Ndukwe… In Whom Spoken Word Finds Rhythm
Aside from some radio stations, especially in Lagos, who have deliberately created spaces for alternative sounds, the truth is that the audience is becoming more sophisticated when it comes to music appreciation. Today, even performance poetry is flourishing in Nigeria, with the likes of Titilope Sonuga, Dike Chukwumerije, Iyeoka Ivie Okoawo, Akeem Lasisi, Efe Azino, Iquo Diana Abasi Eke and others filling clubs and art centers with spoken words.
Spoken word is a performance art that is word-based. It is an oral art that focuses on the aesthetics of wordplay such as intonation and voice inflection. It is a “catchall” term that includes any kind of poetry recited aloud, including poetry readings, poetry slams, jazz poetry, and hip hop, and can include comedy routines and prose monologues. Though the spoken word can include any kind of poetry read aloud, it is different from written poetry in that how it sounds is often one of the main components.
Unlike written poetry, spoken word has less to do with physical on the page aesthetics and more to do with phonaesthetics, or the aesthetics of sound. However, with his latest album, Nwa Chukwu (Child of God), it seems spoken word has found rhythm in Ndukwe Onuoha.
Born and raised in Aba, Abia State, Nigeria, Onuoha studied History and International Relations at the Abia State University but has worked in advertising ever since. He fuses a unique conversational delivery with traditional instrumentation to deliver poetry that is accessible, relatable and at once punchy. An incurable advertising man, Ndukwe is an award-winning copywriter and Creative Director of 7even Interactive, a fast-rising advertising agency in Lagos, Nigeria.
On Tuesday, Onuoha hosted a select group of journalists and music enthusiasts to a special album listening session where he sampled poems from his new work. For the poet, it was an opportunity to share his experiences, as well as give insights into the work that is already available on music streaming platforms.
The seven-track album has poems such as Genesis (ft. Maka), This Poem, Say My Name, Dance With Me (ft. Praiz), Home, Memories Refix (Ft. Maka) and I Am (ft. rapper Illbliss).
“Growing up, I was surrounded by books, but part of the books that caught my attention in the house were some collections of poetry; I just love the play of words. So, for me, I kept reading over and over again. I read a lot of William Wordsworth; it was later that I started enjoying Shakespeare. Naturally, I just wanted to try my hands at writing some of this stuff I had been reading for a long time,” Onuoha said in a chat with Guardian Music.
On the choice of three artistes he featured on the album, he said, “Again, it’s just friendly; I’ve known them for a long while. Sometimes, you listen to a track and you feel, ‘maybe this guy should be able to do this.’ So, it’s just sharing stuff with friends and saying, ‘I think you can do well one this,’ and they were gracious enough to say ‘yes,” he said.
Recalling his early days in Lagos as a young graduate, the poet narrated how poetry got him a job in the advertising industry where he works today.
“When I came to Lagos to pursue a career in advertising as a copywriter, interestingly, I think it was my poetry that got me a foot in the door because part of the test was just to write something; I wrote a poem. As a copywriter, it goes hand in hand with poetry as well; it helped me. I went to Anthill in 2008 where I met Toni Kan for the first time; I think Steve Babaeko was there as well. That encouraged me to share some of my poetry and then moving on to other places like Taruwa… just being around these community of poets helped me to horn my skills and to finally take a leap into producing a body of work.”
Onuoha’s first poetry album, Revolutionary Verses, was released in 2017. This was followed by his latest work, Nwa Chukwu, which has been receiving commendations from both music and poetry enthusiasts. But beyond the usual rhymes that come with spoken word, Onuoha laces his poems with soothing rhythms.
I’ve never been a slam poet; I’ve always just liked to create something that is a bit accessible. So, for me, I see that music helps to open the door for those, who may not be into mainstream poetry. It helps them to appreciate it before they even start listening to the words. I found that early enough that if I’m going to make people listen, I need a device that will get them to listen; music came naturally,” he noted.
At a time when most young people are feeling cool with pop culture, this poet, though widely traveled and well exposed, is having an unending romance with his rich cultural heritage.
“I’m an Abiriba person, which means that by default, every Christmas, I’m in Abiriba. It’s in our DNA to always migrate back home, that way you never forget where you come from. I think again, being Abiriba makes it difficult to run away from your culture; Abiriba is a society built on the back of culture. At every stage in one’s life, there’s a cultural activity. So, for me, it was almost like a no brainer; I can’t do hip-hop better than the guys whom it’s their culture,” he said.
On why he’s not comfortable with slam poetry, the Abia State native explained, “I have no problem with slam poets, but I’m just saying it’s not my style; I don’t find it the easiest thing. I have a lot of respect for them; I don’t know how they do it. I’m more of a performance poet, it works better for me; I’m more comfortable doing that. However, this is not me trying to create a new genre; it’s just poetry related music. I just try to very casual with my performance.”
As a poet, Onuoha doesn’t see himself as a rapper.
“I tried my hands at rap a long time ago but I don’t think that’s my thing; I’m too self-conscious for rap music. When I say self-conscious, I mean to some degree, I can be a bit shy. I think it takes putting one’s self out there a lot to do rap; I don’t think I have the makeup for that,” he confessed.
As much as poetry is gaining popularity in Nigeria, it’s commercial viability is still far-fetched. Notwithstanding, Onuoha is not deterred; rather, he has developed a winning strategy.
“The problem a lot of people have is when they try to make everything for everyone. If you were going, to be honest with yourself, not everyone would appreciate poetry; not everyone would appreciate commercial music. So, it’s just you staying through to your art; don’t have the expectation that all Nigerians would wake up one morning and start rhyming along with you. Just know that there are those, who will appreciate your work more than others.”
Asked if performance poetry is being appreciated in Nigeria, he said, “I think it is; there’s that niche audience that is doing it. Like I mentioned before, I was part of the spoken word theatre production that performed in Lagos and Berlin; Goethe Institut sponsored it. You see some brands now using spoken word as part of their advertising campaigns; I’ve done stuff for a few brands. You need to just give it time; it’s a gradual process.”
He continued: “You remember there was a time Nigerian music as a whole wasn’t even appreciated in Nigeria; you go to clubs and they were playing foreign music. Now, if you hear something foreign, maybe there’s a Nigerian in it or it must be that good. So, I think it’s just a matter of time; there are lots of people who have paved the way and still paving the way. I believe in the future, it will be a definite career part of people and not those, who dabble.”
On how he combines his poetry with his Creative Director job, Onuoha said, “As a Creative Director, you do more of overseeing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take my work serious. However, it takes a lot of planning. For instance, in 2017 when I had a show in Berlin, Germany, I had to put my vacation around the same time. If I had to do something, I ensure I put in proper paperwork because I’m still being employed to do something; I don’t want one thing to suffer for the other.”
Asked to choose between advertising and spoken word, he said, “It’s like asking which of your kids do you prefer? I absolutely love advertising, but I also love spoken word and where it’s taking me. So, I’m just going to leave that question hanging until if I need to make a hard decision. Right now, I’m in the place where I have to juggle both of them.”