ART STATE publisher Mpho Matsitle followed the exploits of Hlox Da Rebel at the 21st Poetry Africa.
Driving Mr Critic
I’m in the Uber blueticking the driver strong! But I have an answer for him should he persist pestering me with his ridiculous line of questioning: “Chief! Me I am here to listen to rastations. Can the driving generally be left to you?”
But fortunately for the both of us he drives on and accepts my silent shrug to his enquiry about direction. It seems he’ll settle for the app that had already thrown him off once. I am in a foreign city, for poetry. I need not let my cantankerous nature get me in trouble.
True to form, the app fails and we swoosh right past the Howard College of UKZN. In line with my efforts to ignore the whole shenanigan, I bury myself in my phone. Just in time it’d seem: an SMS from Ayanda Mabanga, Poetry Africa’s publicist, lights up my threadbare notifications (you’d think people from back home would be flooding my notifications, but the hate game is strong in Mangaung). It’s a simple ‘I got your back’ message. I respond immediately. Such nice people these! Media pass hooked up, only a day after the request was made. The Headquarters of Mangaung art has been officially recognised eThekwini. Movement!
The Uber man finally says the only words – a Facebook friend asserts – they are supposed to utter to a passenger regarding directions: “You have arrived at your destination.” Dankie, darkie!
I alight and resist the temptation to give him one star for his efforts. The building is – could have been – threatening, except that right at its gate is a statue of some white colonialist, probably the Howard fellow (but who cares, one settler…).
Its beauty is that it has been redeemed, through the revolutionary pente of Kgafela, into a monument for #FeesMustFall. I am home! We live and fight with imperialism. Such is the contradiction of black life.
I walk into the lobby of the majestic building, and it looks nothing like a theatre. I see ‘law school’ scribbled on the right, so I go left. I accost two gentlemen there. They know nothing of a theatre. Draw similar blanks on Poetry Africa. Philistines!
Right-wing I go. Enter some library looking wing. The lady at the desk is quick with the smile. I with the question. She greets back. Thankfully my uncouthness was swallowed up by my croaking voice. I repeat the question she mistook for a greeting. Angizwa? Words you damn idiots form! Something decipherable finally escapes this ragged mouth ravaged by rhoticism.
The damned driver! I am at the wrong building, but a few minutes’ stroll (or more accurately roll) down the steep and I make it to the theatre. Weird and wonderful species of humankind all about: the thespians, the incorrigible critics and the cretins too. Poets, posers and provocateurs. Painters of words and writers of pictures. The emo, the ego, the cold, the misconstrued, recluse, melodramatic, the comedic. Troubadours, dancers, griots, minstrels and raconteurs. Fashionistas.
I love them all, but not a familiar face in sight!
I am supposed to be hooking up with Ayanda, but I was hoping to catch ‘homeboy’ Hlox Da Rebel. With only fifteen minutes before the show starts, he’s probably backstage doing “poet things” – levitating maybe? You never know with poets! Except that it’s kinda like my job to know—I make a mental note to ask Hlox about his pre-show rituals (spoiler alert: lots and tons of alcohol).
I head to the ticket counter and ask the gentleman there if he can direct me to Ayanda. “What do you want with Ayanda?” He non-adversarially throws down the gauntlet. God, I love these people already! I reckon he’s Ayanda, I take him on.
We banter until he asks me a question that warms me heart a little; “are you media?” Damn right I am! I don’t say that. “Name?” I am on the list. “She told me about you,” he reveals that he’s not Ayanda, “I have reserved your seats.” Seats? But me I am riding solo. Another young banter ensues. He finally relents my ticket and directs me to Ayanda.
She was milling about the beautiful mess the whole time. As with anyone honoured with such a mammoth task, she retorts that she’s not fine to my off-the-cuff ‘how are you?’ A timely reminder that I am home and need not ask insincere questions. “I take it you’re tired,” I ask genuinely, she nods and gets down to the business of welcoming me. I should expect a media pack in my email soon, so I need not ask stupid questions as yet, I take note. No investigation, no right to speak.
At the theatre door a lady blocks my entry. “I am the bouncer!” she announces joyfully as she stretches her arms to barricade the entrance. What happy drug are these people on? I beg her for entry. She won’t let up.
We are practically on the verge of bursting with laughter when she quits the charade and asks to see my ticket. “You’re not even supposed to enter from this side,” she scoffs, but lets me in either way. I want to play some more, like the insatiable child I am. However, the two students enquiring if they can come back in if they go out, remind me that Durban is South Africa’s playground, not mine alone.
I find my seat. D10. People start trickling in. I think I did hear the bell go.
Thank God it’s Hloxday
The lights dim. The stage is grand but not grandiose. Its power is not props nor lights nor any such gimmick. But, as the MC later asserts, because it is holy ground. Many a great poet has bled on it. Many a god, the MC says. Myesha Jenkins. Mtabaruka. Lesego Rampolokeng; who cut my nine-hour bus ride to Thekong short with detours to Soweto and Seding.
A string and keys pair take to stage sans fanfare and start playing. The screen behind them announces them as they play, Blvck Crystals. It’s easy music, some folk and smooth jazz. The kind that sets the mood quite right – whets the appetite of an attentive ear. They’re met with spirited applause as they exit the stage – everyone was busy settling down as they were playing, but they were definitely listening.
