Slam cats search for the meaning of truth

EVENT: Slam Poetry (Saturday, 24 September; Fugard Studio)


Poetry slam gives young people the opportunity to take their poems from the page to the stage. The British Council in partnership with Poet Coach Bulelwa Basse’s Lyrical Bass Project, have taken a group of young aspiring poets on a journey exploring their literary and performing talents and learning more about themselves, their environments and their shared history.

Festival goers were on Saturday treated to the first poetry slam in Cape Town. The Fugard Studio, with its stained glass-like windows and coloured lights, put one in mind of a cathedral: a striking setting for six young up-and-coming poets to showcase their work. Although slam poetry, by definition, should be competitive in nature, there was no judging involved and, as all the poets were young and emerging talents, the atmosphere was rather one of nurturing one anothers’ talent.

First to speak was acclaimed writer and poet James Matthews, one of the mentors in the British Council project that aims to not only encourage young people to write poetry, but also to create platforms such as this where poetry can be performed. Matthews opened with the statement that “we are all poets”. All that is needed, he said, was for us to combine our imagination and creativity with discipline to create a “bouquet of words” by selecting and putting together otherwise “ordinary words”. He also expressed his amazement at the eagerness of the young people to become involved with poetry, before handing over the afternoon to the youngsters, whom he affectionately calls the “slam cats”.

Bulelwa Basse, founder of the Lyrical Base Project, an arts and culture organisation that seeks to elevate the profiles of writers from marginalised communities, introduced the six young poets after briefly explaining that this project developed out of an informal scrutiny of each others’ work. The performing poets were divided into three duos and each took turns reciting three of their original works. The partnerships were well grouped, with recurring themes and complementary images; in all three the partners seemed to logically flow from one poem to the next. All the poets then successfully wove together poetry and song.

The first two poets to take the stage were Ncedisa Mpemnyama and Khayalobo Ngudu, two incredibly energetic and enthusiastic young men. Ncedisa’s first poem was in Xhosa, and even for someone who, like me, does not understand Xhosa very well, his lyrical quality rung clear. Although the rest of his poems were in English, there was perhaps some slight resentment when he expressed concern that even though he has received “accolades for words in your language”, there is still a lack of understanding.

With the exception of one of Ncedisa’s poems, the poetry in this partnership focused on social concerns like substance abuse, violence, poverty and the despair of a country, with tears and weeping forming one of the central themes utilised by both poets. Khayalobo used the striking image of a pregnant woman to symbolise the suffering country, but one that is not without hope. Truth, and coming to terms with the past in order to move forwards, were further topics raised.

Sivile Mangcu and Asanda made up the next partnership, characterised by poetry of a much more personal nature. The social issues that were addressed, such as consumerism, rape, substance abuse and freedom of speech were viewed from their own perspectives. Predominant ideas in Asanda’s poetry were social masks, self-knowledge and self-awareness, but, as she also proclaimed, “self-love is such a labour”. Sivile engaged more with personal relationships and struggles, and the beautiful imagery she employed deserves special mention.

The final duo were Freeman Zondani and Kelebogile Motswatswa. Kelebogile, for the most part, concentrated on existentialism and the journey to discover herself. She was also unique amongst the slam poets in continually referring to a higher power and being guided by the “Most High”. Another distinctive characteristic of Kelebogile’s poetry was its positivity, even when addressing conceptual social issues like “commercial slavery”. Unlike the other poets, who spoke out against corrupt systems that oppress a country and lead to social injustice, she called for people to “work with the system”. Freeman’s poems were in his mother tongue, Xhosa, and the words, although I couldn’t understand their meaning, had a musical cadence. The one English phrase he used – “the truth is the ticket to heaven” – resonated with the central theme of verity.

In closing, Bulelwa Basse and James Matthews each read one of their own poems. Bulelwa’s, entitled ‘Gathering Spirits’, referred to poets gathering inspiration through everyday interactions and conversation. James then finished with a love poem he had written, but did not divulge the title.

It is fitting that this event was held on Heritage

Day, because all six poets were concerned with social problems and injustices, not only for their generation, but the impact that they would have on the next. An example of this was Asanda’s distressing image of “poisonous mothers feeding venom to their young”.

In a time when many criticise the youth of being apathetic, these young poets showed that, in some instances at least, the very opposite is true. It is also clear, as Khayalobo so poignantly said in one of his poems, “The kids of today are no longer young”.