There is Gold in Feedback: Poet Slim Shaka on Growing as A Spoken Word Artist

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Article by: Brian Khavalaji

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The path that led Slim Shaka to the world of spoken word poetry was marked with twists and turns that he did not expect. But when he got there, he felt that his purpose was aligning. As he establishes himself in this field, we learn more about how this journey has impacted his work.

Slim Shaka (provided)

On October 28, 2018, I sent Slim Shaka a text via Facebook message. This was shortly after witnessing his starling performance at Riara University during the Kistrech International Poetry Festival.

A line from his spoken word piece, “there is no need to go to hell, the devil is right here,” struck me as a genius lyric and stuck with me to date. Many people performed, but it was Slim Shaka’s deep, composed voice laced with beautifully crafted lines enriched with deep messages, that wowed me.

When I reached out to him, I told him I was fascinated by his craftsmanship and that I would edit and share his performance (we covered the event as a class assignment). That never happened. I lost the footage. In the following years, I followed Slim Shaka keenly, attending his events where I could, cheering him on. It is worth saying I have seen him grow from a poetry toddler to the legend that he is today. 

But where did it all start? 

For Slim Shaka, poetry was never his thing. He would recite poems written by teachers. Nothing much to it. Every kid could do it if they wanted to. Then came high school with its proverbial overdone facial expressions and body language. It was ridiculous. Slim Shaka, being a calm and collected individual, the whole shebang of dramatising performances like a wild-possessed madman did not work for him. 

“I didn't like the structure. You were given a template, and so you did not have the freedom to bring something new,” he shared. 

Then he joined public speaking. Here, he felt he had the freedom to speak his mind without a structure. He would add some poetic devices to his dish of perfect public speeches and with no time, he started making a name for himself. His teacher introduced him to Dann Mwangi (Number 8) who was a king of spoken word during his reigning days when spoken word was still maturing. Within no time, Slim Shaka was doing spoken word, thanks to his teacher.

When life was getting finer, he was already competing in inter-school competitions and doing well. He won an award. Of this, he says: “Everyone felt I was deserving.” From this point on, while all he ever wanted was for people to listen to him, he started hearing the calling. 

“I felt there was more I could address. My purpose had started aligning,” he shared. 

While Slim Shaka’s genesis started in primary school, his craft grew even bigger when he was pursuing Hotel management at Technical University Kenya (TUK). Around this time, spoken word masters like Mufasa, Dorphan Mutuma and Teardrops were celebrities in spoken word circles. They were his gods. Mentors. People he looked up to. They were people he could only see on social media and not meet in person. That was a sure trigger to work harder. 

Slim Shaka performing on stage (provided)

In that spirit, he started attending open mics and street poetry events that were popular in those days. Back then, Slim Shaka says, TUK Open Mic was so huge, it used to attract students from most universities around Nairobi such as the University of Nairobi(UoN), Kenyatta University(KU) and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

As his star continued to shine brighter, Slim Shaka continued to write for stage performances. I reminded him of the feedback I gave him years ago, and he excitedly told me that I was the only person who reached out and told him he was great on stage. As he reflected on the feedback, I couldn't help but notice that this was something important to him. I could tell he meant it when he said, “Feedback is part of the growth process.” 

On the same, he shares his feedback with artists, friends, family and anyone he interacts with. In the days he has done this, he has learned that feedback, even when it is done years later, “retraces those memories” and reminds us where we were before.

About his style, he briefly said: “I do not define my art. I let the environment around me communicate to me and this translates to those who consume my art.” 

Slim Shaka believes poetry has become a supreme duty to him and so every day, he proposes to become the next big social justice activist, or as they are called in the art world, artivist.

Over the years, Slim Shaka has been performing in many shows but the highlight was his participation in the 65th edition of the Poetry Slam Africa in which he became the reigning champion. He won by a very small margin.

“My pieces were not better than theirs, they were the most appealing to the audience and the judges.” 

He also believes that the winner, aside from him, was he who learned from the diverse pool of poets who came from different parts of Africa, but mostly across the country. The Grand Slam was one of its own as it depicted the face of the country and the continent. 

The poet Slim Shaka during a performance (provided)

As the reigning 65th Poetry Slam Africa champion, Slim Shaka received numerous opportunities to network, collaborate and perform his pieces. For example, at the Macondo Literary Festival, he shared conversation, stage and food with great minds in the literary scene like Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurna (Tanzanian-British Novelist), Caine Prize winner Yvonne Odhiambo Owuor (Kenyan) among many great writers from different parts of the continent. He also met Roberta Estrella D’alva, a Brazilian spoken word artist, researcher, activist, director and slammer. They had the most interesting conversations backstage. Then he started feeling the weight when “she considered me her equal.”  This sense of responsibility triggered something new, a wave of emotions that became the reason why he started organising shows. 

In his opinion, the recent developments in the poetry scene will continue to grow and reach beyond spaces in Nairobi. He talked about poetry showcases, poetry concepts and poetry concerts as the defining trends in the poetry world. He gives special shoutouts to people who have been doing this like Mufasa, Willy Oeba, Dorphan Mutuma and Teardrops. Elsewhere Qui Qarre, Mumbi (The Kenyan Shilling) and Eudiah Kamonjo have also been defining forces in these trends. 

As he delves into poetry full-time, Slim Shaka is worried that this new chapter will not be easy. However, he is ready to receive the punches and the kicks. His future plans include competing in international poetry competitions, this year. I have no doubt this calm, collected, intense, creative and deep-voiced poet will conquer the world one poem at a time.