Whether Albert Nyathi is dressed in a flowing scarlet robe, his rabbit skin hat and leopard skin wrap, or his feathers, what imbues his poetry is his enthusiasm and sincerity which, despite his success, continue to be invested with an almost artless belief in himself and his work.
Albert Nyathi is often referred to as Zimbabwe’s “premier performance dub poet”. Born in Kezi in Matabeleland South into a cattle-herding community, he mastered traditional praise poetry at school. He soon started to write his own plays and poems, inspired by the national freedom struggle. As a university student in the 1980s, he became very influential within the student union and often spoke at rallies. Later, he gave up his career in government service as a senior member of the National Arts Council to concentrate on performance poetry and the development of youth training programmes in Harare’s townships. Around 1990, he started fusing his poetry with music in order to reach a wider audience.
Nyathi, who performs in both English and Ndebele, is equally popular in his home country and in the West, though arguably for quite different reasons. In Zimbabwe, as I have said previously, much poetry is written and performed, but by comparison very little is read. It is enjoyed for its immediacy and its rhetoric. To be a poet all you have to say is “I am”; whether you succeed will depend on your performance.
Within this context, Nyathi is a star. The issues he addresses in his poetry are those that affect people’s everyday lives: “Zimbabwe is a land of queues, we queue in banks, we queue for bread, we queue …" for example.
Using straightforward colloquial language, easily accessible speech rhythms, and simple overt imagery, such as:
My Daughter . . . protect you
From hungry lions silently eyeing you
Licking their lips
Ready to pounce on you
From the jumpy jumpy monkeys that move
From tree to tree
Nyathi reaches out to and embraces everyone with his concerns which reflect their own. Poet and audience become one living being reassured by a commonality in a complex world where tradition and modernity, religion and politics, poverty and wealth, hunger, unemployment and death jostle consciously at the forefront of people’s, often difficult, lives.
In addition, he is not unafraid to address overtly political subjects:
This [politics] is where the cruellest survive
Those who can afford
Are swivelling, swaying in their posh limousines
While citizens starve to death.
(‘Dear Mzwakha Mbuli’)
In so doing Nyathi gives voice to sentiments that people are often afraid to express in a public arena. That the poet does so bonds his audience together in shared feeling, shared outrage and provides at least temporary allusive confidence, a commonality lost in the quotidian struggle to survive.
That Nyathi is also very popular in the West is, at least in my view, more contentious, and provides for us both a subject of perennial debate. To me, there is a constant danger that the poet dressed in full Ndebele regalia passionately declaiming his verses like chants, is in danger of reinforcing a crude stereotype of Africa, while at the same time appealing to the nostalgic liberal sympathy of those who live in comfort, and need never engage beyond the collection box. This may be a harsh analysis, but the issues remain ones which need to be addressed.
Arguably too, Nyathi as a performer, a great lover of life, brings a zest, a great rhetorical flourish to his observations which lift them from the banal to the fervid, and in so doing makes us reflect again on the definition, meaning and power of poetry in relation to its audience.
Echoes from the Kraal, Self-published, 2001
Kuze, Kube, Nini? Publisher not listed.
Ngenkani? Equator Records, 1999
Welcome to Zimbabwe, Equator Records, 2000
DVDs and CDs of Albert Nyathi's poetry in performance, as well as published collections of his work may be ordered from:
CTM Crispin Thomas Management
Crispin Thomas, 4 The Retreat Butterow, Stroud, Glos., England GL5 2LS
[Office] 01453 757376 [m] 07837 798463 [email protected]
Alfred Nyathi & Imbongi, the official website
Africa Centre, Awaabi Music Makers, An interview with Nyathi
BBC - Africa On Your Street, An interview with Nyathi
The Nordic Africa Institute, article on Nyathi