SLAM: Poetry that isn’t afraid to make an impact

“Ghetto children never remember how to smile”. It has already been four years since the death of Nelson Mandela. Anger, inequality and corruption in post-Apartheid South Africa have reached new summits. Angry voices, unheard by the media and ignored by the State, are joining forces. The cry for social, economic and racial justice is stronger and more essential every day. South Africa’s recent history is marked with upheavals, repression and conflict, but what is happening right now is more than what will be featured in the history textbooks. As I write this, the black South African underprivileged youth is reshaping not only the history of empowerment movements, but the history of poetry.

Not just written, but performed. This is what defines slam poetry. Accessible on YouTube, these poems are more than just spoken word. They are on-stage cries, thoughts and reflections, set to a beat and a rhythm. Borrowing from various art forms, slam poetry addresses controversial topics such as the inherent racism of culture and literature: syllabuses upholding a white-male-dominated canon, or the aesthetic association of black with evil,

“Little black girl ba re o maswe [they say you are ugly]

well I say, you are beautiful

you are a gift wrapped in brown skin”.

These opening lines from Bafentse Ntlokoa’s ‘Hush’, when performed, are set to a very soft violin which becomes louder and louder as the poem progresses in intensity. Subverting cultural values, reversing poetic paradigms and transcending stylistic boundaries, slam poetry is a flexible, musical form relying on key rules.

Richard ‘Quaz’ Roodt, on the Word N Sound Live Literature Company blog, outlines six guidelines for the aspiring slam poet:

You are a writer first.

Drafting, confronting and working out the appropriate devices to use are a poetic priority, according to Roodt.

Study, don’t imitate.

The slam poet can seek inspiration in others but has to make the final product his own.

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Respect your craft and its audience.

The aspiring poet won’t go far if his motivations are purely commercial, to be accepted as cool and trendy. Only poems with true meaning will actually be successful. Audience is the ultimate judge.

Slow Down Bone thugs, slow down.

Reading fast isn’t the way to go.

Get to the point, bro.

Roodt advocates a simplistic, clear, concise style.

Relax and Enjoy yourself.

“If you can’t, we won’t.”

In this respect, Slam poetry is a lot like rap. Emerging from feelings of dismay, injustice and frustration with the way a political system silences voices, cleansing public opinion and producing illusions to skirt around the problem rather than acknowledge it and address it, slam poetry shares its roots with rap. When performed, slam poetry is, again, very similar to rap: dialectal and accentuated, resonating with outcast groups. ‘Hush’, for example, unites English with Setswana, a Bantu language used by 8 per cent of the South African population and part of a vast family of mutually intelligible languages used across Africa:

“Little black girl ba re o montshô [they say you are black]”

Not only does this new poetic form take subject matter to a new level, tackling the nitty gritty core of prejudice and tearing it apart in the hope that society will do the same, it also raises artistic and aesthetic questions about the poetic genre—what is the role of poetry? Should poetry be political?

Tying back with the musical and lyrical origins of poetry by performing it as if it were a song—hence my analogy with rap—it also seeks to present itself as innovative and radically new, independent from previous forms.

Black South African voices were never given the chance to develop a movement: the value of their art, music and creations were wiped away in an age of white supremacy and cultural imposition. Now, in an age where black culture is increasingly appropriated and viewed as ‘cool’ (hip hop and rap being adopted by and providing success for white artists, for instance), slam poetry affirms itself as a distinctly black, South African type of poetry and performance. Codified like all arts, it seeks to create its own canon, its own cultural legacy in an underprivileged environment marred with conflict and racism. By doing so, it rejects appropriation and meaninglessness. Thabiso “Afukaran” Muhare chants:

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“Your blackberry tweet is not a haiku

Your facebook status is not a poem

Your blog is not a novel”

Playing on the concepts of legacy and value by appropriating Wilfred Owen’s British poem in the title, ‘Anthem for doomed poets’, Muhare confronts the futile and the superficial. Going beneath the surface, extricating the true source of the problem, slam poetry truly decolonises linguistic and cultural paradigms in South Africa by subverting the means of expression, the type of poetry and the platform on which it is delivered. That’s what slam is all about.