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The Shifting Fortunes of a Performing Poet

Post-apartheid poetry and its makers have witnessed the commodification of the art in more ways than one. Now a veteran of the South African performance poetry scene, Vonani Bila notices his greying chin hairs, his fading allure and the fact that nothing exists outside the realm of exchange. He calls on the new generation of poets to keep it deep and innovative in the era of corporate capitalism.

After I cut my dreadlocks a year ago, people stopped recognising me. Those who did urged me to grow them again. They claimed they were used to me with dreads, but I knew that really they just didn’t want to offend me by saying, “Bila you are as ugly as a warthog”. Like a latter-day Samson, I lost some of my allure as a poet along with my hair. Bald Bila wasn’t nearly as appealing to poetry festival organisers and audiences. Even the Swedish girls, who used to love all my rhymes, no longer listen as intently.

These days it’s not enough to simply talk the talk or even to walk the walk; you also need to pay attention to your footgear. Like Parliament, post-1994 poetry has developed a dress code. It’s pretty much uniform: Afro prints, head wraps, robes, Swazi kangas, African earrings, beads and of course the obligatory dreadlocks.

It’s a look that has its roots in the Afropolitan ideals of the Mbeki era. But today’s poetry is as much a product of the new global afro-pop market as it is of African Renaissance ideals. As the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, South African poetry became increasingly commodified. Themes and content became less political, more individual, and the form deregulated – not opened to experiment so much as abandoned. Droves of young performers took lessons from American poets like Saul Williams, and dropped verbal power to indulge in rampant hip-hop-inflected word play. The success of this informalism was based not so much in aesthetic quality as in social resonance. To read the rest of this article online, subscribe.

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In part, this movement was an intervention against the narrow confines of academic white writing. Face-to-face sociality became the locus of poetic activity, against the romantic model of the solitary genius. Regular, often booze-soaked, open mic nights became the laboratories of the new. Poetry’s new audiences opened new doors. In 2007 poet Lebo Mashile stepped off the stage and onto the screen. L’Attitude, the television programme she produced and presented, reached an audience of more than two million viewers. Poetry had developed a new currency. It was no longer a vocation, the calling of a committed few ragtag outcasts; poetry could be a pathway towards a successful career.

The idea wasn’t new. Nor was it bad. It was the same formula poets like Mongane Wally Serote and Keorapetse Kgositsile had employed a decade earlier when they leveraged their status as struggle poets to secure government positions. As French thinker Pierre Bourdieu tells us, people make art for the same reason people do everything – because they want to gain capital. In the case of art this capital is often symbolic rather than financial, but it is still capital.

Rather than deny this reality, the new generation of poets employed Bourdieu’s unmasking to their own ends. They also gave it a new twist. Nothing exists outside the realm of exchange, agreed. If a writer is not paid in money, she is paid in cultural capital that translates into improved standing and, eventually, cash. Fine. But why should the writer be forced to wait? Why shouldn’t he or she get the cash right now?

It’s work. I can’t do poetry for free,” performance poet Napo Masheane confirms. Masheane, who first published in Timbila in 2001, has been in the game long enough to understand its ambiguities and complexities. She knows she’s in the entertainment industry. Her pay cheque depends on her keeping the moneybags happy and she works hard to do this.

You have to look your part on- and off-stage to be taken seriously by your audience/ clientele,” says Masheane. “When I’m invited for a media interview, whether on radio or TV, I make sure I’m there on time, even if it means waking up at 4am to be interviewed on SABC2’s breakfast show, Morning Live.”

An older generation of politically conscious poets might scoff at this – but is that because they’re wary of commercial platforms, or because the only time they see 4am is after an all-night party? Many of today’s most successful poets owe their fame to a genuine commitment to their work and to getting it heard by a wider public.

Most established performance poets have their own client lists and, as in the real business world, they seldom share their databases. It’s often a dog-eat-dog fight, and standoffs between poets vying for opportunities are as common as beefs in hip-hop. Clients are diverse, ranging from corporates, private schools and rich benefactors to centres of rehabilitation (such as prisons), government departments, embassies, churches, weddings and funerals, and literary and arts festivals, both local and international.

