by Serubiri Moses
Laura and Ngatia are two Spoken word artists and university students from Nairobi who performed in a reading of ‘We Won’t Forget’. As an ensemble piece with about five characters (doubling as five actors on the stage), the play took the independent narrative monologues, sometimes as spoken word, of the separate five writers working together with director Wanjiku Mwawuganga, who wove them together into what became a multi-voiced reflection on the network of terrorist attacks that have happened in Kenya over the past two decades.
The two writers spoke to me about Juliet from Romeo and Juliet,
Proteus Brutus from Julius Caesar, Mutabaruka’s Dis Poem and Raya Wambui’s The Bull in the China Shop.
Laura: I actually had two chances to act in Shakespeare plays; so studying them theatrically, not poetically, is a different experience, because I’ve never really said: okay let me go back to Shakespeare’s poems, but my experience with Shakespeare is in the acting, the theatrical.
I did a monologue from Romeo and Juliet. I was Juliet. And I had a small role in The Taming of the Shrew, because it was in university and I was new, and they were like ‘ah you’re new, go there.’ I think, with that pleasant experience of doing it from an actor’s perspective, I really enjoyed studying the monologue for Juliet.
That one was the one where she’s talking … about Romeo. I think it was the poetry. I just don’t think it was conscious, because the way the words sounded; the way it came together; after not having to be forced to look at it from a study this-study that-perspective; but from my own interest. That was really fun. Discovering all the little clever stuff that he does, and personally that was the most enjoyable thing.
From Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene II.
Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?
Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it?
But, wherefore, villain, didst thou kill my cousin?
That villain cousin would have kill’d my husband:
Back, foolish tears, back to your native spring;
Your tributary drops belong to woe,
Which you, mistaking, offer up to joy.
My husband lives, that Tybalt would have slain;
And Tybalt’s dead, that would have slain my husband:
All this is comfort; wherefore weep I then?
Some word there was, worser than Tybalt’s death,
That murder’d me: I would forget it fain;
But, O, it presses to my memory,
Like damned guilty deeds to sinners’ minds:
‘Tybalt is dead, and Romeo—banished;’
That ‘banished,’ that one word ‘banished,’
Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts. Tybalt’s death
Was woe enough, if it had ended there:
Or, if sour woe delights in fellowship
And needly will be rank’d with other griefs,
Why follow’d not, when she said ‘Tybalt’s dead,’
Thy father, or thy mother, nay, or both,
Which modern lamentations might have moved?
But with a rear-ward following Tybalt’s death,
‘Romeo is banished,’ to speak that word,
Is father, mother, Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet,
All slain, all dead. ‘Romeo is banished!’
There is no end, no limit, measure, bound,
In that word’s death; no words can that woe sound.
Where is my father, and my mother, nurse?
Ngatia: My favourite Shakespeare is from Julius Caesar when Proteus is giving that… I can’t quote it. There’s a part after Caesar is dead, and the crowd is protesting. And Proteus gets on the podium. And people are calling for justice. For totally something else. And Proteus manages to turn the crowd from totally something else, because it is not easy to pull that off. And the way it is done is amazing, because (he) kills Caesar, and then he takes over this victimized role, and he turns the whole crowd to support. Though they knew in the first place who actually killed Caesar.
(Note: I found out that in fact it was not Proteus, but rather Brutus, who gives his speech to the Roman citizens, on ascending to the throne after the death of Julius Caesar.)
From Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II.
Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my cause; and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Cæsar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Cæsar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Cæsar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Cæsar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Cæsar were living, and die all slaves, than that Cæsar were dead, to live all free men? As Cæsar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.
Citizens. None, Brutus, none.
Bru. Then none have I offended. I have done no more to Cæsar, than you shall do to Brutus. The question of his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not extenuated, wherein he was worthy, nor his offences enforced, for which he suffered death.
SM: Dis Poem is …
Ngatia: The most famous one is the one called This Poem by Mutabaruka.
