If you have ever looked on YouTube for spoken word artists in the African diaspora, you may have come across young Zambian born British poet Kayo Chingonyi. While sifting through videos of Chingonyi sharing his poetry, his unique style and delivery are quickly revealed. As his reading commences, his stance is static, delivering his words with a humbled calmness that could possibly be mistaken for stage fright. As he continues, however, the quality of apprehensiveness fades, and the intent behind his initial style is revealed. He seems to ease into content, and, after a few lines, like the poetry itself, his voice becomes stronger. Either effortlessly or with great triumph (it is difficult to tell), Chingonyi begins to sway with smiling elation to the hinged rhythms of the beats espoused by his autobiographical poetry.
Much like hearing his work read aloud, reading Chingonyi’s poetry is an absolute treat. His new collection Kumukanda reveals Chingonyi is not only a great poet, but an indelible curator as well. Kumukanda, translated as “initiation,” refers to a “ritual that marks the passage into adulthood of…boys from North Western Zambia.” Throughout the collection, autobiographical details are elegantly sewed together into a cohesive yet simultaneously elusive narrative, addressing head-on themes of belonging, identity and memory.
Tensions of national identity, being both Zambian and British, familial tension and struggle, and racial tensions – particularly explored through a discussion on rap and his complicated understanding of rapper Eminem’s success – are examined in the collection. Particularly revelatory is the way several of his poems address around the topic of the bifurcation required in academia. He calls his poetry, or rather, the poetic use of the English language “literary pretensions” and recognises its distance from the language of his Zambian roots: “this need to speak with a tongue that isn’t mine”. It is these discreet and nuanced moments that animate Chingonyi’s collection, all the while subtly uncovering much about his own life.
The collection moves through a multitude of topics while occupying many different poetic voices. At times, the poems seemingly follow a formal poetic structure, while at others, Chingonyi’s use of free verse allows the words to vociferously express what can be read as a disdain for said formality. Again, this echoes his dichotomous tug-of-war between adoration of literariness and an insidious fear that such literariness will in some way pull him away from an identity he clings to.
Through a nobility of lyrical grasp, Chingonyi’s poems have a musicality to them. Kumukanda explores the complexities of identity, particularly racial identity, in a world that can often feel recalcitrant. His writing is powerfully defiant and undeniably potent, while somehow maintaining an intimate tone. Kumukanda traces a tragic, autobiographical narrative in a way that encourages readers to initiate themselves into the newly established ritual of appreciating each word Chingonyi chooses.
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