14-year-old Naomi Oloyede delivers a spoken word poem during the signing of the 1st National Peace Accord by political parties ahead of the 2023 general elections in Abuja, on September 29, 2022.

14-year-old Naomi Oloyede delivers a spoken word poem during the signing of the 1st National Peace Accord by political parties ahead of the 2023 general elections in Abuja, on September 29, 2022.

Photo by Olukayode Jaiyeola/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Essay: The Unwritten Travails of Spoken Word Art in Nigeria

It’s one of the most present and exciting art forms in Nigeria, so why, one writer asks, is spoken word poetry not part of the bigger cultural conversation?

Earlier this year, Tobi Abiodun, a popular spoken word poet, took to social media to lament spoken word poets being sidelined from the ongoing discussion about the trajectory of poetry from Nigeria. The work of Nigerian poets has been called into question for seemingly submitting easily to neo-colonial influences, and for not representing the Nigerian reality as it ought to. Abiodun, who feels that the spoken word poets are doing better in this regard than poets who work on the page, said, "Everybody is writing about page poets for giving up their Nigerianness, why is nobody writing about spoken word poets who are still holding on to their Nigerianness?"

Abiodun, known for his revolutionary messages, is one of the best-known spoken word poets, doing important work within the genre in Nigeria. The scene is full of artists who’ve made names for themselves, including the likes of Fragile Dogubo, an expressionist whose wordplay and unhinged vulnerability on stage has always moved her audiences; Paul Word Uma, who tells the everyday stories of people from personal experience; Kingsley D Poet, a member of the Eagle Nest literary movement known for highlighting his Igbo roots, and love poet and Chevening scholar Faith Moyòsóre Agboolá.

To their credit, the art of Nigerian spoken word poetry carries unique blueprints and the poets descend from a tradition that includes veterans like Dike Chukwumerije, the founder of Made in Nigeria poetry concert, and Efe Paul Azino, the organizer of Lagos International Poetry Festival (LIPFEST). In between this genealogy is the caliber of celebrated spoken word artists like Wana Udobang and Titilope Sonuga, with multiple spoken word albums to their names. Some of these poets like Azino and Sonuga —much like Christtie Jay whose poetry album, Grey Choir dropped recently — use a hybrid of written and spoken word.

The roots of the artform

Though one of the most present art forms in the Nigerian scene, it seems that spoken word poetry is not being properly recognized in Nigeria, critically and by relevant institutions. The poet, Bash Amuneni, author of the poetry collection, There is a Lunatic in Every Town, points out that there are wide-eyed young people traveling all over the country, to participate in different grand slam awards, and to perform at literary festivals. Yet, he says, there isn’t a national prize ascribed to spoken word poetry, either by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) or the Nigerian Literature Prize (NLNG). “There is still that clear and subconscious hint from critics and lovers of page poetry that sort of excludes spoken word poetry as an object of concern in a lot of literary engagements,” he told OkayAfrica. It’s as if, he adds, “they see spoken word poetry as not poetry enough.”

Spoken word poetry is derivative of oral tradition, which is the root of many African arts, and is widely practiced, not just in Africa, but by Black artists all over the world. In all major and even minor literary festivals in Africa, spoken word poetry is a major feature, and it is a category in talent shows. In some ways, the trick of the art seems interwoven in the heart of African artists themselves, and is a cradle of African consciousness and its stories. But because of its performative nature, critics in academia, and to a large extent, literary critics, have not properly engaged with the form.

Iheoma Uzomba, former editor of The Muse, a creative writing journal, agrees, telling OkayAfrica, “Literary critics look at literature from the angle of that which is written. And the valid argument for that is that when a performance is made on stage, it is a single performance, and even when repeated somewhere else, it differs, since it's almost impossible for the performer to replicate the exact facial expressions and movements in their performance.” She, however, believes that if critics would engage with spoken word poetry more in their critical research, it has the potential to hit the spotlight even more and have a greater impact than written poetry.

A modern kind of poetry

One of the most recent spoken word pieces to go viral is Hafsat Abdullahi’s spoken word clip, "To the Girl in English Class". Her piece was a defiant reply to a girl who mocked her struggle with English. “What is painful about my painful attempt to communicate in a language that isn’t even my own?” she asks in the piece. It circulated the internet for weeks because of its resonance with many in Nigeria, where the struggle to hold on to one's roots is a mainstream concern.

Many poets have their own poems that pass across messages like Abdullahi's being performed all over Nigeria to large and sizable audiences alike. And posted online, they often go viral. Uzomba says that spoken word poetry has the ability to be the middle ground between entertainment and the seriousness of written word poetry. Through its use of visual media, it is able to capture the attention of the layman audience, making it prime material to go viral.

To the girl in English

In the streaming era, spoken word albums, too, are becoming a regular feature in the career of spoken word artists. Swim by Titilope Sonuga, Transcendence by Wana Udobang, Wonder by Iyanu Adebiyi are all inspirational in outlook, but each album approaches its themes differently through the stories and experiences of the poets, and through their different world views. Together, they represent a range of what it means to be Nigerian today.

Udobang’s Transcendence is about overcoming patriarchal influences, and societal expectations, while the very sensual Grey Choir by Christie Jay deals with grief, self-discovery, love, loss, the lack of social justice. Women spoken word poets have long used the form of an album to release their bodies of work, and the medium has become an authentic method of self-expression, far more often than their male counterparts. Perhaps, in the coming years, this gap will level, and there’ll be even more of a bloom in the genre.

Since the genre is constantly growing and morphing, it’s vital that spoken word poetry is documented and critiqued. Not just as an art form that bridges storytelling, poetry and music, but also as one that allows a chorus of artists to share their voice from the country to the world.