Adebola Afolabi, better known as RezthaPoet, is what you would call a spoken word poetry sensation. His art, devoid of bells and whistles, is a metaphor for identity, the idea that matters has significance, one placed on it by history. In 2015, he published an album of spoken word poetry ‘Exposit’ that has been described as a work that embodies a beautiful hybrid of language, folklore and transatlantic artistic developments. In this interview with Solomon Elusoji, Rez, as he is called by friends, discusses the major themes and ideas that have shaped his art
Can you talk about the direction that you think you are pushing towards in the next four to five years?
I take cognisance of the fact that the world is increasingly becoming global than we realise and what comes with that is that languages would get extinct, identities would get lost. I also realise this more with mutual roots, because I felt more need for people there to know that we are one, we are the same but we are different. To think of the field of ethnology, which is really what it is about, how we realise our diversity, but we also find our similarities in that diversity without looking at the diversity. So it is something that I sort of realised.
I went to Amsterdam this year and I was in cab and they were playing ‘Pana’ by Tekno. And these guys started telling me that even though he knows that this song is from Africa, their sound, their version of Afro-beat is very close to that sound and it is that vibe, that groove that connects them to the song. They don’t have any obvious links to us. But I think it is a potpourri of culture; there are a lot of North-Africans there and there is a huge immigrant community there. I guess that is how it has evolved from their own Dutch sound, but if you bring it together, they have a sound that is close to that, so people like Timaya are very popular there. I don’t know if Timaya and Tekno know this, their songs are very popular and I am talking about 2017. They play their music at corporate events; You see Afrobeat and Dutch music mixed seamlessly, the beat is not changing, the tempo is not changing, it’s the same groove, the same vibe so you get to ask yourself, how do you find yourself in all of this? How much are we in all of this and how different are we? It is all about identity.
Is the hybrid of influences and identity more of an opportunity or a threat?
I see it as both, depending on how you handle it and that is really what my message is all about. A vanilla world is boring, where English and French are already dominating, do you know how many languages have become extinct, do you know how many cultures have died and how many would continue to die. I know the Igbo people are very loud about this; a lot of their young people don’t speak their language anymore. So if you find language in my poetry, this is me finding myself in a world, reiterating to myself that this is who I am, this is me and I’m loving it but I also should not get lost in it, I should not lose my identity.
I have had that privilege of seeing a couple of places. I had a chance to live in India for nine months at a time. I remember I had an experience I wrote poetry about. ‘Monkey Calls’ that is the title of the poem because I was going about and some guys were making monkey calls to me. I wasn’t thrown a banana…of course I didn’t realiie it because I had integrated there, I ate their food and there was that sadness. I was moved to tears, I know who I am, how dare you think of me like that.
Is there a problem with the black skin, like some people would tell that the black skin is cursed?
No, we used to be at the top. If you go down history, we civilised the world. The British Royal Family was founded by black people, not entirely, but in their early years. I cannot throw numbers at you, but we have to go online and dig numbers. I have read this. Just this week, I was watching the footprints of the Moors in Europe, so you are talking as far back as when Europeans only had their bath once a month; we were the ones that taught them hygiene. It was the black people that helped with their military; check their history you would find black generals, both in the British and Roman army. I am talking before this civilisation that we know.
A lot of people would disagree with you on that because…
(cuts in) History has been whitewashed. Jesus and the 12 disciples are all blacks. Michelangelo was actually commissioned to whitewash history. There are books that exist in certain libraries of the world where the picture of Jesus and the 12 disciples before the whitewashing existed. This is why our work is very important as poets and visual artists. Those that existed in generations not so far – three hundred, four hundred, five hundred years after Jesus Christ – what they documented is different from what we have today.
So what happened to black civilisation?
It is law of diminishing returns, in my opinion. It is what I see happening with Western culture and the Far East; India and China are going up, culturally in their stead. So I think it is just a law of nature. There has been different civilisations. There was a time it was the Arabs, not so far ago, it was actually the Arabs that laid the foundation of the Europe that we have today, in Architecture and in Science. Some of these Arabs that we are talking about were also brown people from North Africa. Some of these Arabs we are talking about are brown people, so they are close to blacks, they are not your Middle Eastern Arabs. They are actually from Tunisia and Morocco. They are Africans, but they are more brown than ‘this’ black. They are not the Nubians, they are closer to the Kermets. From Morocco, you can see Spain miles away, it is like when you are in Lagos Island and you are seeing Badagry. It is that distant. It is just one small distance between the two continents. That is how they went there and guess what, they were invited by the Europeans to come and help them because there was a Catholic Church, and there was the issue of corruption and mismanagement. So they were the ones that came and helped them sort of change, it’s like some sort of revolution. They didn’t go with their sword, they were invited. They were like what’s happening, we are fed up with our politicians now, we are fed up of our politicians, and they now had a saviour – complex and were looking for a messiah. So they invited them over and from there they went and from there they built underground drainage systems, lighted the streets and they were bringing stuff like Pythagoras theorem to design buildings. Have you heard of Fibonacci before, how they were applying that in design, in architecture, all of these things?
So was it the blacks that built the pyramids?
