Oral escapades: the rise and trials of Ghana's Spoken Word

From the Gold Coast era to the present generation, poems have been written, and poems have been performed in the history of Ghanaian poetry. The written aspect has thrived under all odds, but the performance pair hasn't suffered that much. And no-one has since taken it by force until recently. Good news: performance poetry has for the past few years gone the broadway, with a swift traffic of talented artists. If you are that curious, here goes a list of the famous and prominent on the route: Nii Lantey Lamptey, Nana Asaase, Kwame Write, Nana Nyarko Boateng, Selikem Geni, Yibor Kojo Yibor, Sir Black a.k.a Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, Poetra Ama Asantewa, Mutombodapoet Percy, Crystal Fanantenana Raraivo-Tettey, and Laud De Poet.

Bear in mind, they are not a loose body. Each artist belongs to one group or the other ― though quite a few go freelance to act within any of the following association or events: Alewa, Ehalakasa and P.O.E.T.S. That is how organized they are. Spoken Word is the term that identifies them. What then is Spoken Word? It can be defined primarily as performance poetry. Based on the custom of performance groups worldwide, Spoken Word has variously been re-named. The most popular alias is Open Mic Poetry. In Ghana, Ehalakasa is synonymous to Spoken Word. Ehalakasa is sensational. It is celestial. I haven't enough words to describe. Let me employ a verbal expert, Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng. As witnessed by the blogger, in a Daily Graphic article, he wrote: "At Ehalakasa events, there is no dividing line between performers and audience, as individuals and differences merge into a swirl of happy handclaps and gasps".

You may have had a check at Wikipedia's definition of Spoken Word and yet remain confused as to its relationship with the Written Word. Are you as well confused? If so, let me make it simple by using a rational extension I drew from an interview, hosted by the literary devotee, Martin Egblewogbe. In response to the obvious, the interviewee Daniel Appiah answered: "Depending on the theme or title, I decide to write a particular poem either mainly for the stage or the page". Posed with the same question, other writers would answer differently: whereas one writes, irrespective of theme or title, for both stage and page, another writes for page only, or stage only, or for both ― with respect for subject, or something else, or nothing. We can go on and on to split the avocado. But the summary is unarguable: meant for page or stage, poetry is the keynote. Though distinct by activity, I can safely conclude that, Spoken Word is intimately related to the Written Word by origin, and not by graft.  

Perhaps to the insecurity of the poet who writes only for the page, the Spoken Word poet (stage poet) is taking poetry to a height that diminishes verses-in-print, and for that matter to the reduced image of the page poet. Thousands of questions surround: Has the stage poet's approach of direct communication or the desire to be understood by his listening public affected the intellectual bond of collective poetry in Ghana? Has the stage poet any regard for the traditional forms of poetry? Has Spoken Word become the preserve of the art as a whole? Has it done nothing to boost the fragile morale of poetry? Or otherwise?
In the article I want to write, who will read me?, the Daily Graphic columnist, Joe Fraizer, held nothing back in his remark: "The fact of the matter is that only very few Ghanaians read; if they are not compelled to do so to pass an examination, or to understand a religious tract". Wow, I am a partner to Fraizer's opinion. In fact, a partner who seeks for a solution. But I am not quite sure as to whether laid-back attitudes are soluble under Spoken Word (which does not behoove voluntary readership). I am not yet certain if the same will cause further decline to the already low national reading habit. Now, what remains certain is that Spoken Word hasn't got much business to do with the bureaucratic publisher ― and it is therefore on a fast track to reach the enthused. Meanwhile the enthusiasm goes on...

