Arts + Culture

Interview: Nigerian Spoken Word Poet Bassey Ikpi

Bassey Ikpi discusses her recent return to Nigeria and spoken word poetry in an Okayafrica interview exclusive.


Nigerian-born/Oklahoma-bred "writer/poet/neurotic" Bassey Ikpi is known for her socially conscious poetry touching on issues from the complexity of possessing a culturally ambiguous identity to society's stigma against mental illness. In addition to gracing the pages of Nylon, Marie Claire and Glamour, Ikpi was a featured cast member of the National Touring Company of "Russell Simmon's Def Poetry Jam." Okayafrica contributor Harry Itie caught up with Ikpi, currently based in Lagos, to discuss her recent return to Nigeria, how poetry might be able to bring awareness to the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Chibok, and Nigeria's budding Spoken Word scene. Read on for the full Q&A below.

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Harry for Okayafrica: You are a renowned Spoken Word performer. When did it all begin?

Bassey Ikpi: I started writing poetry when I was eight but I never shared it with anyone. My parents knew that I wrote and I was always an avid reader but poetry was something I used to center my thoughts and sort out my feelings. My mother asked me to write a poem for her job's talent show when I was ten. It was the first time I read my work in public and it was mortifying. I would have rather danced. I didn't know that people read their own work out loud. Up until then, I was memorizing famous poems from long dead poets. My freshman year of university, I stumbled upon a poetry reading on campus and that's where I saw people my age reading their work. It was fascinating. The following semester is when I got bold enough to share my work... After that, I went from 'Bassey the girl who dances' to 'Bassey the girl who does poetry' and I performed all over the city and travelled to other schools as well. It still wasn't really a career for me. I didn't think people actually made a living doing it. While I was in university the movie SLAM with Saul Williams came out and the promotional people held a slam to promote it in Washington DC. I entered and I honestly don't remember if I won or not but I did well and became known in the DMV for my work.

OKA: Before your recent move to Nigeria you lived in New York. What inspired you to move to New York?

BI: After a period, I started to feel unchallenged and my work wasn't growing. I wanted to get better in my writing and performance, not just be celebrated for mediocrity. I was unhappy in school and needed a break, I suggested a friend of mine and I leave for an early weekend to New York City. There I attended poetry readings and hung out with writers and artists. I felt alive and my work was changing within days. All of my favourite artists had lived or spent considerable time in New York and I wanted to immerse myself in that culture. I decided not to return to school and stayed in the city. About a year after I was in New York, I had made a name for myself in the tri-state area. I travelled and performed in difference cities and states but I still had a day job. The decision to stay in New York was fortuitous. I have told the story countless times but everything fell into place.

OKA: How did you come to be a part of Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam?

BI: One day at my day job, my co-worker asked me to accompany him to an audition that Russell Simmons was holding. He wanted me to go and give him moral support... When we got there, we were told it was a closed audition. I couldn't come in unless I auditioned as well. My friend nodded to me and said, “you have some poems, right?" I did. I ended up making it to the finals and was asked to return later for the final round. Unfortunately, my friend didn't make it. I came back and was shocked to see a huge performance space with a large audience and celebs. I had no idea what I had gotten into. But one thing I can do is perform so even though I didn't know what was going on, I did my best and I ended up winning the competition. It was called something pretentious like 'Best Poet in New York' (which was complete hyperbole). I just happened to win a contest. I beat out 5000 people who auditioned and I was proud of myself but I didn't make it bigger than it was. A few months later, they called me and asked me to do my first appearance on the first season of what became Def Poetry Jam. I went on to appear five more times. I also toured nationally with them and was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. My career took off after that appearance and I haven't really looked back since.

OKA: Did you ever see yourself making a career out of spoken word?

BI: I didn't think it was possible. I never intended to be a spoken word artist professionally. I just wanted to write and perform and grow in skill. Thanks to my career though, I am able to segue things I have learned honing my craft into other arenas such as public speaking, presenting, production, media coaching, etc. It's been very rewarding.

OKA: You have been in Nigeria for close to a year now. How has the experience been?

