Nigeria’s female slam poets find their voice

Young Nigerian women are embracing poetry as a way to voice their grievances with the state of their country.

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At the War Of Words slam poetry competition in Lagos, Oyinkansola riffs about corruption and the unequal distribution of the 'national cake' [Caelainn Hogan/Al Jazeera]

Lagos, Nigeria – Six feet tall in red high heels, 13-year-old slam poet Oyinkansola towers over many of her fellow contestants at the Ayo Bankole Centre, a humid performance space in a residential area of Lagos.

In a green trouser suit she made herself, printed with vivid white spirals, she stands upright. When it’s time to take to the stage, she flings the shoes aside, preferring to perform barefooted.

“The national cake, not for a few to have too much and many nothing at all to have,” she riffs about corruption and inequality in her country, lifting one hand high and letting the other fall low. “The national cake should not be shared in an inappropriate ratio of 99.9 to 0.1.”

Oyinkansola Adesewa Oyeyiola-Ourias, who goes simply by Oyinkansola when she performs, has been writing poetry since she was five. She is part of the vibrant Lagos slam poetry scene – spoken word poetry performed in competition against another artist. Slam and spoken word poetry is becoming an important platform for young Nigerian women to speak their mind.

Since they began in 2013, young women have dominated the War of Words competitions, set up by Lagos-based spoken word organisation Word Up and i2X Media. Titi Mabogunje, a young female poet who says performing spoken word made her “bolder”, won the first War of Words competition and now runs poetry workshops for teenagers in Lagos.

Last year, a 14-year-old girl called Ibukun Ajagbe was crowned winner of the slam, to a standing ovation from the crowd.

“Poetry is a form to voice all and speak the mind,” says Oyinkansola, who is encouraged by the number of women involved in the spoken word scene. “We use poetry to transform lives, to pass messages.”

‘Our country is not meant to be like this’

Nigerian poets Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark inspire Oyinkansola [Caelainn Hogan/Al Jazeera]    
Nigerian poets Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark inspire Oyinkansola [Caelainn Hogan/Al Jazeera]    

The ambitious young artist lives in a house with a gated driveway in a far-flung neighbourhood of Lagos, near a petrol station where the pumps often dry up due to fuel shortages. In the living room, she shows off her work: paintings she has made and her first book of poems, published when she was eight. She lays out colourful, patterned fabric that she recently wax dyed, some of which is with a local tailor who is making an outfit to her design.

Nigerian poets Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark inspire her. The internet gives her a place to link with other poets and research ideas. On her phone, with its constant ping of new updates, she records videos of her performing poems, necessary to enter competitions. Through Facebook and Whatsapp, she keeps in contact with her mentors and a growing community of young artists.

“I create time,” she says when asked how she manages to pursue all her different interests.

She lists her goals: to be a fashion designer, to have her own TV programme, to find success as a poet.

In the run-up to Nigeria’s last election, which mobilised young people across the country, she had half a mind to go into politics herself.

“I was told to wait until I’m older,” she says.

“Our country is not meant to be like this, it’s meant to be more developed. So I don’t think they are ruling us well. We need to go to the internet to get education, study ourselves.”

Once she turns 18 she plans to seriously take up politics and possibly run as a candidate in local elections.

“I’m not in power yet,” she says. “But actually, we are in power, it started from us. We don’t expect a miracle to just come down and happen, we have to do something about it. But I hope that this new president and government can do something better, most especially for the young people.”

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‘Their dreams have been killed’

International headlines about Nigeria often narrow in on stories of victimhood or struggle, particularly when it comes to the experiences of women and girls – from the kidnapped students of Chibok to survivors of female genital mutilation and human trafficking.


The kidnapping of girls in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram deeply affected Oyinkansola, far away in metropolitan Lagos. She shows a painting she did, a surreal interpretation of the Sambisa forest, a Boko Haram hideout she heard about on the news, with three figures in hooded cloaks.

“I just put myself in their position,” she said. “I feel like they’re my sisters, my blood. I’m sure they have the same creativity, but their dreams have been killed.” 

Violence against women, female education and sexism are all issues female poets, and their male counterparts, have addressed in their performances. But young women at the slams speak on everything, from the strength of family to the stress of boyfriends, from political corruption to social media trends. 

Oyinkansola takes issue with the way women are often portrayed on TV, but says she is inspired by the women she sees in daily life, the office-going women in their crisp shirts, the market women with their strong arms and steely bargaining. “Women in general,” she says. “They have visions, they have a mission.” 

