In a word

We’re living in a society where everyone with dreadlocks or an Eryka Badhu headpiece calls themselves poets,” says Napo Masheane. He is a member of the Feela Sistah collective and is participating in the Urban Voices Spoken Word Festival. The festival is part of the International Arts Festival of the Diaspora in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, hosting local and international poets and musicians — some with dreadlocks, some without.

“South Africa is trading on a very tight line talking about 10 years of democracy and not wanting to acknowledge that we’re different. We don’t have to be the same and we have something to contribute because we are different,” Masheane says. It is in this sense that a festival of “the diaspora” has the ability to sink deeper than a mere brand name. Poets and people alike are seeking new dialogues of self as globalisation sweeps cultural borders into each other’s brinks, and pop culture increasingly sells itself as “how to make friends and influence them”.

“The African diaspora was a process that was informed by slavery and colonialism with large numbers of people being displaced, resulting in large communities of black people in, for example, Jamaica, the United States and the United Kingdom,” says Kgafela oa Magogodi, an internationally acclaimed writer whose second book is in the pipeline. He talks to me in the car on the way to Pretoria Central prison where he is facilitating a poetry workshop led by Lefifi Tladi, a South African poet currently residing in Sweden — the diaspora is everywhere.

The intellectual exchange between the diasporic communities can be seen in Fanon’s influence on Biko and the development of African jazz in the Fifties drawing on an American influence, Magogodi says.

In Sipho Sithole’s trendy office in Rosebank, he takes a more pragmatic stance: “From an African perspective, diaspora means wherever Africans find themselves. There are Africans in alternate societies everywhere with the same quest for Africanness.” Sithole is the deputy CEO of Gallo music and “unashamedly and unapologetically ethnic,” calling himself more of a traditional praise poet than an academic poet.

Confinement and alienation seem to be the underbelly of the effects of diaspora. Magogodi refers to Ralph Ellison’s prologue to Invisible Man. Ellison talks about being invisible in a number of ways and says that finding visibility requires that one perform certain social rituals to be acknowledged. In a foreign society, these rituals are not always obvious to the newcomer. Magogodi draws hip-hop’s constant attempt to contest the public space as an example. “There is a certain level of law erasure in its distorted forms because you feel that these laws are not for you — they are there to restrict you and break your spirit. Thus, celebrating criminality is not entirely irrational as it has a complex relation with self-expression,” says Magogodi. We have just arrived at the prison and I’m not sure if this last sentence is informed by that.

However, the role of the poet as bard of the truth in this cultural mishmash is a common association. Both Sithole and Maakomele Manaka recall the tribal poet who had the status to call the chief into question. “Poetry is the healer of the nation. It shows you the truth. It brings news of tomorrow, yesterday and today,” says Manaka.

Poetry has healed Manaka. He is one of the youngest Urban Voices and his sudden success is impressive. When he was 12 a wall fell on him and a group of his friends while playing soccer. There were a number of casualties and Manaka was confined to a wheelchair. Now he manages to move around on crutches. It was this incident that compacted Manaka’s urge to write — he says his pen was his only freedom. As Kabomo, another young Urban Voice, says: “I write poetry because I can’t afford therapy so I let the bullshit out on paper and I can sort things out. I can be more honest on paper than with my mother, my girlfriend, my best friend and even myself.”

Kabomo says this scares him sometimes. This fear connects with Manaka’s definition of diaspora as people exiled. Manaka can see this exile in a cultural sense: “As a human being there is a lot of seclusion. You can feel like a stranger in your own home town. Mostly it’s money that separates us, but there are people that can see beyond.”

Beyond the glitz and glam of some of the poets I interviewed who seemed to bill themselves as celebrities, I am confronted with this poetic hope at the prison. The prison seems to verge on the domestic, like a boarding school, but is actually a taut simulation of polite confinement. There are four prisoners participating in the workshop and four guards. The gang is writing “chain poetry”, taking turns to add lines to a poem.

I certainly don’t feel invisible. As a blonde female, every prisoner I pass seems to give me at least a lingering glance. As part of a group of black males, I also seem to attract attention from austere-looking white guards. I think this fixing gaze is also part of Magogodi’s metaphor of invisibility. I am in a foreign and diasporic community, and I don’t know how to act. That the residents themselves seem to feel this comes out in the desperate hope of the anger of the prisoner’s poetry and the desperate hope in the appreciation of about 10 guards bopping around Magogodi’s car to Tladi’s CD after the workshop. Poetry in this world is not in an academic ivory tower, nor is it orated by hip youngsters to even hipper audiences.

Sithole says he negotiates this invisibility by “being comfortable with myself and within the environment I’m in. If I’m in a man’s hostel or a village or The Zone [in Rosebank], a different person comes out. I can comfortably coexist with situations. This is part of an ultimate freedom; I am who I am wherever, without being rigid and inflexible.”

“Consciousness is a process,” says Magogodi.

The details

The Urban Voices Spoken Word Festival will be in Johannesburg on July 30 and 31 at the Newtown Music Hall; in Cape Town at the Baxter Concert Hall on August 1; and in Durban on August 3 at the Bat Hall

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