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Ever since Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986, the West African region has continued to produce stellar poets. These are the contemporary West African poets and spoken word artists you need to know.
Titilope Sonuga is an award-winning Nigerian poet, actress and writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. She is renowned in Africa and around the world for her evocative spoken word poetry which has won her a deeply engaged audience invested in her creative works.
After graduating with a Bsc Civil Engineering degree from the University of Alberta in 2008, she delved into a career in the arts when she started performing at Rouge Poetry, a weekly spoken word night in Edmonton which she created.
In 2011, Titilope won the Canadian Authors’ Association Emerging Writer Award for her first collection of poems, Down To Earth. A couple of years later, her spoken word album Mother Tongue was released in 2013 followed by a second collection of poetry, Abscess, in 2014.
Since her young beginnings, she has shared a stage with legendary poets Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Yusef Komunyakaa and others, at the first spoken word showcase of the Achebe Colloquium on Africa at Brown University. In May 2015, Titilope became the first poet to perform at a Nigerian presidential inauguration ceremony, where she rendered her spoken word poem, ‘We Are Ready’ for President elect Muhammadu Buhari. In 2017, she penned a collection of poems called This is How We Disappear, inspired by the missing Chibok girls who were kidnapped in the school in Nigeria. The poems explore the physical and psychological disappearance of the women and girls.
When asked about who she writes for, Ijeoma reveals that she writes to narrate a shared human experience, and specifically, “for a lot of people who do not see themselves represented often in literature. For African girls and boys. For black girls. For women with color. For immigrants. For those who feel alone. For mental health. For everyone and anyone who believes that healing is needed, that narratives like mine are not only important but very necessary. Ultimately, I am writing because of the human experience.”
Her short stories and poems have appeared in The Stockholm Review of Literature, The Wildness, The Rising Phoenix Review, Doll Hospital Journal and The Renaissance Noire, among others. Her poem, ‘Dismantling the Culture of Silence’ has been taught to high school students to understand the importance of using their voices. Her work ‘The Delicate Acts of Survival’ from her poetry collection Questions for Ada is set to be translated into Spanish and published by Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencas Sociales (Latin American Council of Social Sciences) as part of an e-book.
Yrsa Daley-Ward is a model, poet and writer of Jamaican and Nigerian origins born in the UK. She started writing in her childhood years but soon forgot about it as she struggled to make ends meet trying to build a modelling career in London. Determined to make it in the fashion world, Daley-Ward moved to South Africa where she felt there was a better diversity for black models like her. It was during her time there that she rediscovered her love for poetry and started writing and performing at an open mic night.
Her first collection of poems, Bone was self-published on Amazon in 2014 before being re-published by Penguin after amassing a following in the hundreds of thousands on social media. Her work touches on the strains of a disconnected family, the pains in her childhood, mental health and sexuality.
Her first book, a memoir titled The Terrible, was published in June 2018 by Penguin.
Bassey Ikpi is a spoken word poet, writer, and mental health advocate born in Nigeria before moving to the US with her family when she was four years old.
She started performing at open mic events during college, which she dropped out of during her last year to pursue her career more seriously in New York. During that time, she participated in HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry for five seasons and has since then opened shows for award-winning artists.
In 2012 during her return to Lagos, Nigeria, she launched Basseyworld Presents Naija Poetry Slam, the first National Poetry Slam competition in the country. Her first book, a memoir titled I’m Telling The Truth But I’m Lying, will be released on February 19, 2019, and is available for pre-order now.
Dylema, whose first name is actually Dianah, is a Nigerian-British poet, multidisciplinary artist and head of Dylema collective, a ‘spoken soul’ poetry-music band. The collective infuses their love for neo-soul, contemporary jazz and R&B, mixed with spoken word poetry and harmonies to mesmerize their audience and leave them in a state of elation.
Dylema‘s stage name is an acronym for ‘Do You Let Every Man Adapt’ – as such, she uses her feminist poetry to challenge issues on race, gender and individuality. Her spoken word masterpiece, ‘What If A Black Girl Knew’, which explores the depictions and stereotypes of black women as well as cultural appropriation, has been performed all over the country and played in schools and classrooms.
In a 2016 interview, she revealed that she started performing at the age of 17, although she had started writing since she could read. As a young migrant to the UK who was self-aware about her Nigerian accent at the time, poetry became a getaway and a means to creating a home for herself. Now she hopes to break boundaries with her work and impact others positively to find their own inner voice and champion themselves.
Caleb Femi is a Nigerian-born poet from south London who infuses his passion for film, photography and music in his poetry whether on paper, in performance or on digital mediums. He was also awarded as the Young People’s Laureate for London between 2016-2018, working with young people on a national and global scale.
He fell in love with books while in hospital after a near death experience at 17 years old, which then steered him to a love of poetry and to study English at university, later on becoming a teacher.
Femi has in the past won the Roundhouse Poetry Slam and Genesis Poetry Slam award. He is currently working on a debut collection.
Siana Bangura is an award-winning poet, writer, performer and producer from southeast London with Sierra Leonean origins. Bangura has been writing since she could remember, and was even published in anthologies at ages 9, 11 and 15. However, when her GCSEs studies took off, she had to put writing on the backburner. Fortunately for us, an encounter with someone from her past re-ignited the flames years later, and she started writing again – once she graduated from studying History at university, she was ready to show the world what she was all about.
Her debut poetry collection Elephant, which explores the politics surrounding black British womanhood, was published in May 2016 by the Haus of Liberated Reading. She is also producing a documentary, 1500 & Counting, which investigates police brutality and deaths in custody in the UK. Her work focuses on bringing marginalised voices to the forefront.