Read more: The midwife who fled Boko Haram

On her way to secondary school at the Yaba College of Technology, which lends its name to the burgeoning “Yabacon valley” tech scene in Lagos, she sees girls on the street, many even younger than her, who will spend their day selling biscuits or soda. Some of the public schools she has walked past have roofs ready to collapse and she hears that some don’t even have textbooks. At her own school, she is the only girl in the art class. The boys try to make her feel embarrassed about it, but it’s a subject she loves.

‘I see poetry as something informative’ 

Her mother, Lola Olayinka, a softly-spoken single parent, makes her money from buying and selling watches, bags and sandals. Oyinkansola’s father has been absent for years. When he was around, she says he was abusive, sometimes beating up her mother and even her grandmother. When she was a young child, she says he once suggested that she to go to the street and hawk.

“Since I was little, my dad hasn’t always been there for us, he doesn’t support us, ” she says. “My mother sends me to school with the work she does.”

She supports Oyinkansola’s artistic pursuits whole-heartedly, having been creative herself as a girl. She still writes nursery rhymes or poems now and then. “But she hides them!” Oyinkansola laughs.

“I was a science student, I didn’t have the type of encouragement I have given her from my own parents,” says Lola. “I got discouraged and I stopped.”

When Oyinkansola started returning from school with notebooks full of stories she had written and illustrations to accompany them, Lola admits that she was initially worried that her daughter wasn’t paying attention in class.

“But I thought, I shouldn’t make the same mistake our own parents made,” she says. “I see poetry as something informative, educative, not just entertaining.”

Wome Uyeye, a multitalented 'media-preneur' and poet, has been one of Oyinkansola's mentors and sees spoken word as an important platform for women [Caelainn Hogan/Al Jazeera] 
Wome Uyeye, a multitalented ‘media-preneur’ and poet, has been one of Oyinkansola’s mentors and sees spoken word as an important platform for women [Caelainn Hogan/Al Jazeera] 

The habit of taking her shoes off before she performs is one Oyinkansola learned from another female performer, Wome Uyeye, a dynamic artist and media professional who has become a sort of mentor. The two met through a friend of Oyinkansola’s mother. From the start, Uyeye said the little girl would watch her with great interest when she spoke at events.

One day, a plucky 10-year-old Oyinkansola suddenly put her hands through Uyeye’s hair, declaring: “There’s so much more I can do with this!” She twisted the braids into a new style and Uyeye was impressed by her confidence. “That’s what broke the ice,” she remembers. “And I thought I used to be called too loud for my age!”

Uyeye gave the young poet advice on performance style and delivery and told her about other artists she might like to listen to. “You tell her once and she’s there Googling it, she doesn’t have time to wait for you to take her there, she takes herself there,” she says. “I told her, you can do whatever you want to do.”

‘When life isn’t a song, I still sing along’

Last month, on the day of the leap year when headlines buzzed about women having their only valid opportunity to propose to a man, I caught up with Uyeye over the phone. She was exhausted after Lagos social media week, a marathon of non-stop performances, press events and celebration to promote the city she calls home. Her booming laugh was hoarse and crackling across the dodgy phone line.

“It’s been beyond crazy,” she says breathlessly. “I wonder is old age creeping up on me because I’ve never felt this tired! But no wahala [no worries].”

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It’s less than a month until her 40th birthday, but she still hustles with the energy of a young upstart. With a range of experience, including documentary photographer, broadcast journalist and radio MC, she has distilled her skill set into a single word, “media-preneur“. But one of her most longstanding passions is poetry, which she has been writing since she was eight.

It took her a long time to get the confidence to share her work, let alone speak it out loud. She knew first hand what is was like to be shy or to be “shut down” for being too outspoken. But she has lived for over a decade in Ajegunle, a bustling sprawl of streets near the port that a Lagos Uber driver almost refused to enter. She knew she had to make it her own way.

Among her community, it was still not acceptable for a woman to be “so in your face and so vocal”. These days it’s more common, she says, helped by technology. People are more open to change. “It wasn’t like that when I was growing up,” she says. “They felt when you’re very vocal, men would find you offensive, not obedient, not a good wife. They wouldn’t want a woman who wears the trousers.”

Eventually she got “tired of being the only one seeing the stuff I was writing down”. One of her first performances in front of a real crowd was in 2013 at the Lagos Book and Arts Festival held at Freedom Park, a hallowed landmark on the Lagos entertainment and arts scene. Once a prison under British colonial rule, its grounds now boast a gallery, museum, internet booths, and a bustling, open-air venue for live music and performances.

