Word N Sound: wired-up with words

Word N Sound International Youth Poetry and Live Music Festival, 27 November 2013, Homecoming Centre, District Six, Cape Town.


Writing under the auspices of ZAPP (the Southern African Poetry Project), Anique Kruger takes us through what went down at the 3rd Annual Word N Sound International Youth Poetry and Live Music Festival.

The stuff that goes down at Word N Sound is bound to leave you feeling inspired – fired-up with a passion for poetry, wired-up with words – but never comfortable. Poetry as protest is very much alive in South Africa – particularly now in the run-up to next year’s national elections – and poets are colliding full force with the issues of inequality, poverty, corruption, race and rape. They are challenging everyone to sit up and listen to things that are not always easy to hear and things that are not always easy to say.

On the evening of 27 November, the Homecoming Centre in District Six buzzed as seventy-or-so Capetonian poetry enthusiasts assembled to experience the opening of the 3rd Annual Word N Sound International Youth Poetry and Live Music Festival. This marked the first time that a Word N Sound event had been hosted in the Mother City and headliners included six South African artists (Afurakan, Conelius Jones, Pieter Odendaal, Khadija Heeger, Toni Stuart, Lwanda Sindaphi), as well as three acts from the UK (Catherine Labiran, Harry Baker and Pimp Erasmus).

The evening began with a welcome by emcee, Afurakan. He introduced the locals to the way they do things up in Joburg by calling on the audience to participate in an “energy exercise”. This entailed audience members stamping, clapping, whistling and ululating with great gusto, apparently in order to “intimidate” the poets on stage. Throughout the evening, the proceedings were punctuated by Afurakan’s own poetry and he set the tone by reminding young people that the act of writing (even on social media platforms) comes with responsibility, and that they need to read more instead of throwing “careless speech” to the wind.

Opening artist, Sbu Simelane, aka Conelius Jones, used words and music to paint an intimate picture of the spaces and places in which politics and the everyday converge for many young South Africans. Drawing the audience into a barren township landscape, Conelius used motifs of sky, skin and wings (sometimes soaring, sometimes turning to ash) to express feelings of disillusionment, but also the desire for transcendence. The anger expressed in his poem, ominously entitled “The Second Coming”, was tempered by his tendency for romance: “We both want to turn our backs on this place and become silhouettes on the horizon.”

Pieter Odendaal, a poet who writes mainly in Afrikaans, followed Jones. One of the threads running through his poetry stitched a picture of his struggle to come to terms with his identity as a white Afrikaans male in post-apartheid South Africa. At one point Odendaal apologised for what he called his “hating on white people”, as he reassured the audience, “stay calm, it’s a process”; a process which he is clearly still working through. Speaking openly about the older generation of men in his family and their participation in the apartheid system, Odendaal choked on the line, “My pa is ’n goeie man, Meneer Small” (“My father is a good man, Mr. Small”), turning from the crowd to brush a tear from his cheek.

Khadija Heeger then took the stage to deliver her own series of poems, which grapple with issues of race and identity. She ended off her set with her self-proclaimed “epic”, which she dedicated to every person in the room. And it was epic indeed. Heeger’s imagery panned across the African continent as she sang the names of countless African heroes: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela! Léopold Sédar Senghor! Chimamanda Adichie! Youssou N’Dour! Speaking with her whole body, Heeger’s performance climaxed as she called the names of all the poets taking part in that evening’s proceedings, bringing the audience to their feet as they responded to the intoxicating rhythms of her words and movements.

Next up was the first international guest, Pimp Erasmus, a nineteen-year-old from Cardiff. Pimp was no doubt experiencing a bit of culture shock as his first journey out of Wales plunged him into the eye of Word N Sound’s politically charged vortex. Accompanied by backing tracks, Pimp intoned, “I don’t have a way with words, I just get away with words.” His subject matter included ghetto culture, the scourge of drugs, upward mobility and the evils of money. As Afurakan closed off the first half of the evening’s proceedings, he addressed Pimp: “Well done, young man. I’m sure you’ll grow from here.”

The second session began with a performance by the popular Toni Stuart. Stuart was responsible for coordinating the Cape Town leg of the Word N Sound Festival, and so decided to keep her set short. In her signature style – something otherworldly that falls somewhere on the spectrum between singing and speech – she performed a critical piece about the rape and murder of Anene Booysen. Commenting on the outrage expressed in the wake of this event, Stuart used her poem to challenge the nation’s response: “So you rage to mask your helplessness, to steady your trembling bones (…) Only a body remains waiting for your listening to unlock a story of her.”

Then the second international guest, Catherine Labiran took the stage, explaining that as a Nigerian born in the US and growing up in the UK, people often struggle to wrap their heads around her. She presented her recently published anthology, Ayisat (Wordjar 2013), as her statement of self-definition: her identity is bound up with her sense of duty towards using her writing to defend the silent. Her poetry expressed her religious conviction, as well as her passion for words: “God, I was told to find you in church, but I have felt you in hip hop and in poetry. What was there other than the word?”

As a non-Xhosa speaker, my ability to comment of Lwanda Sindaphi’s work is limited. However, you don’t have to be able to speak the language to know that he is a skilled wordsmith. Listening to his command of language as his tongue struck his palate like popcorn on a stove – slow at first, then in intense volleys before slowing to silence – I picked up on certain words: Mandela, matric, indaba, democracy, and toilet. When his set came to a close, Afurakan announced that Sindaphi would be selling translations for R5 a line, before somewhat sternly adding, “Just kidding. Learn the language.”

The final act of the evening was Harry Baker, who introduced his first poem by explaining, “I wanted to write a love poem, but sometimes love can seem clichéd. I wanted to make it cool, so I put loads of dinosaurs in it.” It’s not every day that a man declares that he wants to love you like a T.Rex, or tells you that you’re like a brachiosaurus… in a good way. Baker’s poetry struck the perfect balance between tenderness and seriousness, and it wasn’t hard to see why he holds the title of 2012 World Slam Champ.

Overall, Word N Sound should chalk up their first Cape Town appearance as a great success. The poets who shared their work were all top-class and displayed a true mastery of their art. I’m sure that everyone who attended the event is looking forward to a follow-up.

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