Every Poetry Africa show opens with what they call a “Prelude Poet.” On Thursday 20 October, the day that shall henceforth be called the Hloxday, it was SA’s Got Talent finalist Tuffo Da Bulletman. He opened with a lyrical lamentation similar to the one Mangaung poet legend Icebound delivered on this very stage two years ago; directed to poets who have forgotten the purpose of the word and are now just chasing stardom. They had forgotten, in the words of American-Dutch poet Black Ice who closed off the evening, that, “If the poet is not in trouble with the king, he is in trouble with his art.”
Hlox’s Dance with the Greats
If there’s anyone who can’t be imagined to be in any trouble with her art one bit is Natalia Molebatse, the legendary poet who infuses music in her poetry much like Mangaung’s very own JahRose. It was mid-evening yet she wished us Good Mo(u)rning – it was the dea(r)th of new meanings we were mourning. The reason she will never be in trouble with her art is the fact that she writes for women and against the erasure of women. Women like “Thandeka, Anene, Zandile, Lerato, Lesego, Karabo and any other girl whose story never made the seven o’clock news,” whom Hlox would rather save over Rhinos.
Accompanying Hlox on this mea culpa poem against gender based violence was the Reunion Island poet-singer Kaloune, who followed Natalia’s footsteps and kept music on the stage a little longer. Doing her entire set in her native country’s creole through song, she made a mockery of language when she had the entire Poetry Africa hall enthralled with her performance and got the audience rowdy at the Festival Finale when the timekeeper called her to end her chanting. Instead, we all got up on our feet and joined her chant of Kgafela Magogodi’s “re strong sprakateng!”
The later on the Friday for some inexplicable reason had Hlox join Quaz as his backup vocalists for his set. Quaz is a brilliant beat boxer, Hlox’s singing is at best painful. “Grootman likes me,” Hlox shrieked in laugher when I asked how he managed to literally share the stage with this poetry and drama legend. Kgafela just looks at him, beaming with pride, and says “o ntshegeditse.”
Maybe Hlox’s “microphone drips deadly honey,” maybe behind that ever-ready smile and comedy there’s a “m’gaga [o] reng ha e boe naga,” or maybe Hlox is the rebel Kgafela has been imploring to paint the dirty secrets of the nation.
“There are white cum stains on Africa’s black thighs,” Hlox listens to his elder and waves our dirty laundry at a rally, “and I know the sex was not consensual.” Notwithstanding the pitfalls of rape metaphors (in particular their trauma triggering effect), as well as female-gendering things owned by men is something one ought to resist, this poem inspired by the Achebe magnum opus Things Fall Apart earns Hlox the first standing ovation of the night. It is a poem filled with rage at the pillage of Africa, a lament similar to Dr Chinweizu’s Anger of the Ancestors and in spirit with Slam Jam participant Shashi ‘Lyric’ Simelane who’s entire set was an ode to the revolutionary zeitgeist engulfing the universities.
Hlox coloured his somewhat gloomy set with mirth in between the poems as he joked about being tired of speaking English in what has been the best week of his life, what with Americans (Crystal Valentine, Miles Hodges), Ukrainians (Hanna Yanovska, Rozumna), Nigerian Dike Chukwumerije and Spaniard Eduard Escoffet in the multinational cocktail that made up the festival. As a breather from all this English-ing he closed off his set with the hatemail/breakup letter to the township aptly titled The Zulu Poem. It had many laughing, snapping and filling the room with raucous applause.
Pay The Poet
“Silence!” Da Rebel commands the packed Sipho Gumede Hall at the BAT Centre at the finale on Saturday. He wins. As he did on the Monday during the Presentation of Poets, and on Hloxday as his sophomore poem in his main set. It is clearly is his leitmotif for this festival. And a nod to the festival organised by his movement Sicknatcha a week after Poetry Africa named after the poem: Pay the Poet.
“I can still hear as my prayers hit the ceiling fan and get shredded to meaningless words.” He begins his wail against this art that takes everything and only offers darkness, emptiness and insanity in return. “This art owes me sleep,” he piles up the charges. The faux choke just before the last part of the performance has many on their feet dumfounded at the brilliance of the QwaQwa born poet. Hlox spills his pain on stage, “Life keeps throwing lemons my way and I am sick of making lemonades!”
After the show someone who must know all about the bitter taste of lemonade, Myesha Jenkins – whose set on Friday evening with jazz legend Professor Salim Washington was nothing short of a marvel – rushed to embrace Hlox in motherly love. It is a moment that none of the words in all the languages can describe. But the hymn Jehova Modimo wa Israele made a serious attempt: “Leqheku le akwa ke tloholo tsa lona, di tla di hodile; ho bokoe Mong’a bona.”
This way we salute you
On Saturday Black Ice refused to stick to his allotted five minutes and described Hlox, in a vodka-induced off the cuff thank you note, as “the most brilliant articulate cat that’s always fucked up.”
To share a line-up with legends is a feat and a half, no doubt – but to earn their utmost respect through your craft in such a short space of time is the highest reward anyone can receive. But still, the poet must be paid.
Another Uber no drama, I get the chance to ruminate that when we nail our colours to the mast and declare boldly and proudly that art lives here in Mangaung – where Hlox currently plies his trade – many may snigger that re ikoketsa marago ka maje. But when one of our own kills, “one time”, the international stage as Lehlohonolo Mabaso did this Poetry Africa 2017, we cannot help but wear an authoritative smug on our faces.
Mpho Matsitle is the publisher of ART STATE. He scribbles sometimes at mphomatsitle.co.za
FEATURED IMAGE: Hlox Da Rebel demands the poet’s dues. Credit: Poetry Africa