Music is inexplicably tied to poetry. Both have a beat, a rhythm, and an emotion. Whether bluntly vocalised or hidden under layers of symbolism, they are tools for artists to define themselves and make sense of the world around them. It’s even more evident with hip-hop and spoken word, a relationship so close you couldn’t possibly imagine one without the other.
Acclaim invited N.o.A members wāni, Tenda McFly, Lay the Mystic, and Kyah Parrott to sit down with Oromo artist and poet Saaro Umar to discuss their individual practices. Each artist brought their own flair for spoken word, hip-hop and lyricism to the table, giving us an insight into what we can expect from the future of the craft. Collaborating with other artists, the collective hope to expand the next chapter of Sapologie—an annual evening of spoken word, music, and storytelling.
Saaro: Tell me about your creative practices.
Tenda: Basically I’m a rapper and a spoken word poet. I started rapping first, and then I got it to spoken word. I think it’s kind of difficult to look at me, my music and my craft, by looking at just one element of it.
I use rap and spoken word very differently. With rap you have to rhyme over a beat; sometimes it constricts you and your ability to be able to express yourself. Whereas with spoken word I feel a lot freer in what I can do. There’s a lot more flexibility. I just say what I feel deeply. Whereas, with rap there’s a lot of little rules that are within it that I enjoy, and I’m, like, a super rap nerd. But I guess that what makes the difference for me.
Lay: What I do is just try to code my diary and put it on a stage so that people stop reading it and I’ll stop getting in trouble for it! I started out in a folk band when I was 14 or 15, which is when I started learning how to play guitar. Then I started in a hip-hop choir and started rapping—well rapping, dancing, and doing body percussion—when I was about 15, and then got into running community arts events.
I just kept moving from contact to contact, where I’d just get contracted to put on a show. So I’d just write and develop for a few months and work with whomever, in whatever medium I could.
The last three years of my career I’ve started to actually have some independence and agency, in terms of what I’m doing and what I want to do. More recently it’s just been either stewing in a feeling until I need to find a way to get it out, or writing poetry and doing soundscapes behind it. Sometimes I think it’s going to be a song, and I go to record it and I end up yelling it instead. Or I repackage it, rebrand and say it’s a poem. I think that’s where I’m evolving to [lyrical poetry]. It’s not rap, not poems, and not songs either. It’s spoken word over beats and then I soundscape it.
Is there a medium that is at the root of your various practices?
Lay: Storytelling. Definitely. Writing and storytelling. And if I can’t find the right words, I find a way to say it some other kind of way.
wāni: My creative practice is around storytelling. This deep need to outlet, and that looks different depending on what I feel is needed at the time. It comes out as spoken word poetry, it comes out as producing events that centre black and brown bodies, it comes out as putting together collectives of people who I think feel similarly, that I think aren’t given enough credit.
I almost feel like it’s an urgency for things that I feel are missing, that I’d like to see, but I don’t have time to wait for somebody to do. It’s different depending on the day of the week. Lyrical poetry is my thing right now, as well as finding ways to delve into African understandings of poetry and storytelling. It feels like—learning.
Kyah: My creative process is 100 per cent interlinked with my mental health. I’m a digital storyteller, and I’m working on a few projects for mindfulness, so that’s the first word that comes to mind. I start my day with meditation every morning. My best work has always just come to me when I have been in a state of presence. Not just in a moment, but when I’ve been well. And been consequently well. Process-wise, it just comes when it comes. I just consider myself an artist because of how I view the world, not necessarily because I have a process behind me that allows me to best communicate my art.
Sounds like intuition and serendipity are important points for all of your work.
Lay: I think it’s also the collective medium we are all working in. With lyrical poetry, it isn’t so much something that we all decided we were going to do. It’s just something that’s naturally been coming out with all of us.
Tell me about your collective practice in lyrical poetry, and the collective?
wāni: Well this is the collective [laughing]. I just got folk around me that I thought were dope. For an event at first, and then I was like, “This could be so much bigger than one thing.”
We actually have an opportunity—with the kind of abilities we got—to redefine ourselves artistically. The kind of directions we’ve been boxed in, and the directions we actually want to break through or break from, without having to feel stuck to it. You kind of imagine one thing and then you meet people who expand your understanding of that thing. I feel like, from my perspective, that’s kind of how this collective has morphed.
Kyah: I think wāni definitely played a hand in bringing us all together. It’s no coincidence that we find ourselves in this collective just based on the interactions I’ve had with these guys individually. wāni is one of my closest friends. And Lay was on stage with me for my first time performing. He was ad-libbing, and playing guitar, and singing.
Lay: Our mate Soreti had a performance and in between Soreti’s poems I’d just pull out a cover out of my arse. Then we opened it up to the audience and brought Kyah on.
Kyah: For real threw me on. I was not ready.
Lay: She took the microphone and took the show!
Kyah: So it’s crazy we ended up on stage together the first time I ever performed, and made my artistry so public. Then Tenda was another performer at one of the shows wāni produced and we just vibed.
Tenda: That’s right. [laughing]
Lay: And that was all the first Sapologie, so we are gearing up for the second one in November but all of us—yeah, pretty much—came together for the first. It’s like my favourite thing to do every year. wāni has been running and curating [Sapologie] for a little while.
It’s just so relaxing to come into the space just ’cause of how the intentions are set. I know that my family can come through and that they are welcome, that my friends can come through and that they’d be understood. To just be in a room with all these artists who are focused on challenging each other to go deeper, to be more thoughtful with their content. Even the people in the production crew there just have this understanding that you’re all there to work together to put on something great.
wāni, can you tell us about Sapologie?
wāni: My vision for Sapologie was to re-centre black and brown bodies in their own narratives. That is super important to me. And not in a way that felt plastic, because sometimes you hear something centres around us, but then the production is not reflective of that.
