SLiP InZync Poetry Slam, 4 May 2012, AmaZink Eatery, Kayamandi, Stellenbosch.
SliP’s been on a roll lately, hasn’t it? Slipping into a role of reliability, too. Not content with laying down the most intense of all its poetry events in April, SLiP hosted the second InZync Poetry Slam on May 4 at the AmaZink eatery in Kayamandi, Stellenbosch.
The first-ever InZync Poetry Slam went down famously in October 2011 – you remember, that night that you traded in your workable knowledge of performance poetry for a sensory immersion of the real thing? After the Birthday-Slash-Homecoming poetry session in April, excitement had built sufficiently and someone deserving a pay-raise came up with the idea that it was time for another Slam. Whoever that someone is should be up for a Spear of the Nation award for getting everyone talking, because after the Second SLiP Slam you couldn’t shut us up. Within two days, apparently, the event was conceived, formulated and advertised, almost like Radiohead’s King of Limbs album last year. I take my beanie off to those who scurried around promoting the Slam and getting word to potential participants.
With Pieter again on time-monitoring duties and our Queen Khanyisile Mbongwa standing in for regular host Adrian Different, the structures of the previous Slam were maintained and the set-up was more or less the same, thank Christ—no point changing a winning formula. On a chilly evening once again calling out to the rain, we were packed like sardines in a Metrorail third-class carriage on a good day, and all the different conversations going on at the same time clued you in on the buzz: some people had just seen The Avengers before folks in the States had even gotten to it, (kind of like the way we saw how the Bush II Presidency would play out, but didn’t tell the Americans), some people were relieved not to be writing any further term tests (unlike poor Adrian) and some obvious newcomers had “heard” that the first Slam was so good and had to check this one out. All this fragmented talk merely covered the sexy nervous rigidity in the room like an “X” on a painting: in other words, it only drew more attention to the expectation in the air, the agreement to be hi-jacked by poetry and left somewhere along a new highway that you didn’t mind walking because you wanted to take it all in. In fact, we were “in” – SLiP’s poetry sessions are the new highway, the “new way in”, and definitely on a map that gets torn up and reworked every month so that this magic cannot be easily copied. The packed house each time speaks for itself.
Our Queen opened the evening for us with song, but not before a still-malfunctioning mic hissed, cut out and made Khanyi jump back and claim that the insolent device was racist, doing quite a convincing Juju impersonation in the process. So far that mic has been the worst performer at our recent events – and yes, I’m still aiming projectiles at the recent standard of sound control the way Robert Mugabe still grumbles about British Imperialism in the 20th century; it’s that bad, and something needs to be done. But doing something was what Khanyi and Pieter immediately took care of, as she started working the crowd and he danced like a white boy. It was a great way to set the night in motion. Considering that Khanyi was fresh off a solo performance at the Department of English at Stellenbosch University, her presence was both comforting and stimulating. After establishing herself as a hostess with spunk to spare, she explained the rules regarding time limit, judges’ scores and audience response, which would be measured and analysed by Pieter on his laptop. Khanyi then thanked everyone for coming, introduced the three judges and called the first poet to the stage.
Voicemail, one of our main event poets in February, showed that he wasn’t afraid to keep mixing it in competition, and he delivered a confident, steady performance that was rated 5-6-7 by the judges. Given that the very first, first-round performer at the previous Slam kicked off with 4-6-6, we were off to a more solid start already, evidence of how the SLiP/InZync word has spread and how better-prepared contestants were. The ever-sophisticated Alison was next, a 2012 regular at our poetry events, and brought her assured, measured and wonderfully supple lyrical arrangement to her performance, earning her a very impressive 7-8-9 from the judges and an enormous
crowd response. The crowd would have been chuffed, as Alison had asked for its participation in her semi-melodic recital.
Next was Zoë who appeared a little nervous reading her poem, being slightly clumsy in places and losing the impact of some otherwise very good lines. She went off with a more disparate 6-7-9 from the judges and a warm acknowledgement from the crowd. Omnyama was next, and you’d have been a fool to be pitied by the original Mr T if you didn’t sense the floor give a tremor as she took the stage and the tension in the room get a case of the hiccups. Here was power through and through, a woman that ran with the wolves as easily as she could beat the shit out of them,and in orotundity that would make new-born babies salute she showed why, come hell or marijuana water, she would be one of the finalists. I don’t know whether the crowd wanted to cheer her or invade Poland at her command, but she owned that stage like a BOSS and earned 8-8-10 from the judges, the highest score at that point.
