Say it and Celebrate: Slam Poetry in Libreville

Emerging in the mid 2000s, the dynamic art of ‘slam’ poetry has since become centre stage in Libreville. The annual poetry festival Dire en Fête, that launched in 2009, that is set to make the city Africa’s foremost showcase for this form of urban self-expression. Tiphaine Saint-Criq was there for the inaugural festival.

It requires confidence; it requires inspiration and it requires a sense of drama. The exhilarating art of slam combines writing with drama, presentation and public speaking to make live poetry dynamic, accessible and fun. And that is just how it turns out at Libreville’s French Cultural Centre during its annual slam festival Dire en Fête (Say it and Celebrate).

The event first launched in 2009. For the first festival, eighteen urban poets from different African countries took part in the five-day workshop run by rapper Disiz La Peste, a young performer from France of mixed Senegalese and French parentage. His real name is Sérigne M’Baye Gueye and his third album is entitled The Extraordinary Stories Of A Youth In The Banlieue.

‘For France it matters nothing what I do/In its mind I will always be/Just a youth from the banlieue’.

The chorus of the title song proves that the French language, with its repeated end-of-word inflections, lends itself only too well to rap and slam, and that this type of poetry can fulfil a deep need to articulate what might otherwise go unsaid.

In Libreville, Disiz La Peste worked alongside student slam artists from Cameroon, Niger, Burkina Faso, the Republic of Congo, Mali and Gabon. ‘We brought together 18 artists from six regional countries,’ explained Guy Lacroix, the cultural centre’s director. ‘Most of them were young and hadn’t met each other before, but by dint of hard work and determination they put on a highly accomplished show. What really impressed us was the extraordinary power of expression that young people are capable of.’

The course culminated in two live slam performance sessions that both attracted packed houses. ‘What I saw here confirms my belief that Africa is bursting with talent,’ said Disiz La Peste on the second day of the creative workshop. From the front row of the theatre, the rap star monitored the action on stage with intense concentration. ‘I try to be objective. We’re all artists here. We can be straight with each other,’ he said. He was quick to praise and encourage. The team members from Niger were blessed with sublime voices, but their rendition of lines such as: ‘We are the hope of black people’ and ‘I am a blue man of the desert’ was a little hesitant and needed a boost: ‘Come on, don’t be shy! You’re doing great. Am I right, people?’ The master’s appraisal was loudly and enthusiastically endorsed by everyone present.

Gabon was represented by two slam teams, Nyabinghi Poésie and Eyo Slam Clan, and a singer, Path- Neg. Path-Neg, who did his number with the aid of a hurricane lamp, explained what slam meant for him: ‘It’s free expression, a mixture of rap and poetry. Rap provides the rhythm while the poetry comes pure and live from the pen. Basically, slam is what the griots have been doing for a long time,’ he said. The young slammers used the medium to explore a wide range of topics.

Some took their inspiration from everyday life. In ‘Affaire de Bus (An event on a bus)’ one of the members of Nyabinghi Poésie gave a detailed and humorous account of the petty irritations likely to arise when travelling on a crowded bus. Other pieces demanded more of the listener, being personal and sometimes irreverent takes on various situations that nevertheless retained a rhyming pattern, as in Obscur’s staccato:

‘The people want / more bread for the food revolution / more care for the health revolution’.

In another strange, melancholy piece, the same poet conjured a garden populated by animals but devoid of human presence. Listening, you begin to understand how slam poetry is instant self-expression and often relays a message of anger and frustration with urban existence.

During a writing workshop, the slammers were joined by students from Libreville’s Lycée Blaise Pascal. It turned out to be a fruitful and information rich encounter between artists with an audacious approach to the language of Molière and teenagers who all knew by heart the songs of Grand Corps Malade, one of France’s most celebrated slammers.

When the workshops were over, the artists put on two shows which filled every seat in the auditorium. The Lycée students turned up in droves, all proudly sporting the badges they had acquired at the writing workshop. This baptism of slam was a shared experience in the true sense of the term. On stage, the workshop students, proud of the progress they had made together, became increasingly confident as they performed in response to what they described as the ‘good vibes’ coming from the audience.

The first show was a carefully staged sequence of acts which demonstrated how much the performers had learnt from the advice dispensed by their mentor Disiz La Peste. At the second event, however, things were far more spontaneous and the slammers sat concealed among the audience before taking to the stage one by one to deliver their finely honed poems. In an atmosphere that ranged from the passionate to the contemplative, they revealed the full extent of their talent and deserved every clap of the thunderous applause.

The French Cultural Centre’s decision to organise a lavish celebration of oral poetry seems to have paid off, as Dire en Fête has now become an annual event. Disiz La Peste said of the first event. ‘I always take something from these encounters,’ he said. ‘I think the best thing about it is that 18 people, all with their own egos and coming from different countries, can get together and put on a show in the space of a few days. Nobody is into self-effacement, but everybody makes room for the others. It’s the best of Africa you’re seeing here. And it’s a great learning experience.’

By Tiphaine Saint-Criq

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