Poet redefining art as she goes places with the power of spoken word

Artist Njeri Wangari. [Courtesy]

In the artistic world, the strive to stand out is inevitable. Hence, artists use unique styles to stream out their ideologies, making their presence felt through great works.

It happens that artistic forces of nature are brutal to those who toe the conventional ways of expression. They are cast into near-obscurity. Undeniably, there are millions of ‘other’ imaginative works that have collected dust in the bookshop shelves and attracted throw-away prices in the streets as the creative pieces of defiant authors who charted their own paths entice large audience.

From Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina, the writer who recently joined the hereafter, to the pioneer writers led by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, unmatched styles of expression have pushed them higher than the crowd of artists.

Such thoughts inspired Kenya’s multi-talented 38-year-old artist Njeri Wangari to trod “the road not taken” as poet Robert Frost would put. She settled on spoken poetry where she performs before an audience in a rap-like, storytelling fashion synonymous with the genre. There is lots of rhyming words used, word play and repetition in the style.

Her decision is now taking her to places where her powerful words are cherished. Last month, she was in the US where she met with over 600 learners aged 10-12 years from two middle schools in Minnesota -- Stillwater and Oak-land middles schools -- where she taught on the power of poetry and spoken words.

“Being able to bring a living poet who, despite having come from Africa, was speaking on issues relatable to our everyday reality was a great opportunity which I felt would have a great and lasting impact on the students. Her being there in person, to speak about their work and hear the student’s interpretation of her work would be a rare privilege and experience for them,” said Dr Hainlen in an interview with the local media in US. 

The poem Guns versus Words was key in her teaching as learners used it to conceptualise the effects of growing industrialisation and the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Wangari traces her rise to a series of inspirations and support. She is among the great performers catapulted into stardom after the introduction of events organised by Kwani?, the publication introduced by the late Binyavanga.

“In 2005, I started my blog kenyanpoet.com to share my poetry with a wider audience. I’d had a few poems I’d written but remained closeted, but I’d not performed at a Kwani? Open mic event at its then hallowed venue, Club Sound,” she said.

It was at the time that she had her first experience with poetry performance. This is despite the fact that she started writing poems way back in 2004 and as she puts it, “as an outlet for my thoughts and as a medium through which I was better able to understand the world around me.”

Undeniably, Wangari is at her best during a performance. Among the performances which feature on YouTube, her energetic voice coupled with powerful words in her poetry delights her audience. “Poetry unlike other forms of creative writing thrives in its brevity. It’s about choosing the best or right words and putting them in the best order to express deep thoughts or feelings,” she said.

“I love how personal yet expressive it can be. For someone with the attention span of a goldfish, this has been the most therapeutic outlet for me,” she says.

Wangari’s poems published in her anthology Mines & Mind Fields; My Spoken Words are themed on corruption, tribalism, poverty, effects of technological advancements, rural-urban migration and the neo-colonial reality in Kenya.

In 2010, she made a remarkable step in her poetry journey when she started performing in regional events, beside publishing her first anthology.

“I was the first performer and only poet at Nairobi’s inaugural TedX event at Louis Leakey Auditorium in 2010. The same year, I had been invited to Dar-es-Salaam University for a Pan-African Conference where I shared a platform with Kwame Nkrumah’s daughter – Samia Nkrumah in April 2010,” she joyfully states.

In May 2010, she performed to an audience of over 1,500 bloggers on digital rights activities who had gathered for the annual Global Voices Summit in Santiago, Chile.

She also performed during the Global Voices Summit in Nairobi in 2012 and in 2017, she was in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where she performed alongside a Japanese flute player to a packed hall.

Other notable performances in Kenya include at Paa ya Paa- Kenya’s oldest Art gallery, at the inaugural Kwani? LitFest, Hay Festival and at several Story Moja Festivals.

As she works on her second collection of poems, Wangari, an Information Technology expert promises a shift to matters beyond norm in her thematic presentations.

“Some of the notable poems I’ve performed that will be in the second collection are; Words and Guns which was the genesis of my US poetry teaching project. Another is an Ode to the late Prince, an artist famed for his hit The Ankh of the Prince,” she hinted.