First-timer Caryn was next, immediately making everyone smile by holding aloft a HUGE glass of red wine to indicate her anxiety, and you could sense all the souls in the room telling her, “That’s it girl, the first hurdle monkey is off your back forever now.” She read a charged, entertaining and very witty diatribe that was rhythmically marred by her stumbling just as she was warming into it and needing to pick up the pace again. In that kind of scenario, if you fuck up, fuck up big, as my drama professor always said. She got love from the crowd and 6-6-7 from the judges. Next up was that old fox, Lwandile, slyly starting off with “that” chant he made famous at the April poetry evening and still coming under time with his poem. Always a crowd favourite, the response he got from them was never going to be questioned, and from the judges he earned 6-7-8. Kgotso
came after Lwandile, but unfortunately felt the pressure and delivered a 5-5-5 performance that even a sympathetic crowd couldn’t boost for his chances of pushing on.
From Coco we had a short poem, read off of her cell phone and neither the poem nor the performance of it was particularly convincing, leading to a 6-5-4 from the judges and polite praise from the house. A confident and assertive Pume, who gets better and better with each SLiP appearance, impressed the audience to big cheers and a very handy 7-7-8 from the judges, but he couldn’t have known the person coming on after him was not only going to steal his lingering victory but everyone else’s as well. Praise-poet Vuyo gave official notice of herself long before we actually saw her: we heard a high-pitched voice coming from between the tables announcing the arrival of a true performer. You actually saw Vuyo’s voice tickle and whisk the very air around her, and once you got over that you were struck by the red crown she carried herself in, by her dancing through the crowd, by her singing and chanting and you thought, “Fucking hell, but she hasn’t even performed her poem yet!” When she took to the stage, a book of her own poems in hand, she kept on generating the electricity that was winding us up like World War II radios before a Blitzkrieg, never letting the intensity of her praise poetry performance drop for a second and making a statement with her stamping feet that we now belonged to her. Everyone in the house had become her acolyte, using the next person’s limbs when their own arms fell off from clapping so stoutly. Even after giving scores of 9-9-10, the judges still went, “What the fuck was that?!”
Next was Melissa, reading a poem that was perhaps a little too personal for a packed house, but hey, you gooi it whichever way you want to at SLiP/InZync, and she impressed the audience while getting a 6-6-8 from the judges, that last digit a touch generous. Liberty took the stage after Melissa, giving a rap performance that came as a surprise, given how genuinely intertwined his lyrics were. He emphasised the words more than the gestures,
which was fresh and welcome, as many rappers throw their bodies around more than their words these days. The crowd picked up that he had forte and the judges scored him at 6-7-7.
All the way from Mexico came Antonio, holding an ace over everyone, the audience and judges included, in that he performed in Spanish – there couldn’t have been too many people in the house who followed him easily,
even though SLiP/InZync’s events attract many internationals. Khanyi asked both audience and judges to consider Antonio’s diction and body language rather than getting stuck at the language barrier, but she needn’t have worried, as he proved quite popular (Khanyi was convinced it was a popular vote from the women because Antonio spoke Spanish, and she seemed to agree with herself on that, too) and earned a quite passable 6-6-7 from the judges. Spanish may well be one of the more prominent languages featured at the poetry evenings from here on, if we remember the Spanish summonses drilled out by the 2011 Slam Champion, JC, the night he won.
Zach, considered by Khanyi as a looker likely to earn votes from the ladies, gave a too-short reading of a poem, not giving his words enough time to snake around everyone’s ears, and earned 5-5-6 for his troubles. He was followed by Willa who, after an opening line that bordered on saccharine, eased nicely into quite lush lyrical fecundity, although some of it may have gone over a few heads. Still, the house was appreciative and the judges rated 6-6-6; the zealots in Rimestein’s poems would’ve had a field day with that one. Last but not certainly not least, lest you want to be pitied, fool, (just had to go there again, didn’t I?), was our very own Mr T. In two open mic appearances before this he had, like Pume, built his reputation up considerably and the hard work paid off as Mr T, soft-spoken but incisive in his material, closed the first round with one of the strongest crowd responses and a very respectable 7-7-8.
