INTERVIEW_: The Militant Artist, Dakar-based Kémit talks Poetry, Pan-Africanism and Rhythm
Updated: Mar 29, 2020
It’s 35°C (95°F). The humidity is 77% and I think I’m going to die before I have even lasted a 24 hours in Dakar, Senegal. I am at Les Jardins de L’Amitié (translation: friendship gardens) sweating through my clothes despite sipping an ice cold bottle of La Gazelle, Senegal’s number one beer, or so the waitress tells me. The walls of this restaurant situated in a literal garden are plastered with images of the masters of Senegalese and regional music. World renowned Souleymane Faye, and the queen on mbalax* Viviane Ndour, Gambian son** and salsa musician Laba Sosseh, as well as Malian mega-star Salif Keïta are some of many adorning the garden’s walls. The restaurant is buzzing with creatives young and old, deep in thought and this energy I will come to understand, is the general vibe of Senegal and Senegalese people.
Into the garden walks a tall man, he’s probably 6 feet tall, or more! We make instant eye contact. Within 5 minutes we’ve exchanged Instagram handles, this is how the youth connect these days. Over the next few days, I learn from our IG DMs (Instagram direct messages) that he is a slam artist, poet, writer, fashion designer, and passionate environmental activist. He learns that among other things, I sing. Next thing I know, I am on stage at Dakar’s Goethe-Institut performing a song with him, despite the fact that he’s never heard my voice. What ensues is a beautiful friendship based on pan-Africanist literature and thought, an appreciation of live music and fashion, especially African designers.
Today, we are proud to share a new song and music video for our collaboration: «Martyr Luther Queens»
Thando Mlambo: First things first: are you a Militant or Artist?
Kémit: That’s a difficult question. I think that one does not necessarily exclude the other, therefore, I am a Militant Artist.
TM: How long have you been writing, and what do you write? What inspires your work?
Kémit: I have been writing for a very long time, longer than I can remember. Even in primary school I was already writing; at the time I wrote bits of sentences that most of the time did not mean anything. Nowadays, my writing is inspired by my experiences and the encounters I have. However, it is my indignation at all the inequalities that I see in our world that mostly inform my writing. I write to change the world in my own way.
TM: We talked a little bit about how you stand out in the world of slam by adding music to your poetry. Tell me more about why. When did you start doing this?
Kémit: Since my very first experiences performing live (around 2011), I had music accompanying my poetry. Most slam artists who perform with music utilise soft classical music and instruments (like guitar or piano), and this way of performing bored me. I was heavily influenced by my grandmother when I was young, and her affinity for live music (Zairian rumba, Gabonese rumba, traditional Punu music and others), so I knew I wanted to have more rhythm in my work. I wanted drums, saxophone, bass guitar, and guitar to accompany my poetry. The rhythm is in my genes and I cannot ignore it! Even now, there are many Bantu*** musical genres that I wish to put to my work, but it is not easy to find people who play these genres.
TM: Tell us about the Dakar music scene: the artists and musicians you work with.
Kémit: For me, the music scene in Dakar is one of the most open and rich ones in French-speaking Africa. I had the great opportunity to perform in five countries in French-speaking Africa in 2017, and it allowed me to measure the importance of Dakar (I would also add St Louis). Musicians from all over Africa are found everywhere because of the wealth of festivals and venues to perform at: Maison de la Culture Douta Seck (House of Culture Douta Seck), Place du Souvenir Africain (African Remembrance Square), Place de l'Obélisque (Obelisk Square), and Monument de la Renaissance Africaine (African Renaissance Monument). Music is also performed at many bars and music clubs like Just 4 U, and at cultural organizations like the Goethe Institut, and the French Institute (L’Institut Français).
TM: Where does your passion for, and commitment to liberation and pan-Africanism come from? Your childhood? Literature? Do you have political aspirations?
Kémit: My commitment stems from indignation. I come from Gabon, a country that leaves one with no choice but to revolt as there are so many incoherent and outrageous discrepancies between rich and poor that to not revolt is a lack of good faith. Drawing from the lives of great African leaders has also been an important force in my commitment to liberation and pan-Africanism. Very early I met Aimé Césaire in a book, then Patrice Lumumba, and Thomas Sankara. I discovered Nina Simone, Angela Davis, Marcus Garvey and Cheikh Anta Diop, as well as lesser known people like Nyonda Makita, a warrior from my lineage who fought the intrusion of colonialism and I was fascinated by the grandeur and dignity of this man. Being a politician does not interest me, I can help my people through different means: my only political aspirations are my music and writing.
TM: In a song we are working on together, “Martyr Luther Queen,” your verses are technically complex and emotionally powerful. I want to know how you work: is it inspiration alone that gives you the words? Do you practice to master these technical writing skills?
Kémit: I like pushing my limits and not remaining in my comfort zone. Since I have been practicing my writing craft for several years, I have been able to develop some ease with which to place words in a way to express what I wish. I like to write on two levels: the first is accessible to all, and the second level is offered to those who have some cultural and historical knowledge background. At first, I write what my heart dictates but I do not always stop at this level of writing (well, it depends on the texts). For the piece we're working on, I've decided to approach it from a technical level for two reasons: first of all, it's a tribute to black people who have changed the lives of millions of others, so we cannot do an homage to heroes in a superficial way. I want to create deep, knowledgeable and emotional verses that celebrate their achievements. In reality it is a challenge, I know that the core of the text is very powerful, so I focused on perfecting the form. I spent sleepless nights to achieve my desired result. I am very strict with myself and set high expectations for myself, especially in writing but it's worth it, we say "we do not lead a lot by wearing small shoes."
"The rhythm is in my genes and I cannot ignore it."
TM: Can you give us an example of this technical and emotional feat with one of your words?
Kémit: This is from a passage about Cesária Évora, the great Cape Verdean songstress:
Original: “Une poussée Lyricale aux allures d’une césarienne, dévora l’univers musical sous la voix de Cesária Évora.”
Translation: "A Lyrical push with the look and gait of a cesarean, devoured the musical world under the voice of Cesária Évora.”
TM: You organize writing and slam workshops around the region, do you have any tips for my readers?
Kémit: What I advocate is the freedom to do and to say. Art to me is sincere, profound, and comes from the heart, the soul and the spirit. My advice is to be yourself and to have confidence in yourself. Do not be afraid of being a bad writer when you first start, because it is by trying and practicing that we improve. Start by believing in yourself and the world will only follow suit.
* Mbalax: A Senegalese popular music style that blends Wolof traditional instrumental and vocal forms primarily with Cuban and other Latin American popular genres. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.
** Son: A Cuban genre and form which is the root of most Salsa music today. Son music heavily uses African rhythms brought to Cuba by slaves. Source: Just Salsa.
*** Bantu: A general term for over 400 different ethnic groups in Africa, from Cameroon, Southern Africa, Central Africa, to Eastern Africa, united by a common language family (the Bantu languages) and in many cases common customs. Source: New World Encyclopedia.