In Nigeria, young poets protest against injustice
Popular contests offer outlet for creative talent
LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria’s young poets hurled words against the injustices plaguing the giant of Africa, from corruption to Boko Haram’s insurgency, in the fifth ‘‘War of Words’’ poetry slam.
Scores crammed into a stuffy space in Lagos, Nigeria’s chaotic commercial capital, as 20 finalists from across the country battled for first place and $500. That’s nearly six months’ pay at the minimum wage.
‘‘Now That Change Has Come,’’ was the challenge for the competition, suggesting the reforms promised by new President Muhammadu Buhari.
‘‘You have three minutes to bring that stage down,’’ 13-year-old Oyinkansola Adesewa advised a friend. Soon Adesewa herself took the stage in a bold pantsuit that she created of green and white swirls echoing the colors of Nigeria’s flag and launched into a poem about how the ‘‘national cake’’ is not divided equally.
Run by the Word Up organization of Olumide Holloway, banker by day and King Olulu on stage, the competition is part of the country’s exploding slam poetry scene. Poetry slams are competitions in which contestants are judged for their content, delivery, and audience response.
‘‘We discovered there’s so much talent that we haven’t even harnessed yet,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a dream come true for some of those poets. They never really had any platform to actually showcase their work.’’
The rousing, rhythmic delivery that the poets use in the slams is similar to rap. Written to be performed with dramatic flair and body language, slam poetry is becoming a catalyst for literacy beyond textbooks.
Many see the performance art as reviving Nigeria’s tradition of oral history. ‘‘Our elders have what you call ‘awi,’ like a praise poem,’’ Holloway said. ‘‘Now it’s coming back.’’
Young Nigerians are making it their own, crafting a tool to condemn rampant corruption, discrimination against women, and poor education.
The performances one recent Sunday were visceral, the audience drumming on tables as a poet’s torrent of rhymes built to a crescendo, only to fall to a whisper, hands cupped as if in prayer during rhapsodies about the power of faith or a woman desired.
Poets clenched fists, wagged fingers, and one spread his arms wide as if the words could make him fly.
The victor was Ibukun Ajagbe, a 14-year-old from Lagos, who brought the crowd to its feet with her impassioned ode: ‘‘By being that change, I am that change, and I have come!’’