REVIEW: #TSOL – Oh what a lituation!

One of the most highly anticipated slam finales finally took place last week at the State Theatre. Xabiso Vili writes his review of this epic night.

Wednesday evening and The State Theatre is buzzing. Bumping into one of the judges outside as we’re coming in, we comment on how we can find the venue easily because we can already see groups of people that look like a poetry audience taking in the Pretoria CBD nightlife from the balcony. No one expands on what a poetry audience looks like, apparently “you just know”.

On arrival, spirited greetings are exchanged with familiar faces and many more new ones, drinks are served and finally doors are open. Once the initial rush for seating is deftly handled, one of our hosts, Clear, gets on stage and delivers a piece asking us to “Wake up, goddammit” and in this fashion the Tshwane Speak Out Loud Youth Poetry Competition 2016/2017 begins.

In addition to 26 poems, 21 of which were competitively judged, there were also speeches from the CEO of State Theatre who, while welcoming the MMC of health remarked that it was not so strange having the health department collaborate on the finale because poets attend to the soul of the nation and in that way keep society healthy.

There were also performances by Lady Zamar, Black Motion and The Muffinz. These just added to the spectacle that was Tswhane Speak Out Loud. With an audience of at least 250 people, on a night as clear as day, on a day where even the CBD was shut down because of political action happening across the city, the atmosphere was electric and hearts were wide open to this long-awaited finale.

Compared to any night out, this event would easily garner 4 stars. Lady Zamar’s performance managed to do all the South African pop things. Even fitting in a song in there about her man not needing no Charlotte, which I have since learned is another term for a side chick. Black Motion was also able to get the audience dancing with their blazing moves and infectious tunes but The Muffinz, as expected, stole the show at the end right before the winners were announced with a beautiful soulful jamming set. DJ Ethics kept us entertained in the quieter moments with music one wouldn’t normally expect at a poetry show. Albeit, the song choices were questionable, they still managed to keep the audience on their feet and energised for this 5-hour marathon.

But, friends, family, frenemies, enemies, strangers, this was not just any night out. For the better part of two months last year, 120 poets competed in gruelling knock out stages to determine a top 30 for the semi-finals. The semi-finals themselves were what I’m told kids these days call a “Lituation”. A lit situation. So, expectations were beyond high for these final 10 that had made it through. For a share of R110 000, how could they not be?

After many a postponement and much back and forth between the organisers and sponsors, at this juncture I would like to send a massive shout out and thank you to The City Of Tshwane for all their support and the important work they put into this pivotal happening, after all the politricks, we were finally graced with an amazing show. Despite whatever I say in the following paragraphs, make no mistake, Tshwane Speak Out Loud Youth Poetry Competition 2016/2017 was an amazing show.

On any day, many of the poems that were shared on the stage would be excellent. A top ten with some well-known and familiar faces such as Sbu Simelane, Kori Strange, Emmah Mabye, Busisiwe Mahlangu, Mwamba Chileshe, Southren Comfort and Given Masilela and the less familiar Anga Mamfanya and Hope Netshivhambe, who replaced Bella Cox, this was a line up to die for, come back and die again. Which is to say, divine.

It was unfortunately missing Zewande Bengu who could not make it because of the short notice in which the event was put together. 4 days and 250 of you still showed up, pat yourselves on the back for that dedication.

And the poets went in, occasionally missing the mark but they too showed up. The first to be eliminated was Given Masilela and Hope Netshivhambe. Hope’s writing was an issue of contention, many loved her poem and many more didn’t but it was the forced emotion and straining voice that sent her home early.

Given’s performance was not memorable enough, he had his technical aspects locked down, from the writing to the performance to even his voice, some would say too much so. Though it’s been known to work for him on some occasions, this night was not his to take.

The second round saw us lose Kori and Southren. In a poetical atmosphere filled with much heaviness from all the deep poems, which our favourite DJ tried to counter with all of the turn up tracks between poets, Southren risked a sexier poem and unfortunately came out worse for it. This time it just did not hit the right spot.

Kori had appeared to go over much of the audience’s heads in the first round so was not held in high hopes as he approached the second, but this time he had many of the spectators on their feet. Unfortunately, the judges were not swayed and delivered low sixes to which they received resounding boos from the entire theatre. Alas, the judging is the judging and no amount of hum drumming could change what was already written on the scorecards.

The next poets we lost in the battle for their share of R110 000 were Mwamba Chileshe and Sbu Simelane. Mwamba was the dark horse that made it into the top 5, unexpected and surprising, much the same as he’s poetry. His final poem comparing mountains to his mother was heartfelt but not felt by the judges, the final round was much harsher on all the poets. The sacrificial poet got higher scores than some of the competing poets. At this juncture, I would like to send a massive shout out and thank you to the sacrificial poets, Lebo Lebese, Rabbie Wrote, Refiloe Khumalo.

Sbu Simelane had been having a tough night with the audience, but there were moments when the judges were quite invested in him. We have reached a difficult time in the poetry community for poems with much magic and many fable references. So much of Sbu’s magical writing did not reach the resonances it usually does. Why has this backing away from magic occurred and are there exceptions to the rule? Those are questions for another article. Right now, we’re going to our top 3.

And in third place, we have the magnificent Emmah Mabye. She started strong, delivering an examination of the ongoing battle for black women’s hair to be valued. In the second round she delivered a moment of magic, speaking to her mother and losing herself in the poem. It was touching to experience. Her final poem, critiquing and questioning the stigma of how one in three women will not see the next 16 days. This poem, though relevant, was not her strongest piece and couldn’t hold the weight of what she had already brought onto that stage.

And our first princess is the handsome Anga Mamfanya. He had been the crowd favourite from the onset, starting the whole competition and coming in hot with a #FeesMustFall piece that had the audience on their feet straight out the gate. His second poem, to his father and to his one day son, sunk in even deeper. Well-crafted and delivered with an interesting emotional intensity, he was able to touch the hearts of many people in the audience. Finally, he brought us back with a piece describing scenes in Soweto, also not his strongest ending and I have a thing against list poems, but the way in which it was written allowed him to maintain his lead.

That was until our ever talented 2nd Tshwane Speak Out Loud Champion, Busisiwe Mahlangu, stepped onto the battle field. Busi went against the grain and started the first round slow, delivering a piece that didn’t necessarily have the audience raving. But the piece was sturdy and present and gained her access into the second round. Her next piece about her grandmother had people talking, Busi started to build up momentum and started looking like a top fiver. Her final piece was testament to the growth that she has been undergoing as a writer and performer and when the dust settled, when the tears were dried, she stood victorious.

And that ladies, gentlemen, non-binaries and non-gender conformist was The Tshwane Speak Out Loud Youth Poetry Competition 2016/2017.

Many an argument was had before, during and after about what a poem is, how judging works, how expectations were met, exceeded or not reached. At the end of it all, we have a deserving champion, the event was had and everybody took away their own little slice. My slice is not the be all and end all but it’s a peephole. The slam is the slam and I haven’t been to a fair one yet.

Ishmael Sibiya and his team did an amazing job despite the adversities and hiccups along the way and poetry has been moved forward. Away from all the development that we still need to do, which is happening in all nooks and crannies, Speak Out Loud has done its part, the poets who competed did theirs, and the power of words was, once again, made self-evident.

Also, I’m just saying, I know all three winning poets, so, one of y’all (if not all) need to take this used to be champ out for dinner, ya heard.

Review by Xabiso Vili

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