Yes. That is in Egypt. All the Pharaohs are blacks. They are Kermets. So if you watch the movie today you see it is all whitewashed. Till today, all whitewashed. Every single pharaoh that was mentioned in your bible is black. Moses is black. Let us go into history, it is not something I am saying, it is documented history. It is a very broad topic. See how we have gotten from just identity of self to identity of Africa. Being a white man in Nigeria is setting an identity. Yes, I love this culture, but who am I truly, who am I becoming? And by the way, culture evolves, so which of my choices am I giving away, am I evolving, am I making a conscious effort to choose what I am adding from my cultural exposure to my being or whether I am letting go? What part of me is sacrosanct? This is the core, this defines who I am, everything else just surrounds it. Maybe I can take inspiration from Indian culture. Up to a point in time you find a culture where a lot of our people are wearing saris, where did that come from? It is really a deep conversation.
So I am curious to get your opinion on this, what exactly is poetry?
I used to know the answer. I said something somewhere, even sound can be poetry. I see poetry as expression and that is why if we look at music and poetry, ninety per cent or maybe eighty per cent – and this is my personal estimation, and I am not backing this by any statistics – I have a feeling that eighty per cent of the music that we listen to today is made up of poetry. There are some songs like, ‘Baby whine am’ – there is nothing poetic about that – but if you look at songs that are introspective. And some people would tell you that songs like ‘Baby whine am’ is poetry.
We can argue it. Some people would tell you that there is a place for that conversation, but me being me, what I am drawn to is probably what I am already pushing out, so you find that the sounds, that woman the way she talks is poetic. Sometimes it is not necessarily the voice but the musicality, how sonorous is it? So I think poetry is about our interaction with matter, borne out of our existence and how we process it. Even visual art can be described as poetic. You could actually be expressing yourself in poetry and that’s where the other argument comes from, is it Spoken Word or Spoken Word poetry? There is a difference. I have heard a Spoken Word artiste and I said ‘Oga, you are doing motivational speaking’– and he says it is spoken word and I am like what is ‘spoken word’? I think the manner, the creativity, the beauty that comes with the expression is what makes it poetic.
So what about spoken word and traditional poetry, what is your take on the dichotomy?
I think it boils down to an issue of identity somewhere. We are products of neo-colonialism. So in our minds there is a struggle between whom we have become and who we were. Who we were is our traditional poetry, who we have become is ‘we are now British educated and our lingua franca is English’. And we are Western educated and western have become to define our educational system as poetry. Now when we define poetry in that curriculum or syllabus, they include English Poetry for you, they don’t include traditional poetry. So it seems like something else from a western perspective is not poetry, but if you bring it all together, you translate or transliterate and you discover that language is just in the reading of it. You are basically doing exactly the same thing with the lines, just different languages.
So spoken word and traditional poetry is not very different, traditional poetry was probably driven by oral poetry and spoken word is also very oral. When people ask me, this thing you are doing and I am like no, this thing we are doing. I am like no, all the generations before us have done the same thing. Professor Wole Soyinka, Professor Niyi Osundare, they have all done the same thing. So we have had this Poetry event with Chief Larry Williams, he comes with the drums and he is performing his poetry. He is reading to the delivery. He is a performance poet and there are different approaches to poetic expression.
The real Spoken Word is more of oral performance than theatrical. They can have theatrical elements but it is more of that oral expression than theatrics. Else we would start drifting into monologues, can you say monologue is poetry? I heard something somewhere where they say, poetry is actually the core of every piece of art that you find out there and I am tempted to agree. You can get lost in what poetry means and everywhere you turn you find what poetry means, in visual arts, in music, even in our daily conversation, monologues, dialogues, in movies, even in plays you find poetry, in the exchanges, in the conversations. So poetry may at times get lost, get relegated because we are looking at the evolving forms of it, those other forms of art are almost like the evolved forms of the expression so when you tell me that why are you a poet and you are putting music, even if you take my vocals aside and you play sounds, I would still tell you it is poetry.
Let me add a bit of question to that: do you think anybody can be a poet?
I think so. And you can have good and terrible poetry. As a matter of fact, you can have good and bad poetry. And as far as we are existing, we wax poetic and we do not necessarily realise it all the time. Because there are certain rules, irrespective of your language or medium, and these rules are driven by the sort of response the work itself elicits out of the listener or the processor. The rules have now emerged over time because it is either you are painting imagery or you are being creative with words, your metaphors, your wordplay, all of those figures of speech. So when you ask me, how I judge good writing, I would say my metre is figures of speech. Some people focus on more; I use a lot of rhymes but that doesn’t make me a rapper, but rap is just a term that uses that element a lot. Rap uses a lot more than rhyming. It does not discard the fact that rap is still rhythm and poetry.
Again, the message it contains is equally important. Are you advancing the society, are you advancing conversations. For example, I can agree it is poetry but I can’t be attracted to it if it is too materialistic and every human being has a materialistic part of them. We love to dance, party, celebrate, and eat. There can be poetry about that but I also think the art is a powerful tool, a medium and we need to harness the power behind the tool. And that’s why I would not over subscribe, except if minimally, to materialism. So if you find me doing surface level, it’s to reach out to more people.
There are different aspects of us. I think a lot of poets explore most of the direct socially conscious themes that we forget that there are several human emotions, human experiences that we are not engaging. People are happy every day, people are sad every day, people are caught up in the dynamics of communication, relationships every day. Like I have ‘Germane’ on the album, that is me and my guy talking about our relationship. You know there is so much that we can explore in the times that we are living in, coupled with the threats, concerns and conversations technology is bringing to the fore. I feel we should explore that and that in itself is conscious.