Last weekend I attended the hip hop divisions of the eight day-long Zabalaza Theatre Festival at the Baxter Theatre.
One, The Creative Database occurred on Saturday afternoon at the Baxter Concert Hall. It was poised to be big but alas it was far from that. The attendance was heart-breaking – to say the least. Nevertheless the artists on the line-up did their thing as hard as it is performing to a small crowd in a huge venue, so shout-outs to them. The second one, Headwarmaz Live took place at the Baxter Amphitheatre on Sunday. Once again, the turnout was a disappointment but the artists on the line-up gave it their all. Both shows introduced me to acts I had never seen before. The best performances from both shows came from Andy Mkosi, Ndlulam’thi, Fonzo, Dilaska, Mav Botee, Supreme Soul, Venouscore and Phresh Clique.
Why the shows were poorly attended is still a mystery to me – and a struggle that’s been torturing me ever since.
A conversation I had with poet, Lerato Mokobe on Tuesday (March 11) however brought closure to my misery. Lerato is a selfless poet who refused to talk about herself but rather the movement she represents – Vocal Revolutionaries. On the Monday after the same weekend, a poetry show was held in the same venue (Baxter) and it was a smashing success. So says Lerato (and Andy testifies) – I never attended. It was an audition for the next four poets to represent Africa in San Francisco at the 2014 Brave New Voices slam competition.
“There was a 15-year-old girl who came in school uniform and spoke about our country, spoke about Madiba…it was inspiring. For anyone who’d never picked up a pen before that night, after that night they probably did. The issues were specific to individuals but also captured the experience of being African,” narrates the facile-tongued Lerato to me as we sit at the BBDO building in the CBD of the mother city.
But where and when did all this start? It started in 2011. “I just happened to be watching Mzansi Magic and Brave New Voices came on and I found it interesting. I hit up Thulani (another Vocal Revs member) and I was like ‘T, watch this’. I was like ‘if they can do it, why can’t I?’”
“I told Thulani I’d speak to the BNV people to give us a spot. She (Thulani) found Siya – still with the group, found Mfundo, found Andy, and found Mishy (Amanda Mabhoza). Andy and Mfundo were coaches, the rest of us were part of the SA team,” she explains.
They landed a spot in 2012 but sadly couldn’t make it to San Francisco because of lack of funds. “We waited at the airport all week – waiting for something to say ‘hey we have tickets for you to go to San Francisco’ it never happened,” recalls Lerato.
Refusing to be held back by the adversity they had encountered in 2012, they held auditions with the help of Baxter in 2013. The new team emerged in the form of Lerato, Siya, Neo and Sechaba. They still had no one to sponsor their trip to the US. “With a stroke of luck and just pure hard work, we found Funder Fund who ran a five-day campaign to help us get people to donate. And a Good Samaritan, the coach of Team [Washington] DC sponsored tickets for the rest of the members who couldn’t go,” she states.
However, adversity still wouldn’t leave them the hell alone. One member – Sechaba – sadly couldn’t go with the team because of passport issues. This then led to them not being eligible to compete because slam rule says a team has to have a minimum of four members. “But they allowed us to perform on final stage which is an amazing and prestigious opportunity ‘cause they don’t just allow any team to perform at final stage to a crowd of 6000 to 8000 people,” she recalls proudly.
The trip was an enlightening experience as they got to attend workshops and meet different people from different parts of the world to speak about the same thing – change, and the voice of the youth and how it is valued in different places. “We did well in representing Africa to the world,” blossoms Lerato. “We were the first ever group from Africa since the thing started in 1996 so it’s a huge deal!” she affirms. “That’s why it’s so important that we get supported by our own country. Every single team is supported by their own government,” she states, bitterness thoroughly concealed behind her impudent disposition.
They are clearly not your typical complain-about-the-government-on-twitter type of South African youths. They have gone out and approached the government. But “they only give money to registered organisations and you can’t register a movement, which makes it hard,” she explains. Their reaction? Take to Twitter and bash the government. Nope! “We’ve kinda tackled that from a different angle – we are now an extension of a registered organisation, the Philly Youth Poetry movement – a US-based internationally-recognised organisation.
Now with a better plan and standing a better chance of getting funding from the government, they held auditions for the 2014 team on the 10th of March. Still a makeshift movement, they exploited two of the committee members being part of Baxter to get the venue for free. “Mfundo organised refreshments, Andy was resident photographer, I organised the judges – Bonnie Mbuli, Mbulelo Grootboom, Lwanda Sindaphi and Jacqui the poet – so it was a group effort. The rest of the team had to advertise the event,” Lerato reveals. Competitors were judged on a scale of zero to 10 (decimals encouraged), 14 poets going for four spots: four literary ambassadors for Africa.
Apart from having had venerated names such as Queen Latifah, Russel Simmons, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Joshua Bennett and a couple of other BNV alumnus which she counted in a rehearsed manner, as judges, Brave New Voices is a great platform to showcase African slam poetry to the whole world. “To Americans, African [slam] poetry doesn’t exist,” she says. So we made them see that Africa can speak for itself. They’ve been reciting poems about Africa but they’ve never been here. But we’re from here so we can tell them what’s up. That’s why it’s so important for them to host us and when they do they go all out!”
From the small trip they did last year, they made connections with the Illinois District Manager. “He’s taken some of our poetry into the Illinois District syllabus. So in high school now in Illinois, when they teach poetry they have a part where they look at our BNV video and learn from it,” she reveals. She continues, “And even now, this Friday we’re skype-teaching so we’re formally teaching artists. We’re teaching three different classes about African Literature, the South African experience and about our history. When we went there they didn’t know what we knew, they didn’t know what xenophobia was.”
Asked to motivate a potential funder to help them out, she said, “The education part of it. We’re always complaining that our education system is failing us but we never do anything about it. Well, as Vocal Revs, we do anything in our power to change how students and teachers see the education system.” How? I asked. “Siya was in Grade 11 when he started Vocal Revs. He had average English marks. But because we were researching different topics, by the end of Matric, he was the top student for English and for History,” she explains. “Same as myself – I was a standard student but when I started I was a top student in English, History and Drama. And it also gives you an opportunity to open your mind. So every time we take someone onto the team they grow immensely – everyone on the team has received a scholarship to go study in a university whether abroad or in South Africa! That says a lot that what we do change the perception of the youth,” she concludes.
A lot of us can take a leaf out of these youngsters’ books and that is if you want something, just do anything you can to achieve it. Period. Tenacity, patience and hard work are necessities for dreamers.
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Written by Sabelo Mkhabela
Additional contribution by Andiswa Mkosi
Images: Andiswa Mkosi