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A way with words: Meet the performance poets with a growing reputation

09:49 27/07/2019
Think spoken word is for navel-gazers in polo neck sweaters? Think again

Poetry is about feeling, and spoken-word poetry is pure performance. Whatever the subject, the sound of the wordplay and the rhythm of the language can deliver a swift emotional kick, and bring a lump to the throat of the most hardened of audiences. “It transcends boundaries and gives people a way of speaking and hearing the truths that aren’t aired in mainstream media,” says poet Elisabeth Severino Fernandes, aka Miss Elli, founder of Mama’s Open Mic nights in Antwerp and Brussels.

Addressing the trials of life and complexity of identity, Miss Elli’s poetry is at once poignant and inspiring, and her rich multicultural background allows her to perform in English, Dutch, French and Spanish. Miss Elli grew up around the hip hop and reggae scenes in Belgium but found her direction in 2009 under the mentorship of internationally acclaimed New York poet Amir Sulaiman at a week of workshops in Antwerp, given in English. “I was already in awe of his work and the workshop was the first time I met kindred souls who also had no place to go with their words,” says Miss Elli (pictured below).

Her dream was to perform at Belgium’s Nuff Said festival. “In 2010, Nuff Said was an elite variety show where the best national artists were invited to perform, with hardly ever any people of colour on the bill. As a minority I knew I had to create a space to perform and perfect my craft if I was ever to be invited. That’s how Mama’s Open Mic began,” she says. Since then, she has performed and hosted at Nuff Said, shared festival line-ups with Sulaiman and organised the biggest open mics in Belgium. She now also directs performances and gives workshops nationally and internationally.

Mentoring new talent to perform and to organise events has become a vocation. “It gives me such energy to do this, in an area where opportunities are scarce, especially for women of colour,” she says. “I believe in emancipation through art. You can’t deny authenticity and realness in a world of fake when it’s talking to you – it pushes you into being honest with yourself.”

Samira Saleh and Anissa Boujdaini (pictured above) both perform in English and Dutch, and have both been guided by Miss Elli when they’ve needed it. For Saleh, from Mechelen, discovering spoken word online at the age of 21 was empowering, “I was very isolated at the time, in therapy, dealing with my anxieties and depression. On the web I found people sharing their experiences with a creativity I just didn’t know existed,” she says. Her first piece was about stepping out of her comfort zone. With it she found the courage to make her way to Mama’s Open Mic. It changed her life. “Elli booked me for the next gig, and took me under her wing,” she says.

That was four years ago. Her sassy, humour-laden style led her to winning the Slam ’t Stad slam poetry tournament in 2015, followed by the BILL Award for speaking in 2016. In 2016 she was appointed Slambassador for Belgium in San Francisco, for the EU’s Next Generation Speaks international spoken word exchange.

Boujdaini is currently finishing her master’s in law and has been writing poetry since childhood. In 2011 she won a place at a Nuff Said masterclass with her work. “I felt the need to develop my own voice so nobody could speak for me, or over me,” she says, citing the effect American Def Jam poets had on audiences. “I used to speak softly about racism, but now I’m not afraid to call it out.” Her deftly observed critiques of society pack a punch. “Spoken word without critical analysis is a bit void for me if it doesn’t question society and its underprivileged,” she says.

Where Miss Elli is considered the godmother of Flanders’ spoken word, Seckou Ouologuem is its godfather. He came to it having spent years rapping in English to Flemish crowds, which just wasn’t right, he says. “They found it weird. They just wanted to be entertained and I wanted to speak up,” he says.

His first spoken-word piece was also his first win at the Kif Kif Awards 2009 in Antwerp. “I was moved to write about the racist killing in Belgium of a young black au pair named Oulemata, and the little white child in her care. So I brought it in Dutch, with no beat, and I won,” he says.

He hasn’t looked back. As well as performing, Ouologuem organises the Felix poetry festival, slam competitions and high school workshops across Flanders, and those learning Dutch find the alliteration of his language thrilling. And he notes that spoken word has entered the consciousness of policymakers and organisations in a way that rap has not.

“Urban poetry is a high-impact, cost-efficient way of provoking, entertaining or educating that can fortify any event,” he says. “Let’s face it, all you need is the talent and a microphone, and the microphone is usually already there.”

This article first appeared in The Bulletin spring 2019. Top photo (Samira Saleh): Serge Ligtenberg. Anisas Boujdaini photo: Jean Cosyn

Written by Saffina Rana