Cape Town-based award-winning poet and playwright Koleka Putuma is unapologetically driven and is determined to make sure her passion pays the bills. Not only has she managed to make her brand and craft lucrative at just 23, but she has a clear vision for the journey ahead.
“I have no shame talking about and declaring openly, that I make money off my craft. I think people have romanticised this notion of the starving artist. And there is no glory in that. You don’t have to glorify the hustle and the struggle,” she says.
Koleka is a nominee of the 2015 New Directors Award at the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards. She was the inaugural winner of the National Arts Festival’s Slam For Your Life competition. Her directed play Mbuzeni was performed at the Artscape Theatre as part of the Spiritual Festival last month. Koleka caused havoc with her poetry performance at TedxStellenbosch in late 2015, as her subject matter was deemed too political for the platform. She continues to break through the proverbial “struggling artist” mould. I spoke to her about how she made her craft successful and possible.
Paying your dues
No one ever said the road to success was an easy one, and Koleka can vouch for that. She admits there was a time she was gigging just for visibility and to get her name out, using open mic sessions to hone her craft. “No one wakes up one morning and they blow up,” she stresses.
Accepting that the money would not come instantaneously, helped her shift her focus to improving herself and shaping her ideas and ultimately getting booked for the next gig. Koleka says, as an artist, finances are always an issue. “That struggle unfortunately is very ongoing, whether you are a successful poet or not.”
The business of things
Sometimes what stands between a creative and the next pay check is basic resources like internet access and a laptop. “That is what separates artists who can engage with opportunities and those who can’t. Access to information, being able to answer emails, and sending invoices out timeously. Without those resources it makes things a little harder,” she says.
Koleka also uses social media to keep her brand visible beyond the poetry and performance. This gives reference to her audience and possible clients. “I am very intentional on what I put on my blog,” she says.
The biggest fulfilment for Koleka however is ensuring there’s food on the table. “I like being able to pick up the phone and tell my mother that poetry paid the bills.”
Talking money with corporates
Talking money with anyone is never easy, let alone big corporate companies who want to work with you. Koleka says the money conversation is going to have to come from the artist and stresses the importance of initiating the conversation and being transparent about your fee at the beginning of the booking process in order to be taken seriously. “It’s important for me to bring up the money conversation whenever I am booked for a corporate gig. This is so corporate understands that when you approach an artist, you don’t leave money out of the conversation,” she says. Koleka also encourages artists and performers to stand up for one another, to protect others from being exploited.
Be consistent and persistent
An artist never knows where their next gig will come from so it’s important to stay relevant and up-to-date for promoters and event organisers to want to book you. “If it interests you and if it captivates you, and you are interested in your own work, other people will automatically be [interested] as well.” She recalls performances when she thought “I don’t know what I’m doing here, but I’m going to give it my all”, and that attitude opened up doors. She met Thabiso “Aufurakan” Mohare from Word N Sound Live Literature Company in 2013. She would then go on to perform on the Word N Sound stage the following year.
Be unapologetic about your success
Lastly Koleka urges artists to celebrate their success without feeling like a show-off. “It’s okay to want it to be lucrative. It’s okay for you to want to make money off of it. It’s okay for you to let other people know that you are making it work. It’s okay to be like, ‘I’m doing the damn thing.’ We will still think you’re humble.”
Koleka is set to give a reading of her recent play, Mbuzeni at the John F. Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts in Washington DC at the end of April.
Holding image by Andiswa Mkosi
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*Update: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that Koleka was a recipient of the 2015 New Directors Award at the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards. She was only a nominee. The error has since been corrected.