If not the activities of the Spoken Word movement, what else has drawn the largest of audiences ― from social networks and university halls ― to the promotion of contemporary poetry? Depending on the perspective of critics, opinions would vary. The debate aside, if we are to concentrate on the advantages of the Spoken Word presence, we would have a lot to mention as benefits to both the artist and his followers. At Spoken Word events, the poet gets the opportunity to sell his published and recorded works to an entertained crowd. The demand henceforth for poetry books / audio materials is escalating. At a single night, a compact disc release of Mutombodapoet Percy only can sell more than the combined titles of three poets in the shelves of Silverbird, per week.
The satisfaction gained from one programme to the other, has made Spoken Word one of the regular entertainment features in Ghana. If it is not happening at Labone Coffee Shop, it would be beaming live at the British Council, or other venues of the metropolis. Poetry is enjoyed communally almost every weekend. Through the showmanship of Spoken Word, the static line has leaped off the page to become a stagecraft: thus a social being.

Spoken Word, as a free-spirited art, has also given the Ghanaian poet the liberty to be original, and the freedom to transform his personality, alongside his creative endeavours. This drive of versatility has made it natural for the artist to reorient himself to appropriate the cultural values of his ethnic origin. Some of the stage names need explanation, but 'Nana Asaase' and 'Sir Black', for example, are definitely the hallmarks of cultural and racial pride. The costume on stage, and the fashion offstage have made the Spoken word artist a spectacular role model for his society, and for the youthful population especially. The artist may consider his smock, cloth, beads, raffia hats and Afro wears as personal exhibits, yet they could go a long way to promote national identity at international events.

In a world where all poets are mad, I certainly believe that the Spoken Word poet is possessed by the highest demons of imagination. Imagination is required, but other qualities should stand-out in his practice. All things being functional, we can only hope for the advancement of the Spoken Word in Ghana. In a period where the art is running fast and steady, it would be hard to predict its fall. However, when I listened to The Fall, a poem written and recited by Edith Ndabi, at Writers Project on Citi, a weekly radio programme, I realized that the downfall of Spoken Word impends, should we lose sight of certain developments.
The reading by Ms. Ndabi was poorly delivered. She had no regard whatsoever for tone nor the mood of the person in her poem. In her rush she faked her accent dramatically. If not on purpose of adapting to the dialect of the poetic voice, how can an audience enjoy a vocal that is not authentic / credible? Adaptation is okay. I would have no reason to oppose. But Ms. Ndabi was at that moment within the reach of her flawed stage persona. Her case is not the exception. Many are the Spoken Word poets who unnecessarily aspire to foreign mode of pronunciation. Such a habit, I'm afraid, is going to tamper with the pristine signature of Ghana's Spoken Word poetry. If by virtue of residence or association an individual has been influenced by British, American or any other accent, he or she could be spared of criticism, even as speech therapy is recommended for the entire community.

"Your beard is reaching Talibanic proportion", said jokingly by a radio presenter to Selikem Geni. Of course we would like to see our affectionate Spoken Word artist smartly and beautifully dressed. Yet we should pray he doesn't go extreme to wear overly-animated suits that could distract the attention his poetry deserves. And...while he gets the deserving attention, would he fall prey to the worse? Would he be put under pressure to sustain the charm? Would he do something temping?  Would he enhance his creative energy with drugs? How best can he hold onto his spirited charisma, from one ceremony to the other? If not well-handled, if marijuana, and coke, and others slip through the industry, our Spoken Word glory of today could whittle into a gift of troubled souls. Adorable Kiki Gyan, the endowed but drug-sent-impoverished keyboardist of blessed memory, left a note of caution. He entreated: "Stay away from drugs and focus on whatever you are doing". A quote from the legendary Gyan should be enough for the wise, however ironic it is to the regrettable life he lived.

In another sense, the Spoken Word artist should be advised on the raw materials of his culture, as he concentrates on the content of his art. Where entertainment value is placed over the significance of culture, we are most likely not going to find any trace of Ghana nor Ghanaian in the fabric of the Spoken Word innovation. That would be sad. Wouldn't it? Well, can you imagine the response of Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, to a question of cultural importance of the Spoken Word text, as a reflector of the writer's ethnic background? You wouldn't expect the urbane Spoken Word leader to go adrift in that interview. But Ohene-Ayeh is a liberal who is not that keen on a thoroughbred Ghanaian culture. Whether we tow the hybrid idea or not, a legacy worthy of ethnic trace is at stake. To say the least, it would be disappointing for the future generation to inherit a tree without roots.