To juggle this eclectic client base, poets often have full-time managers who handle schedules and negotiate prices. Generally, poets are paid from R5,000 upwards per session or festival. The fee usually excludes flight costs, accommodation and living allowance during the event. For the rest, they trade in their hard-earned cultural capital for cash, using their status as poets to secure work as MCs, workshop leaders, hosts on literary panels, newspaper or magazine columnists, radio and TV presenters, and even motivational speakers.

If you play your cards right there are also opportunities to make big money by simply performing. While the previous generation of poets appeared at political rallies as part of their contribution to the struggle, the new generation holds the government to its promise of economic empowerment. The government in return leverages credibility from having a poet onstage. It’s a lucrative exchange. On a really good day, a poet can be paid in excess of R60,000 for a government gig. What’s more, government, with its frequent calendar of events, provides regular paid work. Poets comply by having a poem ready for any occasion. Smart poets will have penned something for National Youth Day long before June. They’ll also have a verse written and ready to go for Human Rights Day, Women’s Day, Heritage Day, Sixteen Days of Activism Against Women and Child Abuse, HIV/Aids, and a Nelson Mandela praise poem for all occasions.

The rumour mill has it that some poets who were part of the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony line-up and those who performed at the opening of the Orange African Nations Cup in South Africa went home with more than R50,000 for rendering one or two poems. But that’s a pittance compared to the earnings of official praise poets. Forget the old image of the growling imbongi draped in animal hide following his calling; praise poetry can be big business. Aside from the benefits of full-time employment, presidential praise poets travel the world, often picking up new clients along the way. Mandela’s poet, Zolani Mkiva, also sang the praises of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, Muammar Qaddhafi, Seewoosagur Rangoolam of Mauritius, and Kofi Annan – all for the right price. In 2012, Mkiva threatened to sue the National Transitional Council of Libya for more than R39 million for a CD and music videos commissioned by Qaddhafi.

Of course, as the above example demonstrates, praise poetry also comes with its own political precariousness. Poets need to choose sides carefully. When Mandela passed away, Mkiva might have earned the big bucks reciting at his funeral but it was reports of an impromptu performance by a local praise poet that caught my ear. As the funeral cortège passed through Mthatha in the Eastern Cape en route to Qunu, a poet is said to have jumped in front of the crowd to sing Mandela’s praise. He told how Mandela had risen to greatness, defeated his foe and would soon be united with his son in heaven. Finally he delivered his punch line: “His son is Jacob Zuma.” As witnesses were quick to point out, this could have meant either that Zuma was Mandela’s natural successor, or that he might not be long with us.

This small incident reminds us that the best praise poetry is politically charged; it mixes celebration with blame, and eulogy with subtle critique, couched in innuendo, ambiguity and humour. Good poets are capable of creating moments of reflection, distilling the multiplicity of truths and lies of human existence even as they reflect on everyday life. Good poetry is always concise, engaging, deep, innovative, politically charged and profound. It speaks for itself without the poet defending or explaining it. As poet Nathaniel Mackey notes of the spoken word, it needs to be wary of becoming “synonymous with theatricality, a recourse to dramatic, declamatory and other tactics aimed at propping up words… words regarded… as needing help, support, embellishment.”

Ironically, it’s probably not the critiques or laments of committed poets like Mackey or me that will provoke the kind of innovation I’m dreaming of, but rather the market itself. Business and marketing practices today are increasingly focused on novelty and originality. Far from being subversive or oppositional, revolution and transgression are the actual motor of capitalist expansion today: the way that it renews itself.

As we pass the 20-year mark post-1994, change is again required. Audiences have grown tired of dreadlocks, rainbow platitudes and rhyming couplets. Corporates, politicians and even wedding and funeral planners are dropping performance poets for comedians, whose sharp suits, snappy punch lines and implicit irony speak more directly to today’s reality. We’d rather laugh – even at funerals – and who can blame us?

As for me, I’m now over 40, I’ve cut my dreadlocks and have patches of grey hair on my chin. The market has no use for me so I may as well crack a whip like a village elder. I now call upon the young generation of superstar poets to shape up – to remain sincere and deep and new, pushing the frontiers of imagination and language. [/ppw]

covers togetherThis story features in the new edition of Chronic Books, the supplement to the Chronic. Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.

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