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KEEPING IT SPOKEN

By September 28, 2022 6 Comments
Dorphanage

By Terry Wambui

 

Spoken Word Poet Dorphanage once said I don’t want to outlive my art; I want my art to outlast me. This is safe to assume is the case with plenty of artists in Kenya and beyond.

 

It is an unexpectedly cool Monday afternoon, and I am running late. I am sure Dorphan is already at that Java café we agreed to meet and I am racking through my mind for a perfect explanation for my tardiness. No excuse is worthy though, and so I settle for an apology. It is easy to pinpoint him, just look for a beret, and there is your man! I rush toward him and he rises to accept my hug while graciously accepting my apology. Dorphan is the embodiment of art; from the beret, to how he speaks, you can tell he has been in this game for a while.

 

POETIC BEGINNINGS

Born Dennis Mutuma Mutua, Dorphan is more than an alias, it is an alter ego. “I lost my parents when I was very young. When people hear of orphans, it is something that is supposed to be pitiful. You are supposed to feel and act small. For that reason, I wanted to embrace this as an identity, to show that I did not feel ashamed and that it does not define you, it does not put a ceiling on what you can achieve.”

Dorphan started performing in high school. It started with a general love for music. He joined a few individuals that used to remix songs and rap, and without knowing it, he was performing spoken word. The genesis of his art was in Meru, and moving to Nairobi was in an effort to grow his art. Additionally, there was no platform for spoken word artists. That was in 2012.

“I heard that Slam Africa was going to happen, and so I hit them up on Facebook. I am sure they were skeptical since Meru is not unanimous with art. I did my first slam in 2012, I became the first runner-up. Then, Slam was happening every month. I went on that stage monthly and was crowned champion in May of that year. I was also attending a writer’s meetup called “Hisia Zangu”. You would share your pieces and other writers would give their opinions and critique your work. It was necessary; it allowed you to not get comfortable and with slam happening every month, it sharpened your skill and kept you on your toes,” he reveals.

Dorphan had thrown himself into the art scene fully. He was also performing weekly at the Coffee Bar meet-ups of The Journey, JKUAT, which led him to join a group of poetry enthusiasts like him called “JKUAT poetry”. They would have weekly meet-ups, where they would invite students and other enthusiasts and hold poetry workshops. The earlier years were not easy. It came with the realization that he had to be selfless enough to know that all his efforts were not necessarily going to bear fruits he would enjoy. As a pioneer, his efforts would probably be enjoyed by the next generation. Spoken word is a generally new craft. Being an art form, it is a language. For others to learn this language, you have to teach it to them; that is the work of pioneers.

Art has a lot of definitions, depending on who you ask. I was interested in Dorphan’s definition of art, and what role he thought it played in the world.

“I think art is a lot of things, and it is subjective. My definition of art is that it is an expression of our humanity. At the end of the day, it is a matter of how true you are to yourself. We are living in times where everything is commodified, people are not doing what they are doing because it is coming from the heart; it is not an expression of themselves, it is a means to an end.” Dorphan shares.

 

A PIONEER GIVING BACK

From the Margins. My 2022 wish was to get to listen to this collaborative album before the year ends, and boy was I moved! I was offended I had not jumped on the wagon earlier. The spoken word poems infused with mellow acoustics and amazing vocals created a cinematic experience for me. Surprisingly, Dorphan’s range manages to still knock us off our feet every time.

According to Dorphan, the album is supposed to highlight society’s peripheral stories and experiences. The artists he collaborated with on the album come from some of the communities that he had in mind.

“We went to KU, Mathare, Kariobangi, Kayole and a group of South Sudanese youth in an effort to understand their experiences in the margins. After which we gathered as artists and came up with the concept of the album. It was honestly a fulfilling process for me and also really humbling since I was working with some poets that had come after me, some of whom I had mentored. I was getting to do something that had not been done for me when I was young. I was sharing my experiences as an artist, guiding them so that they would avoid the mistakes I had made. It was also a way of giving back. You know, we had an aspect of deliberate continuity in African societies. We had age sets and age groups created to prepare the youth for adulthood. By the time they bloomed into adulthood, they already knew how they would fit into the scope of society,” he says.

Home stood out for me. It leads back to where Dorphan chose the collaborating artists from the communities they came from. We are met with Kamba when the track begins, by Lexas Mshairi. Karembo takes over with sheng, from Kayole. Murathe is from Dandora and Liboi representing Kariobangi. As a singer, Liboi manages to harmonize and bring all these voices together. The Kamba plus the title draws us back to what home is for most of us. These are our roots, where our identity is first formed. The people that first loved us unconditionally are here. It is a plea to our parents who want to bind us in this home to be patient and allow us to go see what is out there, for the completion of our identities. The sheng and the identity of being raised in a hyper-vigilant environment follow. We become to our parents what they were to us growing up. We want to show them a different home, void of poverty, insecurity, and struggle.

The album is not complete without tracks like; Miaka ya mbwa, tumechoka, pingu za maisha, kuwa boy ghetto (a skit), tunakam kukam (a skit), pipe dreams, and aspirations. You don’t peg Dorphan for a romantic guy until you listen to Nyota yangu and hear his crooning voice and suddenly I am reaching for a pen to write down these lines that will have somebody’s son drawing circles on the ground with his feet.

Blinding Blocks Incorporated was not part of the album but it deserves an honorary mention. It draws its acronym from the Building Bridges Initiative, a task force run by former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, and former president, Uhuru Kenyatta; that sought to look into nine issues that would constitute constitutional amendments. Blinding Blocks Incorporation- speaks against the deep-rooted corruption in the Kenyan government, the lack of justice and care for the common mwananchi, and the inherited politics that ensure Kenyans don’t win in their thirst for democracy and development. It also draws the parallels between the haves and have-nots; the exultation of looters vs the extra-judicial killings in the low-rise regions and demographics. Dorphan’s Blinding Blocks Incorporated was a reflection of a decade of Kenya’s New Constitution. It had barely been implemented, yet here was Building Bridges Initiative; seeking to introduce amendments, without trying to work on what was already there.

We are almost at the end of our interview and I have to know; how far has spoken word come since he (Dorphan)  started.

“Spoken word has come really far, from not knowing what spoken word is in high school to having it be a part of music festivals. Now, we have more people knowing what spoken word is, which means that we will have more informed artists and we change the mindset of what poetry is in these young ones. Also, to now hold a spoken word show and have people come to listen exclusively to the spoken word is a testament to how far we have come.”

Spoken word artists definitely face some challenges in their craft. From the undermining of their craft, which is viewed as relatively easy, to how financially unfulfilling it can be, to its inaccessibility plus the rawness and bluntness of the poet’s work. Dorphan combats all these challenges by remaining true to his craft, which he says has ensured people know what he stands for, and as they reach out for him, they know where he stands.

“As an artist, you have to be competent enough so that as you ask to be paid your worth, you are also ensuring that the other person gets value for their money. You have to know how to deliver, and as you demand professionalism of them, you are also being professional,” he concludes our interview with these words.

 

 

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