Dejavu: unlike anything you’ve seen before

Umthi presents FRM THE WOMB: NUTN NU, 25 September 2012, Department of English, Stellenbosch University


It’s not often that one sees Khanyisile Mbongwa, InZync celebrity and founder of the organisation Umthi, in awe of an artist. But as the constituents of the small audience that has gathered for the third event to be hosted by Umthi at Stellenbosch University soon realise, Dejavu Tafari is the calibre of artist that can elicit this response from Mbongwa. The afternoon’s host is practically in raptures over her featured performer, because as she tells the gathered few: “She’s that dope!”

As the group in the venue wait for the title act of the afternoon to arrive, poets who form a part of the audience perform pieces from memory. The sound of tables being drummed in beat with the cadences of the poet’s voices fills the venue, and each informal and impromptu performance is greeted with riotous applause.

The prelude of informal performances proves that the size of the audience is incongruent with the heart that is present and represented on the day. The eagerly waiting group is spellbound when the lithe and beautiful Dejavu sweeps in. Dressed fashionably but traditionally in an outfit that combines swathes of tribal print with a modern silhouette, it is difficult to believe that the slight figure that occupies the front of the room is a mother of five and a theatre and performance graduate. As soon as she begins, her resonant voice obliterates any expectations that her small physique may have engendered.

Dejavu sings in vibrant and resounding tones, alternating between song and speech as she vociferously explicates the topic of the day: “Frm the womb: nutn nu”. Her areas of concern include culture, collective history, poetry itself and social imagination. She traces her experience as a woman in the public space as she negotiates the past and the present in her poems, her voice connecting with the issues through the melodies of vernacular speech, and implicitly speaking the clicks, rises and falls of the vernacular as she weaves rhythm into her English.

In her first piece, the beautiful Dejavu introduces herself to her audience bodily and descriptively, interrogating structures of society and analysing common practice. “Peas in a pod, God and I converse,” she boldly states. “I fight and sometimes fail.” Her poem urges an engagement with history and perspective, claiming that poetry and language is a way to reconciliation; “Tunes and melodies are remedies received as grace,” she explains. The poem ends with the insistence that all are beautiful, especially as women. She claims that people are “spectacular in every vernacular”, and says in Xhosa: “We are all beautiful!”

Her second piece is a valuation of self in the hip-hop tradition. “Basically,” she tells her listeners, “I’m calling myself ‘The Man’”. She sings a jazzy introduction to her poem before rattling words off like gunfire, each syllable a bullet that penetrates the consciousness of her rapt audience.

She moves fluidly into her next piece, entitled “Apocalypse”. She critiques modern society and predicts the end of it all in high-octane consonants. Acting out the metaphors as though the performance were a game of charades, the piece is a work of physical theatre, as are the few informally included poems that she throws in to the audience’s delight towards the end of the afternoon.

Her name may be “Dejavu”, but she is surely unlike anything many have seen before.