The scores were rounded and audience response figures were compared, and the first-round winners were Vuyo, Omnyama, Alison, Pume, Liberty, Antonio, Lwandile, Melissa, Zoë and Mr T. Some hits and misses there but all the right ingredients for a riveting second round were in place regardless. The first round taught us that there were three or four genuinely strong contenders, while the contest between the others would be tight. The first round also taught us that under no circumstances do you not drink while taking in such marathon competition: witnessing a Slam means you’re bound to have a “Phew” moment that makes you place an order for a double-whiskey, or ten cups of coffee, or milkshakes that make you feel like Justin Bieber’s lovechild with the cast of Twilight, nannied by Harry Potter while Lady Gaga watches. You’re going to drink or chew on something, even if it turns out to be your Oscar Wilde collection. There were contestants capable of pulling nasty surprises, and others who were sure to unleash their big poems to up the competitive stakes.
Speaking to a senior colleague during the break before the second round started, he expressed his concern that there wasn’t a genuine superstar emerging apart from one, although I reminded him that at the previous Slam the superstar presence only really emerged in the second round. There’s poetry all over again for you—it was a “watch this space” kind of moment when we both remembered how tenuous that second round was in 2011, and how something analogous could play out a second time.
Khanyi was at her best as our host: she was animated, kept our energy up, delivered regular commentary,
enthused often and gave the judges the lie of the land in positive ways every now and then. One minute she was respectfully quiet, allowing a poem to finish, the next she was dancing and jumping up and down if something struck a chord with her. She’s pulled a unique SLiP triple threat: she’s performed (open mic and main event), judged (at the first Slam) and hosted, and each time she had everyone mesmerised and transfixed. When people in the audience were being too noisy, Khanyi checked them and called them out. When the crowd wasn’t making enough noise in appreciation of a good poem, Khanyi got them to go louder. As a recent report on her English Department recital had it, she radiates queendom – although I might jealously add that I’ve been writing about her being a Queen since last year, so there. That’s what a performance Sovereign does to those she appears to: you fight others to be able to have the loudest say about her. I mean, you saw how it went at the April event when she and her king, Tebogo Louw, did that rendition of “Redemption Song”. Even those that were there wished they were there.
With time regulations extended for each poet, the second round commenced, and Lwandile kicked things off for us, doing a poem he’d debuted at the April Open Mic event and giving it more thrust and a boot up the arse for good measure. Such hard work paid dividends as the crowd was satiated and the judges felt it was worth 7-8-8. Laying down her challenge, since she’d been put up so early in this round, was Omnyama, turning in another mighty performance with superb all-round skills, presenting her body language as hard-hitting as her words, and actually feeding dynamism to the crowd, which in turn they offered back to her in their ovation. With that plus a score of 8-8-9, my money was on her to win this thing.
Melissa followed, signalling to us that her first-round poem actually came in four parts, and she “continued” it, leading to another good crowd response and 6-7-8. Giving an impressive, controlled and surprisingly deft but scorching example of his ability to channel Fanon in his stern enhancements to his country’s psyche, Mr T more than deserved the rapturous veneration of the house and 7-8-9 from the judges. Liberty, so striking in the first round, gave a performance with less edge, as if he’d gambled on variation – admirable if he did, but there wasn’t enough in it to get him past 6-6-7, with a still-healthy applause factor.
Pumi came aboard again with a good poem, albeit one that was delivered in the same manner and cadence as all his others, an example of a lack of variety even if,
as always, his philosophical encouragements were sound. Antonio had another go in Spanish, with a more average performance that showed up an uneasy rhythm and moments where he didn’t seem too sure of himself. The crowd response more or less matched the 5-5-6 score he received. Alison, as she did in the first round, got the audience to partake in her poem but this time it didn’t work as effectively. For her presence and well-rounded delivery, she was given a good enough applause and a score of 6-6-8. Vuyo ended off the second round with another praise poetry performance, less bombastic than her first but one that came with a necessary introduction that hooked everyone from the get-go. In my opinion, she wasn’t the winner of this second round, Omnyama was, but Vuyo came into the second round with exceptional crowd support based on her first round performance, and the judges rated her highly at 8-9-10.
