Adebola Afolabi, popularly known as Rez tha Poet is one of the earliest known contemporary Spoken Word artists in Nigeria. A creative business executive, he was part of a recent poetry party that shut down a banking hall in Lagos in honour of the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka and had always been a headliner at leading poetry events in Nigeria. In an encounter in Ikeja, Lagos, he recounted his journey into performance poetry, which began professionally in 2006. As a young child, he was a bookworm, an avid reader of newspapers. His father studied history for his first degree and Rez was also weaned on history books and literature.
“I finished reading Things Fall Apart at age nine, not as a recommended text,’’ he began. “I used to ‘drag’ newspapers with my dad because he brought his complimentary copies home and I would collect them from his car. I was reading a lot. At primary school, I was exposed to letter writing. Like most young people of that time, I could draw and sketch. I have never been in an art class. I was a science student. But I have done a lot of writing master classes. I am most comfortable in poetry.”
For him, the gift of poetry is an avenue to share opinion and shape culture. It is also business for him. “I started performing in 2006. First, it wasn’t to a large audience. But the first large audience I performed for was in Ikeja here in 2007. I think it Sage Hassan’s spoken word album launch or maybe it was a poetry event at Brown’s Café on Isaac John at Barcelos’ rooftop. It was structured audience and controlled ambience. Efe Paul Azino used to come around then. Bez, Efe and Akeem Lasisi were also at a show organised by Victor Okigbo and his wife. Okigbo used to have an event every Sunday evening. I think WordSlam came in 2009.”
Facebook Note was a major tool for him and other poets in those early years because of its micro-blogging feature, which drove some measure of followership. They formed a movement of sorts for poetry. However, he became preoccupied with travelling and only returned to Nigeria for good in 2015. When he started writing poetry, he was more concerned about his words. But he became conscious of the audience when his artistry moved from page to stage.
Although spoken word poetry is his creative expression, he is also commercially minded about the oratory gift.
“I care about expressing myself and I care about poetry paying me,” he said. “There is nothing bad in that it is a gift, a talent. I can create masterpieces and I can make a name that will outlive my generation. I don’t have to water down my content. An artist goes wrong when it is just about the money and not the quality of the content. As an artist, you have to survive so you hone the craft so that it can pay you.”
Rez has a managerial team behind strategy, promotion and bookings. He is also very protective of his intellectual property and personal brand. Over the years, he has broadened the scope of performance to include other genres.
“I do music poetry to give an overall enriching experience. I have done poetry in theatre and I acted in it. That was in 2017. We were meant to go on world tour last year. A group, Commongrounds was formed with Isaac Geralds, a soul musician. In 2017, Kayefi invited me for a performance at Freedom Park and it was nice with alternative Yoruba music. I also use a lot of cultural elements and language in my performance.”
On the future of Spoken Word poetry, Rez compared the practice in Nigeria with global practices, identifying key areas of strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s exciting to know that the Grammy Awards has the Spoken Word segment. Why can’t Hip Hop awards have a category that recognises Spoken Word? Certain corporate brands are starting to appreciate poetry as an alternative content with which to engage their audience. It is not too disruptive in presentation; it is calmer. We need to build our art such that we are not just used as fillers for events.”
Rez tha poet performs at Griot and Bards, a monthly village square-like event at Thought Pyramid, Ikoyi. The show is inspired by the need for history education and conversations about how to shape the future. Rez is currently working on two albums which feature music poetry and collaborative works.