With her lyrics timed to a talking drum a fellow artist was playing, she set her modern spoken word verses to the beats of the traditional Yoruba instrument.

“Last time I checked, I was the manicured thumb that strums over his box guitar. The Yoruba woman who birthed a baby boy in broad daylight right in the centre of Boundary market,” she wooed the crowd over the soft beats. “Last time I checked the bra still fit, same as the thong, when life isn’t a song, I still sing along.”

A female contestant waits as the stage is set up for the 2015 War Of Words poetry slam in Lagos [Caelainn Hogan/Al Jazeera] 
A female contestant waits as the stage is set up for the 2015 War Of Words poetry slam in Lagos [Caelainn Hogan/Al Jazeera] 

‘I’m trying to use my voice to right some wrongs’

As a woman in the creative industry, the one thing that bothers her the most is the pressure to conform to expectations, especially when it comes to marriage and children.

“They say go get married, have a couple of kids. I just try to laugh it off, but it’s really painful sometimes,” she says. “I’m trying to use my voice to right some wrongs and people are just asking why I am single.”

In Ajegunle, young children from her neighbourhood congregate in her living room, where she teaches them songs and encourages them to write poetry or stories. She sees young girls in the area fall into prostitution or become drug peddlers to make money, many becoming pregnant in their teens. Sometimes, engaging them with songs or poetry can give them something positive to focus on and around which to build their confidence.

“Early in life, I try to ingrain a lot of art in them, a lot of love,” she says. “This part of the city, it’s every man for themselves. You do things to get quick money or a quick fix, there’s no time for frivolity like poetry or whatever. But gradually, the parents see this can sometimes keep the kids out of trouble.”

Uyeye admits that despite the number of groundbreaking female performers and professionals, the media and arts scene in Lagos can still feel male dominated. “When [a woman] comes on stage, when she takes the mic, when she handles the camera, they’re ready to underestimate her,” she explains. 

When she won her first photography award she remembers walking up to the stage at the ceremony to receive it, dressed in a gown made out of the traditional Ankara print. The white, male presenter, clearly caught off guard by her name, had audibly stuttered: “Oh, you’re a woman!”

Children from Lagos watch spoken word poets perform at the 2015 War Of Words slam competition [Caelainn Hogan/Al Jazeera] 
Children from Lagos watch spoken word poets perform at the 2015 War Of Words slam competition [Caelainn Hogan/Al Jazeera] 

‘I do not know how to pretend’ 

The popular Nigerian spoken word artist Donna Ogunnaike, known by the stage name Donna K, has also addressed social expectations of women during a Word Up event. One time while performing at her church, she told the crowd that an elderly man had come up to her and said “at the rate at which you are going, you will not marry”.

“I wear my spinsterhood like a well-cut jacket, paste on it designer labels, Gucci still single,” she says in her poem. “I wear the lonely reality of the independent and strong black woman. I do not know how to pretend or scheme, so I sew on the pretence of a warrior and fix on my head a Brazilian weave. What do you wear?” she asks.

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In the video of her performance, the camera zooms in on a young woman in the crowd who looks like she is holding her breath for the next words. “I wear a foreign accent and own a foreign-certified degree, still at night I go to bed tonight without electricity.”

Ogunnaike believes that the position of women in society is changing and Nigeria is “finding out it needs to redefine ‘female'”. She thinks that the “rediscovery” of performance poetry in recent years is timely, particularly with the advent of social media providing an amplifying affect, allowing a poet’s voice to be “echoed around a much wider space”.

“This significantly improves the chances of women being heard,” she tells me over Facebook chat. “It means one cannot, to borrow the parlance of online speak, ‘unhear’ any performance piece which speaks of women, our issues, our journeys, our pain and even our desires.”

A 38-year-old oil and gas lawyer, now a partner at a top law firm, for a long time Ogunnaike had felt unable to invest time in her art.

“I kept trying to balance what I felt society required of me with my passions,” she explains. With the encouragement of colleagues, family, and her now husband, she persevered and found a way to do both. She sees other young women, like Oyinkansola, finding a platform and empowerment through the medium and also a community of motivated, supportive people. “I think the importance of the voice of the female performance poet in these times cannot be emphasised enough,” she says.

As the judges at the War Of Words slam in Lagos told Oyinkansola, who bowed out in the semi-finals but is already preparing poems for the next competition, young women like her are the future.

Source: Al Jazeera