA awards and soap opera appearances.
So it's no surprise that in Jozi there's poetry on radio, websites and the week is filled with regular club nights. In Cape Town there are the odd nights, as irregular as the rain.
I certainly know when spoken word stopped doing it for me. It was the convergence of a couple of things. One was the poetry workshop I ran with three visiting poets, all resident in the US despite various national affiliations. They arrived late amidst a heated debate amongst audience members about American cultural imperialism and hip-hop. The workshop became an incredibly uncomfortable space, with audience and participants antagonistic on questions of race, globalisation, identity, and poetry.
Ursula Rucker, one of the guests, volunteered to hide under the table, proclaiming that she didn't need or want to talk about her poetry in front of questioning fans. Exposed to the city's willingness to bare all with explicit questions of identity and cultural imperialism, the visiting poets became violently unpoetic.
Perhaps it was the fault of the workshop space, which was not full of the usual cosy affirmations and one-way talk of dedicated poetry evenings. The editor of a leading literary journal gave some solace, with his throaty chuckle, muttering to me, 'They're just entertainers'. Nominally pitted against the global entertainment industry, 'underground' poetry seemed to have become a part of it.
It didn't help that shortly before all this, a friend had emailed me Taylor Mali's How to Write a Political Poem:
However it begins, it's gotta be loud
and then it's gotta get a little bit louder.
Because this is how you write a political poem
and how you deliver it with power.
Mix current events with platitudes of empowerment.
Wrap up in rhyme or rhyme it up in rap until it sounds true.
Glare until it sinks in.
Then one night I went out to a city poetry gig and, glaring at the ice melting in my glass, realised that I was bored stiff.
There's nothing worse than bad poetry, except being sold bad political poetry. Ignoring the debates about protest art that took place in the 80s, the poetry scene had begun to run the danger of being stunted by a lack of criticism, and the silent fascisms that grow from the fervour of cause and effect.
Spoken word has become its own genre, like hip-hop, in danger of imploding under the weight of stale posturing and portentous non-sequiturs. It's the eclectic, the fringe, the quirky stuff that repeatedly gains my attention. So there are those gems which might not fit into your preconceived ideas of spoken word.
Buckfever Underground's Toast Coetzer chants lines over the squall of Sonic Youth-like feedback. Their latest album is called Teaching Afrikaans as a Foreign Language. That title alone with all its knowing ironies wins my vote of wonderment. Another legend is Sky 189, who crossed over from hip-hop battles to the comedy circuit. He is one of the granddaddies of Cape Town hip-hop, a true improvisor who can spin poetry out of the unexpected objects pulled from audience members' pockets.
There is still excellent propagandistic poetry, and I've seen some of the best performed in Cape Town. One of the more interesting new developments is Alkemy, a group of young MCs and poets turned scholars, broadcasters and teachers. Most of them had responded to an ad for an MC workshop put out by Shaheen Ariefdien, ex-Prophets of da City and one of the country's most talented MCs, on his Friday evening radio show.
They found themselves roped into a mini-think tank based at community station Bush Radio. When they're not parsing lyrics, they're reading Chomsky and Fanon, or teaching young kids from the community the basics of broadcast media.
One of the most talented of the group is Marlon Burgess, relatively old for the group at 24. His nom de guerre is not 'kyk ou' (a very loose translation might be 'look buddy'), as I first thought, but CaCo - Cape Coloured (the derogatory classification given to 'mixed race' people of the Western Cape).
Recently I recommended him to a poetry event promoter. 'Is he black or white?' she asked innocently, casting her eyes on a BEE scorecard. 'Um', I said. Then she asked if he was kaaps (you know what I mean). CaCo does throw Afrikaans into the mix, but not for the sake of coloured nation-building. Just the right words where they are needed. His sentences stumble over themselves, so laden are they with metaphors and wordplay. He has perfected the art of making his audience gasp as if for air, mouths wide open in wonder.
And then there is Mr Devious, who makes me want to repent my lines and scream out the importance of politics. Not because of his tragic death, but because of everything he lived for. Mario van Rooy became Mr Devious when he started belting out poetry about how to survive the ganglands of the Cape Flats.
Typically, he was better known in Amsterdam than in Cape Town. Less typically, he put his heart where his mouth was, working for non-profit organisations like Creative Education for Children and Youth At Risk (CRED) and Baobab Connections. He was murdered at the beginning of this year, in one of the situations he might have rhymed about, his crusade cut short at 26 years by ignorance.
The experience of spoken word in Cape Town continues to trouble my understanding of the relationship of art, commerce and politics. Faced with the plain reality of Devious' death, my words run out.
Julian Jonker is a DJ and writer based in Cape Town.