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“In Poetry I Found My Voice, and in Poetry I Keep It Loud”: Dorphanage, Kenyan Spoken Word Artist, In Conversation

“In Poetry I Found My Voice, and in Poetry I Keep It Loud”: Dorphanage, Kenyan Spoken Word Artist, In Conversation

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“There are conversations we must learn to have and issues we must address as a people, despite the discomfort that comes with such. Mine is simply an attempt to throw a spanner in the works and hopefully provoke conversations around dysfunctionality and its implications in our lives as individuals within families and elsewhere.”_ Dorphanage

By Frank Njugi

Legendary Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, once defined art as a means of communion with one another, that is, what joins humans together in feelings. Art is indispensable to life and is needed for progress, towards the well-being of individuals and humanity. In Nairobi, recent times have seen one art form become established as the primary platform for conferring shared emotions and sentiments — spoken word poetry. All around East Africa, a new generation of spoken word poets has risen to become household names, and are selling out poetry shows in theatres, world-class event venues, and arenas.

Dorphanage, a Nairobi-based poet and well-known songwriter, is among the new generation of East African spoken word artists who are at the forefront of showcasing the art form as one of the primary tools for peering into the Kenyan and African way of life and identity. His stage poetry and shows have become soirees people in and around Nairobi always look forward to.  His performances are rich with detail, and disarmingly earnest, with the use of words and phrases which are more often than not, multilingual. His most recent concept show, Mwariama: Truth Be Told, was a showcase that neglected the demarcation that persists between rap and poetry, inspired by Kenya’s political history and by the life of Kenyan revolutionary leader, field marshal Musa Mwariama.   

For Afrocritik, I recently linked up with Dorphanage, and in this exclusive interview, he speaks about the intersection between poetry and other art forms, the art of spoken word poetry in general, and his spoken word poetry albums.

Everyone has an origin story. What’s yours? What can you say of your love story with poetry, specifically spoken word poetry?

My genesis with the art form started in high school when I became exposed to music and pop culture. Before that, I didn’t care much for art because I wasn’t quite exposed to it. The spark came with what we used to call “Entertainment Nights” and “Variety Shows” at Kaaga Boys in Meru. But during that time, it was merely aspirational, until I transferred to another school, Kisima Secondary, where I linked up with two guys who used to remix popular songs and perform them at school functions. That had a profound effect on me simply because I had not experienced such ingenuity prior. It was then that I started writing as a way of expression vis-a-vis writing as an academic endeavour. At the time I considered myself a rapper even though I didn’t have a musical background and I was offbeat more often than not. Most importantly though, I only wrote what I felt and thought, so it was genuinely expressed. It wasn’t until I was in college performing my “raps” acapella and someone mentioned I was doing “Spoken Word” that I started considering myself as a spoken word poet. It was then that I truly acquired a genuine enthusiasm for poetry as a craft.

What are your thoughts on the current state of Kenyan and African spoken word poetry?

I’m glad that there is a wider knowledge of the art form, hence, more poets coming into the fold. I also love that social media provides easier and broader access to audiences. But I worry that these benefits create an illusion that spoken word poetry as a craft is easy. Yes, it’s good to have more poets and larger audiences, but sometimes it feels like all that is happening at the expense of the craft itself. Quality is as important as quantity is, if not more, at least to me. It’s important to mainstream the art form, but it should never come by negating the integrity of the craft. Essentially, we need as many development platforms alongside ones that showcase and pay spoken word poets. If the seasoned poets acquire enough capacity, it will enable them to establish sustainable structures that can benefit budding poets. Otherwise, it just creates a deadlock and breaks the continuity. This is where economic viability becomes crucial.

Dorphanage | Spoken word artist | Afrocritik

Your debut spoken word poetry album, From The Margins, was a collection of collaborative spoken word pieces blended with complimentary musical compositions. Incorporating music into poetry is something you tend to do, even in your live performance shows. What prompts you to do this ? What are your thoughts on the relationship between poetry and other art forms such as music?

Partly, my use of music comes from the fact that my way into poetry came through music. Hip-Hop music in particular introduced me to the world of wordsmiths and the varied ways in which one can weave words into masterpieces. This influence often manifests in the form my pieces take, because I tend to write them similar to a rap song, with verses and a chorus. I am also quite good with melodies so I often derive inspiration for accompanying musical refrains while creating the poetry pieces. Additionally, to break the elitism around poetry as an art form I try to incorporate other art forms that have more mass appeal as value addition so that it resonates with more people. Music comes in especially handy in this aspect. I think it’s important to marry poetry with other art forms that can complement the words whenever possible. However, this too should be approached very carefully and deliberately to ensure it is adding value to the poetry and not taking from it.

