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Chioniso Shortlisted For Poetry Slam Africa: 'I Don't Want To Be The Artist That People Only Appreciate After She Has Left The Country'


Chioniso. image: Remyshoots

The power commanded by a spoken word artist who is also a musician is beyond measure. Chioniso is part of those gifted few. She is a poet, singer, song writer and spoken word artist. Words are her ammunition of choice. Based in Zimbabwe's second largest city, Bulawayo she has been brewing some of the most intimate art which is relatable and digestible to the average man. She has been doing spoken word since the age of 17 during her high school days! Heaven is closer than you know, an 8 track EP was her debut project served with soulful RnB and spoken word elements. She was recently shortlisted for Poetry Slam Africa. A BIG DEAL! We caught up with the artist to have a mini conversation to understand the significance of this recognition for her artistic journey. As an intimate and vulnerable figure, she poured her heart out: 


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Most of your audience know you for your music, how do you balance being a musician and being a spoken word artist? 

It's so interesting that you mentioned it, I'm mostly known for  my music. Last year, that felt like such an unattainable goal. Prior to making the leap from poet to singer, I was known primarily for my poetry and I was nervous that friends and family wouldn't be as receptive to my music. I have been doing spoken word  since I was seventeen at high school talent shows mainly. It's beautiful and therapeutic and high key stressful in terms of performance anxiety but it's also the backbone of my songwriting so it has never felt like I have to keep balance.  You don't have to think about how your feet work in coordination with  your hands or the involuntary beating of your heart. It's  the same thing with poetry and music. They are different parts of the same creative body and both have their  essential functions.

Chioniso. image: Remyshoots

We have seen footage of Chioniso performing spoken word at corporate events, she carried herself with confidence and expressed herself vulnerably. What is it about spoken word that facilitates that vulnerability? 

Spoken word is an honest conversation. Like most honest conversations, there are uncomfortable truths to be stated. It's important to make a connection with your audience. So, they feel the weight and emotion of your words. I feel like spoken word is like stripping but for the soul . It's not meant to just expose your vulnerability. It exposes the next person's vulnerabilities too.


What inspired the idea of participating in Grand Poetry Slam Africa?

If I'm being totally honest, I had no idea of the existence of Grand Slam Africa. Someone sent me the poster of the first preliminary call out on WhatsApp.  I nearly mized because of my long standing history with disappointment at local level.  I've done a few local slams, Intwasa 3 times. In 2018 I made it to the final round but I lost out on the top 3. In 2019, I barely made it to  the second cut. I was booted out in the first round and in 2020 I only  made it to the second round. I promised myself that 3 times is a charm and if I failed the third time, I was done with local slams. I worked on time management, delivery and even my style of content but each time I participated, it seemed like the goal posts had shifted. On the occasions I went, judges were picked from the audience members. Sometimes they had a poetic background, sometimes they didn't. In the first round, one scoring system would be used then in the second a different one would be implemented. Meaning if you'd scored high in first and low in second you were at a disadvantage. 

The lack of uniformity was frustrating for me but I tried my best to be gracious in my losses.  I realized with each time I went, how dishearteningly low the numbers were for  the attendance of female poets. In most spaces, whether it's hip hop or the arts scene in general, I feel like I'm occupying a small corner of the boys club.  I've gotten used to it but it just means where I cannot stamp authority with a deep voice, testosterone or braggadociousness as is part and parcel of the culture, I have to make up for with  poise, intellect and a fierce determination to excel in my own field. Einstein once said that doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results equates to being stupid. So I changed tact and gave this a go, expecting to not even make the shortlist and even when I made it to the final round, I thought a Kenyan poet would be picked over me especially  those who were reciting in their native language which I could not understand but sounded so beautiful to listen to. God had different plans I guess.

Against all functional existing odds you made into the preliminary round, what does that opportunity mean for you and your art? 

It means so much that I can't even put it into words. I am someone who deviated from the traditional route in terms of tertiary education. I haven't gone to university yet, a decision that I have had a very difficult time defending. When someone asks you  what you're doing in life, the typical response is a degree, a job, marriage or a baby at the very least. I have none of those things.  I just have my art. I tried working retail when I was 20. To say that I was depressed is an understatement.  But I truly believe in what we are building at Cottage 47 and in what I am building for myself that it needs my attention 24/7 and it is a job even if it's not paying much just yet.  

For clarity's sake I did get a scholarship to an overseas arts schools and in the year I was supposed to go my gran passed away. I applied for a visa in the beginning of this year and it was denied due to low funds. Funeral preparations and travel expenses in the midst of a pandemic left a huge dent in our family financially. I was devastated and I had to fight off the pressure to just enroll into any program because I felt like I was running out of time. But this journey is mine to walk alone so I stood my ground and continue to do so. I believe in putting one foot in front of the other so even if one thing fail, I won't let it trap me into a place of self  pity. I just keep going. Grand Slam Africa has opened a door to international audience. I'm grateful that I have that option now and so much can come from it.  It's about more than just winning for me. It's about representation. And it's about fighting the narrative that you can't make it globally if you're making art from home. I don't want to be the artist that people only appreciate after she's left the country and is claimed by another nation. That's the nervous condition of being Zimbabwean. I'd like to receive my flowers or Jacarandas rather in my city.

Chioniso. image: Remyshoots


What can be done in Zimbabwe in terms of structures to promote Art forms such as music, poetry and spoken word? 
 
There are quite  a few platforms I follow on Instagram that promote spoken word like Page Poetry Alive. Most of these initiatives are Harare Based. I do think in the same way we have a strained relationship musically between the Sunshine Capital and The City Of Kings, there's a huge gap of opportunity for creatives across the country to collaborate. I also commend initiatives like Shoko Festival wherein last year saw the battle of the cities word slam in what is primarily a music festival.  The most important ingredient to anything called success is consistency.  I'd like to see consistency in these structures at a local level such that we are able to have conversations outside borders.  I had only recently found out that Voice2Rep Zimbabwe has predecessors in Nigeria and in other African countries and it's only as of last year that Voice2Rep came to Zimbabwe. So platforms like that give me hope that we are on the right track.


Any further comments?

Mental health takes precedence in every aspect of your life. And Art will always be  a beautiful  thing so long as we protect and value our artists and remember that we call entertainment is what they call their livelihood.


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