Matters of identity aside, may I resolve that the universality (of subjects and themes) of Ghana's Spoken Word poetry does not compromise with the moral force of the writer's message. In my study, I observed that the corpora of Ghanaian Spoken Word writers is made up of deep-seated philosophy, as due authors whose scholarship was mostly gotten from the University of Ghana. Sojourner by Nana Asaase is a fair example. The folkloric First Time Lizard Nods and Funeral Bells, by Kwame Write and Nancy Henaku respectively, are emphatic to the intellectual wit of the Spoken Word conscience. In the middle of expectations, a myriad of questions bothers my mind:

Coming from a higher social class, would the Spoken Word artist become the cut above the Hip-life artist? Is he the celebrity who could revolutionize the Ghanaian way-of-thinking? Could he command light into darkness? Would he speak sense into the sabotages and notoriety of Ghana's political conduct? Would he enlighten the politician (in his quest for power and signatory to peace) on the need to respect opponents? Would his verse command his countrymen's submission to the Rule of Law? Would he guard tempers against homosexuals? Would he educate his society on the wisdom of one's innocence until proven guilty? Could he change the attitude of beating to death any guy suspected of stealing at Kejetia? Could he change public understanding on the causes of road accident, whereby witches play no role?

I remain positive to the potential of the Spoken Word artist. But his spherical challenges can't be ignored. Note one particular error: Once upon a Sunday morning, a spoken Word artist wrote a poem ― and by evening-time, he was in a studio to perform. There were several tongue slips and strayed pauses as he recited to a presumably thousands of listeners. His unrepentant excuse was that his text "...is a work in progress" ― which probably means that; it was a preparatory draft, or it was not proof-read, and perhaps not well-rehearsed prior to the performance. D.K Osei is the culprit. We shouldn't blame him and spare the producer whose principle shifted from requesting a prospective performer to submit works for preview weeks before participation. It seems the management had posed so much trust in Osei's qualities. Unfortunately, he blundered the broadcast. And to my surprise, he had some cheers from listeners. Insincerity from praise-givers is a behaviour which Poetra Ama Asantewa's counsel has gone against. Even from amongst her over 4000 Facebook friends, Asantewa has always expected objectivity, without fear or favour. As long as loyalty tends to blindfold, I wonder if she could ever get any of her fans to be honest in reporting her failures. Professional critics should intervene. Critics are befitting ― but they too could be liable to the rough-shaping of this dynamic culture, if they begin to act subjective and egoistic. Here is a typical example:

Contrary to popular opinion, William Saint George, an Accra-based writer, has explained that 'Spoken Word is not poetry'. When I read through and through his article (which appeared in Ananse Blog, a literary journal published by Poetry Foundation Ghana), I had a feeling of pity. For his theory was weak, abusive and disintegrating. The Spoken Word community needs critical essays to stand on its toes, no doubt! But...as entitled as critics are to their opinion, such misleading statements, which could be psychologically damaging to its growth, should be avoided. How dare anyone throw mud on this colourful brand of poetry! How justifiable is the phrase: "a cheap fraud", as used by George in whipping the Spoken Word artist? When it comes to the fate of Spoken Word in the Ghanaian setting, we may be lost in our judgments, but may we be found right when it comes to our support for its natural course.
Be he a national asset or a fairytale character, eyes are watching how the Spoken Word star would fare on his escape, beyond the silent narrow road of the Written Word. On his journey, would he feel connected to the Written Word? In his statutory pleasure, would he bother to observe the speed limits? Time will tell.  
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