World Poetry Day was marked on Tuesday, March 21. Throughout Africa, spoken word art is taking firm roots, especially when it explores social issues. Spoken Word artist Valentine Onyeka Ogunaka aka Brainbox from Nigeria shares his experience.
I know a man who used to brood all night
He lived in constant fright
I heard his cries; gifted but a broken man
His life—a constant fight!
Every morning he rose to a barrage of crises
And got punched on all sides…
Eventually he slithered into depression
When hope became extinct in his sight
Let’s say that man was me
Savouring the feeling to die
Perhaps the man is you, right now
Failing at every try
You struggle to fall in love
But stand on your bleeding knees
You struggle to live your dreams
But your life’s on the precipice
And there you are, same spot I was yesterday—
Feeling worthless because I reeked of hay
Worth less compared to others who walked in higher heels
I was a paltry tenant; my bills could afford me
A thousand times, maybe!
But then I realized there’s no flawless being
That life is not the stage but what happens behind the scene
That a couple of ‘healthy’ people are also living on pills
They just found a way to bury their pains and mask their ills
This stood perfect for me
Cos you are just as happy as the reflection you see
You are half amazing, if that’s the way you feel
Forget reality, nothing can be realer than your mentality
And here I mean to say: each time you are in distress, avoid all the drama
Stay strong for your weakness; nothing has come to stay.
This is the opening of Valentine Onyeka Ogunaka’s documentary, I’m not a failed dream, which is a personal journey about being a spoken word artist in contemporary Nigeria.
For those who are not familiar with the term, spoken word is a form of poetry that is meant to be performed in front of an audience giving attention not only to the words but also to the expressive potentials of the voice and body language. Its roots are definitely to find in ancient times as part of most oral cultural traditions throughout Africa; but its modern form brings us back to the civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance and later to the Beat Generation in the USA. Nowadays, throughout the African continent, there are several important spoken word festivals running periodically and this is a significant sign that spoken word is getting the interest of more and more audiences especially when it explores social issues.
Valentine Onyeka Ogunaka’s (aka Brainbox) journey starts being “the kid that everyone hated” to being one of the most influential and talented voices of Nigeria’s artistic scene.
“I started writing poems when I was nine and grew up studying a bit of science subjects. Although poetry returned to me first as a revelation after a private hour thinking about how I can effectively express myself and also help other stay aware. Beyond that I became a poet because I felt the need to be heard, to talk about society and to change lives.”
Even though he has been performing all over Nigeria, it was only recently that the idea of the documentary popped out of his mind:
“I had just began to nurture the idea for making a story about my life as a Nigerian spoken word artist being a leading voice when my friend and film maker Iniabasi Udosen proposed a visual documentary. Then together we worked on a script chronicling my struggles. I meant to target young people like me who have unusual dreams particularly those in the arts.”
It no secret that artists in Nigeria face several challenges: “Acceptance is still quite shaky so we don't get to perform at certain events or they let you mount the stage but hurry you out. Second, studio time and video recording is way too expensive for an emerging art. They tend to charge by the standards of existing and thriving music industries. Third, there are hardly talk shows to host us. But the internet has been helpful in this regard.”
Despite all these difficulties: “Spoken Word in Nigeria is a fast growing art and I'm proud to be a leading progenitor of the movement. We get appreciated time to time and the future looks bright. On impact, the entire Nigerian community is deeply aware that something is about to change. They are listening to emerging voices and believe the message we carry in our hearts.”
I’m not a failed dream tells us indirectly how in certain societies imagination is not considered important: “I'm not a failed dream is not directed at people who do not believe in me but the ones who find themselves in the same situation as mine. In the Nigerian society, if you are not becoming a doctor, a lawyer or a banker among other 'noble' professions, you are first deemed as crazy then a potential failure. So I use the documentary to amplify my reasons for choosing this path and why I don’t see myself as a failure which is more important than any other opinion.”
One of the problems in countries like Nigeria is that art is often not considered seriously as much as other jobs, but Brainbox says it is possible to build a career as an artist:
“Consistency is key. It takes a persistent knock to get a relaxing home-owner to open the door. So I think change will come if artists continue to put out quality content and speaking about them. Also, branding is important. Your content is not great without good branding. Artists can learn to be entrepreneurs. People will treat your art the way you present it. Having a defined industry for art can serve as an effective springboard for that and help earn respect.”
Art connects people to the world, opens them to new ways of seeing the world around them, creating the foundation to forge social bonds and community cohesion: “Art inspires consciousness in society. It offers the chance to create and preserve in any form people, cultures, events, places, etc. Yes, everything in life can be represented in art and I believe that makes our education complete. We can use art to boost students' imagination on what they learn and this activates creative, critical thinking which fosters innovation. In fact, an image doesn't exist if it cannot be mirrored.
An inspirational powerful testimony about how we can rethink our life in terms of being and taking action, making impact and changing the society we live in which provides a vision for those who don’t believe enough in themselves and feel a sense of displacement and detachment .
Why spoken word? Valentine says it powerfully how spoken word changed his life: “Spoken word is a form of expression, is something that gives me an escape when I need to set myself free from depression. Through spoken word I can communicate issues and reach out to other people. I started seeing myself as if I was not worth anything until I discovered spoken word. Spoken word enabled me to pen down my feelings. Enabled me to tell people my story. When I was young I was big headed, I was not settled, unorganized. Spoken word gave me the gumption to express myself to tell people this is the person I am.”
To aspiring poets Brainbox says: “If you can imagine words and bring them to reality on paper, nothing stops you doing the same with the life you want.”
Valentine’s next goal is to reach as many audiences as possible, to inspire, share a vision and create. After Nigeria and Ghana he plans to travel around the African continent and create connections.
Brainbox’s work can be found on Facebook
* Valentina Acava Mmaka is a writer, educator and activist. Her website: valentinammaka.blogspot.com