Little things matter to me: all the lighting, the stage management, people knowing how to treat elders, how to treat bodies that aren’t similar to theirs. You can’t be about the movement on lip service. All of it has to fit in. On top of that, I honestly really think we’re incredible if unleashed, and I was like—how can I create a space that can hold all of that, so all [the performers] have to do is just do their art?
There is this lie that there’s not enough black and brown art because people don’t want to actually see it. But, I’m like: we sold out the first time. People do want to see it, and half the time the people that come through will be white and they want to see it too. I thought it was going to be a one-time thing. Then it went really good. And now we doing it a third time and I’m hoping it’s an annual thing that will continually grow.
It sounds like a real ‘For Us By Us’ production. We see so much in the arts—black and brown folk may be the artists, but are being commissioned by white people. And so the communities themselves don’t produce the works. That completely changes how those artists interact with these spaces, right?
Tenda: I think performing in a space that is unwelcoming to your ideas is probably where we start to see a need for us to have spaces like Sapologie. It’s very difficult for you to express yourself in front of a room that doesn’t understand, is not willing to understand, and is not welcoming. I think that also creates the perception that there isn’t talent in our communities when it’s there.
Lay: I feel that sort of environment isn’t hard to create, either. It’s literally just about the culture, the intention, all of the thought that goes into how it’s going to be put on in the first place. The warmth that happens in the spaces that we practise in is infectious and you don’t need to have like a rulebook or a set of understanding before you’re going in.
Kyah: You can always feel that intention—whether you were brought there to be a zoo animal or not. It genuinely feels like that sometimes. When you are a ‘diversity quota’. You can feel it.
Lay: You see it on the set list. [Laughs]
wāni: The best part during the last Sapologie was just before I performed, watching every artist in the room in the back. This was like a dream for me—being able to have that, because where else are we going to meet? It’s cool because I don’t know what magic is going to be created after that. I think there is a completely different thing that comes out of us when we perform the same thing to our own communities. Because you don’t have to explain. I think something else comes out and people kind of feel that. It’s important.
Also not being pigeonholed. There are ways of creating a space to feel good without necessarily having to be like, “I need this quota of men, women, non-conforming folk”, you know? There is a genuine way of just being like, “This is what we are about,” and then the right people come through. That shit just naturally happens when the intent is pure, you know? I feel like this space is the world I’d like to live in, but I can only create it for one night.
It’s so not like that out in the world—you’re working from the heart space, where so much of the industry is about hierarchies, quotas, glass ceilings. Despite this, what inspires you?
wāni: I have a deep love for our people. Just seeing us happy and good. I live for that shit. First time I ever did a poetry piece, there was this 12-year-old that came up to me and was like, “I actually don’t have much to tell you but I just wanted to say, you said stuff I’ve always wanted to say and never knew how.” Until this day—and it was like three years ago—I feel like I’m done. That’s it. Just that one little girl made it enough. That representation is so crucial.
Lay: I was always surrounded by metaphor. My mum’s a writer as well, she’s a journalist and so she always had a particular way with words. My great-grandpa was a classically trained Tongan poet so when he was alive he was one of six people who could speak the Tongan poetic language.
There’s a specific language for poets that only a handful of people at a time can speak, and they are the ones who create your songs, your metaphors for your life, your people, the understanding that you’re a continuation of a particular village, storyline, bloodline. My understanding of what a writer had to do was exactly that. Just break down the metaphor, make sure that they are exact and right and specific to a situation, to a feeling, to a person.
The work with the movements that I’m in—anything that I’ve participated in—what I’m inspired by, what I write about, is intimacy. Like, the platonic intimacy that we would share in a conversation or in a common experience. Anything that does that specific moment any justice whether it’s—I don’t know. I try to find whatever I can.
Tenda: I think I’ve always just loved playing with words ever since I was young. I think people hav[e] these ideas about me and what I want to do. And the fact that I wanted to be a rapper, and a spoken word poet, and people telling me I couldn’t. I think most of what I do, what inspires me, is me trying to overcome all of that. I mean you see it everywhere as well, just being a black person. It’s the whole world telling you, “You can’t”. Just by the virtue of the fact that someone thinks I can’t do it, I say, fuck it. I can do this shit.
Kyah: I’m definitely inspired by words. I particularly find the ability to be able to paint really vivid images with your words quite a phenomenal trait. I definitely consider myself sapiosexual. [Laughs] I think the majority of the stuff I write is largely inspired by my introspective nature. It’s in my nature to go quite deep into things, so when I do, I guess—the imagery, my ability to communicate—using words is largely what inspires me to write them down and, I guess, share that with other people.
Despite the chaos in the world, is there something that you can’t help but believe in?
Kyah: I’m going to sound so cheesy.
Do the cheesy thing, it’s good.
Kyah: I don’t want to go first because of how cheesy it is. [Laughs]
Tenda: I don’t want to steal your answers because my answer’s cheesy too, so you go first. [Laughs]
Kyah: To be honest—and this is going to sound so dorky—but love.
Tenda: That was mine. [Laughs]
It’s the truth, though!
wāni: I think for me it’s like survival. I feel so strongly about coming from a people that have always survived and refuse to be broken. Carrying such powerful DNA. That’s my vibe.
Lay: I kind of believe in community. Just the whole collective movement, the feeling that nothing is getting stagnant, is so relieving. I do love love, too, hey. [Laughs]
Thank you so much for this conversation. I appreciate you all.
- by: Saaro Umar
- Photography by: John-Paul Aziz