You recently hinted at a forthcoming follow-up sophomore album to From The Margins. What can you tell us about this new project? The themes it will explore and perhaps its curation process. 

Yes. There is a sophomore album dropping soon. However, I’m still torn between choices for the appropriate title to call it — the tentative title as of now is “Gorgeous Garden”. This is going to be a particularly personal album in approach. Interestingly, in my experience over the years, the most personal pieces tend to be the most universally resonant. For those who’ve followed my journey, I’ve spoken quite a bit about the dysfunction that I was born and brought up around. This album will incorporate all the pieces I’ve written over the years. It captures aspects of family, parenthood, childhood struggles, and dysfunction. This is an especially bold and vulnerable body of work for me but one that I consider the most liberating. I expect there’s going to be mixed feelings and opinions around it but that’s what makes it such an important project for me. There are conversations we must learn to have and issues we must address as a people, despite the discomfort that comes with such. Mine is simply an attempt to throw a spanner in the works and hopefully provoke conversations around dysfunctionality and its implications in our lives as individuals within families and elsewhere.

From the margins album art | Dorphanage | Afrocritik
From the Margins album art

You are a multilingual performer who uses English, Kiswahili, Kimeru, and Sheng in your poetry and spoken word performances. Why this multilingual approach to your poetry?

We are complex beings, not just as artists but as people. These complexities are brought about by the varying dynamics that make our various histories. Language is one aspect that is at the centre of these complexities. My use of multiple languages in my artistry is an expression of that. If colonialism never happened I’d be very okay identifying simply as a Meru, but then it did happen and it changed the trajectory and composition of my people’s identity; linguistically, culturally, and socially. The things I write and perform tell a particular story, and the way and the language I choose to express those things tell another story altogether. All this is part of who I am as an artist and as a person; the politics, the contradictions and all. Hence my use of multiple languages is an acknowledgement of the varied cultural and social dynamics I was born into and live in. It is also an attempt to stay connected to my roots, especially in the cases where I use Kimeru.

I know you to be a great purveyor of Kenyan political history, as witnessed in your 2023 concept show Mwariama: Truth Be Told.  What drives this need? What is the importance of centring our art towards narrating the histories of our own people?

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First of all, everything is political, even the choices we consider personal. Once you become aware of that fact you inherently want to find out more as to the genesis of things, that rabbit hole takes you down history. Identity crisis thrives in dysfunction and honestly speaking we’re living in a very dysfunctional world, the only way to shed the ambiguity that breeds the crisis is by disentangling it down to the very base. This is what makes history important because that is where all the clues and facts are buried. What drives me really is the need for clarity on our current realities.

Dorphanage | Afrocritik

One of your most famous spoken word poems, “Hii Poetry”,  has a line, ‘Hii poetry si hobby, hii poetry ni jukumu. Siku moja huyu poet ataishia but hii poetry itadumu’, which has become an earworm to many. Where does this sentiment of poetry being everlasting come from? What are your thoughts on the position of poetry in the human experience?

That particular line was actually inspired by Mutabaruka’s “Dis Poem” — so it kind of symbolises the continuity of art. I truly believe that not just poetry but art is eternal. The fact is, we are mortal beings and the only thing that provides us an opportunity for immortality is what we do for a purpose greater than ourselves. Personally, my most important and genuine gift to humanity is this poetry. Art is and has always been important to people and the world as a whole, at different points in history people might forget or negate its importance but that is likely to come at their own peril. As far as art forms go, none captures the human essence better and in such brevity and profundity as poetry does.

 What inspires Dorphanage to keep creating his art?

Everyday life inspires me. All the stories that have been lived and still being lived within my immediate locale and beyond, that’s my inspiration. It’s the need to tell the stories within me that got me started to begin with. Let’s just put it this way, in poetry I found my voice and in poetry I keep it loud.

Frank Njugi is a Kenyan Writer, Culture journalist and Critic who has written on the Kenyan and East African culture scene for platforms such as Debunk Media, Republic Journal, Sinema Focus, Culture Africa, Wakilisha Africa, The Moveee, Africa in Dialogue, Afrocritik and others. He tweets as @franknjugi.

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