BI: It has been difficult. Nigeria isn't an easy place. I'm very close with my family so the homesickness has been painful. There has been so much I have yet to get used to but I am grateful to have had the experience. This is the longest that I have ever been in Nigeria since I left at age four. We usually visited for a few weeks during the summer when I was younger. It has been difficult. I would make significant changes if I were to do it again. But I am grateful for the opportunities that I have been given. I've made some amazing friends and connections. Nigerians are such loving and warm-hearted people. People have really made me feel welcomed and safe and protected and loved. That's a big deal to me. I can be at once very stubborn and very fragile and I need people in my life who can sort out when I need what and be there. Strangers have opened their hearts to me and I am grateful for that. Nigeria has its problems and those problems are frustrating but I'm a Naija girl to my core and the love that lives here will always shine through for me. The good will always outweigh. I will miss it when I leave. And I will leave because I miss home and my family and my life.

OKA: Do you plan on settling in Nigeria for good or are you going back to the states?

BI: I'm going back to the States. But I hope to be able to build a legacy in Nigeria for my family to be able to return comfortably. My parents are getting older and they deserve to retire to their country. I'm working for their benefit. I love Nigeria but I think America will be my main residence. Things are just easier there and as a writer and someone who relies on electricity for productivy, I'm not about that NEPA or gen noise life! But I'm not going to abandon Nigeria. Nigeria made me. The talents and skills I developed eslewhere can be used to better Nigeria. I have a strong sense of civic duty to my homeland.

OKA: As a Spoken Word artiste, how will you describe the Spoken Word/poetry scene in the country?

BI: It's young. There is talent here but the talent is untested. There is no incentive or platform or method for people to grow. I think that the scene here is about 15-20 years behind the States and the UK. It's still finding its voice and its legs. And I hope to be able to create platforms for which aspiring artists can learn from and reach towards. The talent is here. The opportunities aren't. And it is the opportunities that foster growth. That said there are AMAZING poets here and I am excited to see the scene grow and change and become authentically Naija. Spoken Word has the potential in Nigeria to be bigger than Spoken Word anywhere else in the world. You will hear Spoken Word on the radio here in a few years. It will be in adverts and popular music. Spoken Word artists will be signed to Mavin or ChocCity or Now Muzik... mark my words. It will be huge once it grows up and hits well. I'm excited.

OKA: How do you feel Nigerians are receiving this art form?

BI: They don't really get it but they definitely appreciate it when they see it. I love watching an audience experience Spoken Word for the first time. It is still new like I said before, but it is well on its way. I think people would do well in focusing on the writing as much as they do the performance.

OKA: You recently organized #DoTheWriteThing for the missing school girls in Nigeria. What made you decide to use poetry as a form of advocacy for the rescue of the girls?

BI: Poetry has been an insturment of change and revolution since it existed. It is protest and defiance and celebration and a love anthem. It is how we communicate so of course it is also how we enact change. Every major period in history has had a coexisting arts movement to go with it. It is the poets who tell the stories in a rhythm that forces the masses and the aristocracy to listen. Poets have been jailed. Poets have been on the forefront of history. Why should this be any different? Poetry, and art in general, allows us to take what is around us and set it on fire. It is the tool we use to enact and document change. This is a crucial time in Nigeria and I want voices to be heard and “loud noise" to be made. Long after the time has passed and the marches have stopped, it is the art that lives on. It is also a great healing tool, enabling you to express your scattered emotions and thoughts in a way that is productive. I knew that so many of us were angry and hurt and frustrated and confused and needed an outlet to express these feelings.I also wanted to do what I could for those girls. I'm not much of a marcher. I hate crowds. But my father always told me to “walk from where you're standing," meaning do what you can with what you have. And I have word and I share words and I wanted to give that to them. Words can be balm when applied correctly.

OKA: What do you feel about the Nigerian government's response to the situation?

BI: Painfully and woefully inept. I'm embarassed by the tactics that the government has used in attempts to absolve themselves of responsibility. It is shameful. Even now with the eyes of the world on Nigeria, they still have not managed to act as leaders. It's disgusting.

OKA: What is your hope for poetry in Nigeria?

BI: That it grows in power. That it finds its voice. That it becomes authentic and holistically Naija. That it remembers that words are important and should be chosen carefully. And that it remembers to tell its own story. Not an Ameriana story or a hip-hop in the BK story but a real breathing authentic reflection of who we are as Nigerians and our unique yet shared experiences.

OKA: What should we expect from Bassey in the future?

BI: Every damn thing.:) I have a book that should be out in a few months. I have TV projects that my company is creating and producing. We hope to add Spoken Word performance and writing workshops as well as media coaching. It's a Basseyworld Productions takeover! Ultimately, I will have my own media house including a publishing imprint and a TV network. To paraphrase Mos Def: Big things is in the plans.

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Image via Sheila Afari PR.

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