Spoken Word Rwanda’s six year journey

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Spoken Word Rwanda team shared cake with the participants during the 6th year anniversary. / Nadege K. Imbabazi

Milestone, the theme for this month’s Spoken Word Rwanda gathering was apt.

Six years ago, two ambitious young Rwandans set out with nothing more than passion to create something different, something entertaining but also educational and inspirational; something through which people could freely express themselves.  

In July 2011, at the former Shooters bar in Kacyiru, the first Spoken Word Rwanda event was staged, and successfully so. On the evening of Wednesday July 26th, the forum marked six years of existence with a special edition at Choma’d Bar and Restaurant in Kimihurura.

To many, calling the six years of Spoken Word Rwanda a milestone would be an understatement. Even Diana Mpyisi, co founder and curator of Spoken Word Rwanda admits in an earlier interview that initially, she didn’t see the dream stand the test of time.

Mpyisi has since become the poster girl for Spoken Word or, as one of the forum’s most ardent fans put it to me at an earlier event, its Chief Everything Officer (CEO). 

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Diana Mpyisi, co-founder of Spoken Word Rwanda serves cake during the event. / Nadege K. Imbabazi

She is a woman of bold character, charisma and gift of the garb, qualities that she has put to good use as Spoken Word’s resident MC.

Over the years, Mpyisi and her team have experimented by staging the forum at different venues with different vibes around the city, with Choma’d in Kimihurura being one such.

This was the second time in a row that the venue was hosting the event that has also been staged at venues like the Cleopatra Lounge in Kimihurura, the Impact Hub in Kiyovu and even the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where a special genocide commemoration edition was held in April.

Typically, the event offers a platform to both established poets and spoken word artists, and the up-and-coming to showcase their craft, and Wednesday’s gathering was no different.

On stage were some of the pioneering poets and spoken word artists who have been with Spoken Word from the early days at Shooters in Kacyiru. There was also a slew of second generation poets and artists that have over the years picked poetic inspiration from the pioneers, and some of who have gone ahead to become bona fide poets and artists in their own right.

The other category to hit the stage were ordinary people from the crowd that simply got inspired to hit the stage and share a poetic line or two, or even song.

One such performer, a young lady from the US wowed the crowd with her own rendition of Mario’s Let me love you, breaking the monotony of poems that came before her. Another American lady walked from the crowd to present a poem about the five years of her stay in Rwanda, while another poem came from an Australian that has been working with the RDB tourism office in Australia.

Placid Iradukunda Munyaneza is one of the fast-rising local poets that have grown with Spoken Word Rwanda over the years. He let the brightness of his poetic soul shine through his two powerful poems, The untitled poem, and The shyness of a poet.

The latter is a humorous and self-deprecating ode to his own poetic journey with Spoken Word Rwanda. In it, he speaks about moving from “weak shy” to “strong shy”. More than anything else, the presence of Placide and others like him on stage served to symbolize growth and continuity for Spoken Word Rwanda.

So was the poet Olivier Tuyisenge, who has curved out a name for his masterful delivery of traditional cow poems (amazina y’inka). Tuyisenge has been a regular at Spoken Word and other poetry forums in Kigali, and is a regular fixture at traditional ceremonies like weddings, where his cow poems sell like hot cake.

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Olivier Tuyisenge recites a poem known as amazina y’inka. / Nadege K. Imbabazi

For a show that was dominated by English poems, with a splattering of French, his was the first delivery of authentic Kinyarwanda poems, and the warm reception could be seen in the wild cheers as he delved into his first poem. Six years ago, he probably would have been content just meeting and shaking hands with poets like Eric 1Key, one of his idols.

The two have since worked together on a handful of projects, and both have made a name and a career out of performance poetry. Tuyisenge recently started his own group, Ikome, a performance troupe comprising of five young Rwandans with diverse talents.

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Eric one key performs during the 6th anniversary of Spoken Word Rwanda. / Nadege Imbabazi

After his performance, the poet thanked organizers of Spoken Word for offering him a platform to nurture his art, before announcing his group’s own upcoming show next week. Another sign of goodwill and growth on the night.

More star performances followed from poets Lion King, and Eric 1Key. Lion King was without a doubt one of the night’s highlights, leaving people wondering why his name is not as ubiquitous on the local poetry and spoken word circuit. Even then, he dedicated a great deal of his time to pay homage to organizers, crediting Spoken Word for unearthing the poetic bone in him.

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Young poet Lion King performs at the event. / Nadege K. Imbabazi
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Revelers turned up in large numbers for the event. / Nadege K. Imbabazi

A pioneer on the Spoken Word stage six years ago, rapper, poet and spoken word artist Eric 1Key delivered two of his most hard-hitting poems, one about marriage (Why do we get married?), and another on what it takes to be an artist in Rwanda.

Go hard, go home or find your way to exile
This art industry is not designed for artists to survive
Muri indagara lost in the sauce

Eyes open wide but dead inside, he flows in the latter poem.

1Key was one of the first generation of Spoken Word artists in the country, alongside others like Naleli Rugege, Malaika Umamahoro and Angel Mutoni. When the time came to cut the cake, 1Key and the few other pioneers present were called upon to step up to the task.

After his performance Mpyisi had some kind words for 1Key, remarking: “I just remember Eric 1Key six years ago when we begun, he was very different.”

“This guy is really a pioneer poet in the sense that he started with us at Shooters in July 2011 and he was reading from his Blackberry and he was really swooning –no eye contact, but his written poetry was so seamless. Back then all the poets first used to send us their poems and we publish them on our page,” she said of him:

“When I put the face to the writer the first time he performed I was like no, this is not the same person. This guy is performing something that belongs to his big brother or sister because he was shaking and there was no eye contact and no performance.”

She also thanked all the stakeholders that have been with Spoken Word Rwanda over the years –the organizers, the audience, the poets and artists, and everybody else that lent their energy and resources behind-the-scenes (people that provide sound, lighting, audio-visuals, and venue owners, among others).

“We don’t have many resources but at least the one thing that we’re very proud of is the fact that we nurture and people look up to the people that we nurture and the cycle continues.”