From Dis Poem:
Dis poem shall be called boring stupid senseless
Dis poem is watchin u tryin to make sense from dis poem
Dis poem is messin up your brains
Makin u want to stop listenin to dis poem
But u shall not stop listenin to dis poem
U need to know what will be said next in dis poem
Dis poem shall disappoint u
Dis poem is to be continued in your mind in your mind
In your mind your mind
SM: That’s the one I’m talking about.
Ngatia: Technically that’s not American. That’s Jamaican.
SM: But I know it from a Def Jam Youtube distribution in America.
Ngatia: But still I try to avoid being (influenced by) that, because most people who watch America’s Def Jam Poetry, end up being …
Laura: The same as other poets.
Ngatia: They look like Copycats.
So I try to be as individualistic … individualistic sounds too narcissistic.
SM: Did you notice that individualistic sounds too narcissistic rhymes?
Laura: Actually yes.
Ngatia: Yes. I should drop a fire mixtape. Hehe.
I try to maintain my voice as much as I can. I won’t lie, my poetry in terms of Spoken Word is influenced by lots of stuff.
Ngatia: Ah not very much. Maybe when I am writing revolutionary stuff.
On Raya Wambui:
Laura: I have very few experiences watching her perform, I read poems on her blog, I have met her a few times and had discussions with her.
SM: You know her personally?
Laura: We meet at poetry events, and (said) let’s go for coffee. We meet at poetry events and then we talk. I don’t know if it’s fair with that perspective, to give an opinion on Raya’s work.
SM: This is an open conversation.
Ngatia: Except it’s on record.
Laura: I think she’s interesting to watch and to listen to when she’s performing. I love this poem about Ivory and about elephants.
Ngatia: Aaaaah. It’s called Bull in a China Shop.
From The Bull in The China Shop
If I respect your opinion,
And you respect mine,
We’ll do just fine.
Discourse leads to compromise in time
There is seldom need for a bull in a china shop
Force, facing fragility brings progress to a
Before it’s had a chance to be heard.
Though too far from here to hear,
There is a herd,
One of whose members is fallen and butchered
Before 36 pounds of heart reaches
Over 11 million ksh for one kilo of horn,
And a maximum possible fine of 40,000ksh.
I guess certain risks in the industry are real, but
Pay someone for the dirty work.
It’s literally a steal.
City ya raha, is
The Port of The East Coast.
But we’re leaving it to Malaysia to catch our smuggling boats.
In the name of hard worked for, soap stone goddesses,
Whose images are actually carved out of the carcases
From where they once came.
Laura: I think that is so far out of all the poems I’ve seen about Ivory trade. I think that is the best one I have seen performed and written. So if that’s her best, then I think she’s fantastic.
Ngatia: Mine would be worse because we’re actually friends, and we’ve worked together for a while.
SM: Aaah. Okay.
Ngatia: But my biased opinion is that she’s brilliant. I like the fact that she doesn’t stick to norms. Because if you come, especially to Kenya, you’ll notice that as much as people don’t want to sound the same, you’ll notice that people sound the same. People who do poetry in English, if they’re from Def Jam, you’ll notice that they sound the same. People who do poetry in Sheng, at some point you start to notice how they use the same pauses and all that. But Raya has a way of cutting right through that, and she is really; she has her own identity. If I hear her performing from outside I know it is Raya.
Laura: (Coughs heavily)
SM: I’m sorry.
Ngatia: Eh, It’s not like I don’t care.
Ngatia: Around 2012. 2012 was the first time I saw her perform. I’ve watched her and I think she’s brilliant. There’s this one time there was a competition called the Spoken Word Project.
SM: Where I actually was.
Ngatia: You were there?
Laura: You were there?
Ngatia: Back to see the guys performing with Raya, those were the guys we met, like El Poet, they were the guys we tried to write like, before we discovered that we weren’t supposed to write like other people.
Back then, she had the most amazing performance out of all of them.
SM: She felt the most original.
Ngatia: She was the most original. She was fantastic.