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The journey of poet teardrops

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Jacqueline Mahugu | April 4th 2021
Poet and Spoken word artist, poet Teardrops. [File, Standard]

Teardrops is a complex character. His mind is like a maze. At times, conversations with him feel like the longest poem you have ever listened to.

“My name is Teardrops and I’m flawless (laughs). How I came up with my name?” he asks then pauses to think.

“It was in a class assignment and we had been asked to come up with names of something. It just flowed.

“Teardrops mean that there are still waters that run deep. You don’t know why they flow. The surface of this is flowing so slowly but the deeper meaning behind it, it has a lot of waves, it has a lot of currents. The only person who can express that is you. So if there are tears on your face, no one knows if they are tears of joy or tears of sadness until you tell them.”

“Are yours happy tears or sad tears?” I ask him.

“I am the mysterious tears. You’ll never find out.”

“Is it the name you were using at the beginning of your career as a rapper?” I inquire further.

“I used to have another one but I can’t say it here,” he says.

His name is Joshua Awili Ouma. When he was baptised, he chose another name: Mark. So his official name is Mark Joshua Awili Ouma. He tells me he is in the process of changing it to (or including) Teardrops in his national identity card.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is a popular reference to William Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’, in which Juliet seems to argue that it does not matter that Romeo is from her family’s rival house of Montague, that is, that he is named Montague.

The same could be said of Teardrops. Whichever name he goes by, he has always been the same person on the inside, consistent about what he wants. He wanted to be in the arts, so if he had not become a poet, he says he would have done something related.

When he started out, he was a rapper. “I just fell into poetry. I never wanted to be a poet when I was starting.

“I used to rap with some group back in Nakuru. I wasn’t good with beats. At some point I would ask them to slow down the beat when it got to my part so that I could speak (instead of rap) because the beat was hectic for me,” he says.

That was 11 years ago. The group was made up of friends from the same estate who believed they had a gift and were expressing it. At that time, life was not as straightforward for him as it is now.

“My life has been funny because I didn’t go through the 8-4-4 system. It was through my system. The Teardrops system. The drop-out-of-school system and start-your-own-life system,” he says.

LOSING BOTH PARENTS WHEN YOUNG

His father died when he was young before he joined nursery school. His mother died after he sat his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exam. He comes from a family of nine siblings, and is the second last born, alongside his fraternal twin. They went to live with their grandmother after that.

“Instead of going to high school, my grandmother enrolled me for a course to do with electrical engineering. I didn’t know anything about the course, so the first year was tough as I tried to understand what it was all about.

“I had to approach it from a level of someone who had gone through high school. I was just from primary school. Your mind is still so virgin, you don’t know anything and you have a lot to learn, then you find yourself in this class where people are learning Ohm’s Law and all those things, and they have to put currents and live wires and all that - It was hard for me.”

His solace was the dictionary, and he would spend a lot of time reading it. 

“In the process of reading the dictionary I learnt so many new and interesting words, and I used to make poetry in class. That’s how I stayed in school for four years for my course,” he says.

Afterwards, he came to Nairobi and lived with his sister while doing odd construction jobs. He spent some of the money he made on the recording.

“From there, I went for Kwani Open mic sometime in 2009. It was an amazing feeling. The reaction was very good. The music was beautiful,” he says.

“I won the first slam and then from there I’ve been organising slams and performing in huge events within Nairobi and all over.”

He and poetry have had a complicated relationship. While it is his main occupation, he has also sometimes abandoned it altogether.

“Poetry and I have been together for a long. We have had breakups at some point, and it was like, ‘Yoh, we need to go and work through it and see what we can do now and in the future. So it has always been a war between me and her. Sometimes I abandon her and I go do other works and come back when there is money. We are used to it,” he says.

He also dabbles in interior design, so he has fallen back into it every once in a while, combining it with some of what he learnt in electrical engineering to make a different kind of art.

TURNING POINT

He once narrated on Twitter how he had abandoned poetry before a call from media personality Larry Madowo changed everything. In the tweet, he said he had given up on art and was weaving baskets in Huruma with a friend when he got the call for the interview.

At the time, he only had Sh70 for fare and a ‘kabambe’ phone. He showed up for the interview in a hired kitenge suit. He then spent the night in a lorry with a security guard because there was a curfew where he lived following the killing of a police officer.

“I remember you calling me that night, you said, ‘Bro you are now trending, more than the show itself,’” tweeted Madowo.

“The next day I went to a cybercafe. I had gained over 5,000 followers and thousands of tweets, replies & mentions. That’s how my career picked up and I’ve never looked back. That interview made me who I am right now.”

Since then, he has performed for big names such as TD Jakes, had a two-year stint on Churchill Show and is arguably the most sought after poet in Kenya. 

“What was it like being on a platform with comedians while being a poet?” I ask.

“It’s not funny!” he says, laughing, then adds, “With comedians, that was the best family I have ever had. They are family because they accept you as a person. They don’t care about your genre of art. They want to see someone succeed. They are happy for you and they are clapping for you. It is never a competition. Everyone is given equal chance and equal opportunity.”

Social media has been his marketing ground, where he has built a huge following. That is where he posts lines that he comes up with, in English and in Sheng’. “I used to have lines and post them daily. People used to like and retweet them. Nowadays I don’t post for likes. I post because I like it. The tables have turned,” he says.

Where does he get such consistent material?

“My material comes from different places. Most of my material comes from the world. Everyday conversations. Because when you listen to people, so many people are angry. They are angry about the world, they are angry about the constitution - they are angry about a lot of things. You feel like when people are angry they talk about a lot of things. That is where I pick my art from. From their hearts, I get my art,” he says.

Maya Angelou is the only poet he mentions when I ask him about other poets he admires. The other is God. 

“My greatest inspiration is God. He is the greatest poet. This world was created with nothing but pure poetry,” he says.

That is who he says has been his greatest influence, followed by family and then his girlfriend Sophia.

“When I started poetry, I used to tell God, ‘You manage me. You manage my life. I don’t have a manager now.’ And God used to manage me and he used to give me a lot of gigs then. Not that he left me, but he said someone needs that job and there are people who are jobless and he said, ‘My job is to look for people in the world, not to manage a poet! (laughs).”

He hopes that poetry will get a bigger seat at the table.

“When I got into poetry, it wasn’t paying. Poetry was not recognised as an art. It was not recognised at all. Now it is, but we want it to get to the point where the government will sit down and listen.... It hasn’t gotten there, but it’s going there.”

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