Without doubt a tense third round was in store, especially as you could say the real competition was going to be between Omnyama and Vuyo: they had almost the same second-round score (Vuyo lead by 2 points) and both had the ability to really grab the audience profoundly. Vuyo’s advantage was her flair and enthusiasm while Omnyama’s was her unflappable directness,
as well as her performing in English only, thereby being understood by more people present. It was going to come down to choosing between the exciting star with charisma and the hard-as-nails, always-reliable professional. As the previous Slam went with the “star” quality in choosing its winner, I found myself strongly in the Omnyama boat because her consistency was breath-taking, whereas I felt Vuyo relied too much on the crowd. Small matter, though – we had five poets into the third round and two of them were larger-than-life. What more could you ask for?
You could ask for Mr T to open the third round, after an unbearable mini-break. Mr T chose a poem he’d done before at an Open Mic, and there was certainly a bit less happening for him than in the previous two rounds as his performance needed just a bit more to it,
especially with the likes of Vuyo lurking. Still much loved by almost everyone present, Mr T finished his tournament with a third-round tally of 6-7-7.
Lwandile then took the mic, offering ample evidence of how comfortable he is on a stage but, as is his want, stalling to try and fill up the three minutes he was given, fighting the tension while flexing himself commendably. I’d noticed Lwandile’s uncomfortable pauses in a few of his open mic moments last year, and he needed to have put them more resolutely behind him to have pushed his nose ahead in this third round. As in the previous rounds, crowd response was never going to be a problem for Lwandile, but the 6-7-7 was just not going to be enough to help him. Credit to him for getting that far, as he’d apparently not known about the Slam until the morning before!
Melissa finished the poem she’d been reading through the previous rounds and there simply wasn’t enough in it to put her in a durable position in this third round. A strategic re-think would’ve been in order for her but that’s easy for me to say, as I wasn’t a participant. She came away with a decent crowd response but a damaging 5-5-6 from the judges.
This time, a more subdued Vuyo read her entire piece, stymieing her natural performance style by a tiny margin but nonetheless providing us with an outstanding poem, although a few uneasy reading pauses counted against her. The crowd still loved her greatly and the judges gave her 8-8-9.
Omnyama was the last one, and you sensed it was possibly hers to win or lose. The most consistent contestant of the entire competition, she rocketed out with another gem of pure poetry and performance,
and she had the crowd hopping mad, and had Khanyi hopping mad too – quite a sign, given that Vuyo had Khanyi hopping mad earlier, in the previous rounds. In this crunch round, Omnyama was the best, without a doubt. With a very loud crowd response in the bag, there was a suspenseful wait for the judges’ scores, which were finally revealed as 8-9-10, Omnyama’s second ‘10’ of the night. It took quite a while for everyone to quiet down, such was the atmosphere.
Some of us thought that Omnyama, by winning the third round, had won the Slam but Pieter, after a few minutes of mathematics, revealed that the scores over the three rounds were taken together, so the top three were:
Vuyo was crowned our Slam Champion, and I doubt anyone was left untouched by her utterly sincere,
highly moving acceptance speech, crying on Leon’s supportive shoulder and really giving us pause to reflect on the sheer value of things. The win meant a great deal to her, and she wished that her absent loved ones could celebrate with her. Hopefully, those loved ones will join with the new family she’d made at AmaZink and support her main event performance in July!
And, for good measure, Khanyi re-joined with the King, Tebogo, and to satisfy popular demand, they did a repeat performance of their take on “Redemption Song”. This time it was even slower, more delicate: that more-experienced second performance that you don’t love any less because it goes even deeper and you’re aware of it, and allow it to. It just about sums up the Second SLiP Slam, doesn’t it? And with the Africa Day SLiP event around the corner, we’re headed for a SLiP storm proper, one that cleanses our streets of any doubt of the role poetry plays in where we’re headed, just as it played a role in where we’ve been.