Dis poet is still relevant

In the late 1970s Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka wrote the cultish Dis Poem that declared: ”Dis poem will not change things, dis poem need to be changed”. Almost three decades later Mutabaruka suggests that the line remains relevant as long as the developing world fights ”neo-conservatism, neo-colonialism and reverses the legacies of apartheid”.

Born Allan Hope, Mutabaruka found the stage name that rolls off the tongue randomly in a school textbook. Later, when the nickname stuck, Mutabaruka learned that in Rwanda the name means ”One who is victorious”. It was an apt choice because his vision — then in its formative stage — is unapologetically African.

The celebrated poet, philosopher and broadcaster joins dub poetry’s first lady, fellow Jamaican Jean Binta Breeze, local hero Don Mattera and American-Filipino Patrick Rosal this week for the seventh anniversary of the Urban Voices live poetry festival. ”We write poems about struggle,” Mutabaruka says on the phone from the United Kingdom in his Creole-accented English. Although he lives in a world removed from the bleak, racist atmosphere of the Seventies — when Africa was colonised and the streets of Brixton in London were monitored by a brutal police force — he has not lost his burning fury or his fierce affirmation of black pride.

Taking cue from a changing world, the Rastafarian vegetarian has broadened his vision. His poetry routinely deals with environmental concerns, junk food and drug abuse.

Mutabaruka bemoans the fact that the struggle ”is still underground”, submerged under a deluge of commercial television. ”There is a form of representation that is taming the tide of culture. In this struggle the media does not allow for the expression of culture. There is one big idea: America.” A key weapon against this encroaching grand monoculture is to use the language of ordinary Jamaican folk, a phonetic language steeped in orality, which Mutabaruka admits is ”a problem” for an international audience. His use of Creole was a significant achievement acknowledged by scholars who credited Mutabaruka for inventing meta-dub, a dub poetry that is at home both on the page and on the stage. ”The way we speak is not the way we write. Jamaicans hear it and they understand. It is the reading that presents problems. They cannot write it even though they can speak it.” For this reason ”we perform the poems”.

A disappointing element of some black diaspora fascination with Africa is the imagination of the continent as a pristine place of kings and queens. It’s a vision most of its inhabitants would not recognise. Unlike many, Mutabaruka is attuned to the goings-on of the continent and he reels off the problems, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Zimbabwe, Darfur, Sudan and the xenophobic attacks in South Africa earlier this year. He blames most of these problems on failures of leadership.

He keeps an eye on the African music scene and recently recorded a song composed in memory of slain reggae icon Lucky Dube. ”He was a great artist who brought South Africa’s struggle to a wider audience,” Mutabaruka says.

His interest in the continent goes back to the 1970s, when ”we were observant, looking and watching what was taking place”. He chanted down apartheid and colonial injustices and celebrated historical leaders such as Shaka Zulu and Haile Selassie. He is aware of the failings of Africa’s leaders and calls Zimbabwe a ”travesty” and its rulers a ”power hungry leadership that are not doing anything for the people”.

He points out that the crisis has a neo-colonial element to it and compliments Mugabe for ”having done a lot to move the colonialism from Southern Africa”. But Mutabaruka says Zimbabwe is one case in which one sees the corrupting influence of power: ”A leader must know when to step down,” he says. ”He should step down and give a fresh start to the struggle.”

Mutabaruka says he doesn’t have any artistic influences. ”It’s leaders like Marcus Garvey and Selassie who influenced me and taught the need to express myself.”

He is an expressive act, going about bare-footed and, on stage, wears flowing robes and turbans.

In his poem White Man Country he wrote: ”It no good fi stay inna white man country too long”. It is a theme he returns to in our interview when he says Africa is the only place where blacks can progress without bother.

”A lot of people don’t want to stay in the Caribbean and Africa. They look at England and America as lands of opportunity.” He calls upon those living rough abroad to ”go back to where you come from,” adding, ”we should find our roots”.

Mutabaruka performs on Friday October 17 at the Bassline in Newtown, Joburg, from 8pm and Saturday October 18 at the Bat Centre, Durban, from 7.30pm and Sunday October 19at The Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, from 8pm

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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