Dike Chukwumerije is a wordsmith and performance poet extraordinaire. Within a few years he has succeeded in elevating the art of performance poetry in a country where the arts are hardly ever accorded their rightful place. He shares his story with The Interview…
You studied law, even have a Master’s in law but you chose to be a performance poet, why?
Maybe the question should be, why law? (Laughs); because the ability to write and do poetry was there from a very young age. And perhaps, I should have been guided to read something more relevant to my natural ability. However, as it’s typical of traditional Nigerian parents, there were three basic options to choose from: medicine, engineering or law. And law was what suited best my inclination towards reading, writing and things like that, and so I read law. But I say that just to say that I have always been writing. And I have always kept what I wrote. I must have been nine or ten when I started writing these poems and keeping them. So, there was never any conflict with what I read in school. I just read it because I had to read something that was agreeable to my father in particular. Law is a fantastic thing to study and I am grateful that I studied it. But I always knew, even right from when I was young, that, that was not my line.
Did you go to law school?
Yes I did. I fulfilled all righteousness.
Does anything in your background inform your choice of career as a writer and a performance poet artist?
Yes. My parents are very artistic. My dad was a journalist and our house was full of books. We were encouraged to read all the time and I remember as young children he will make us watch the 7:00 o’clock news and ask us to summarize the news. He would give us compositions exercises and he would mark. Some of my earliest memories were red pen on composition exercises that he gave us. And my elder brother, our firstborn, also had artistic ability. He used to write and compose music. I adored him; he was my hero. I think the very first poem I wrote was simply a transcription of his poetry; I was just copying what he wrote into another exercise book. So, I was sort of surrounded by very creative, artistic tendencies from a very young age. So, it came naturally. My mum was a fantastic storyteller, a natural storyteller. So, these things influenced and absorbed you from the environment even from a young age.
What does it mean to you?
For me, it’s an outlet, first of all, as all art is. Without it, I will be very bottled up and, probably, would have some mental issues (laughs) because it’s an outlet for grievances. Growing up, it was virtually the only way to express myself; I didn’t talk much, but I wrote. Performance poetry came a bit later, with the need to write poetry and recite them. But as I became more interested in communicating with a wider audience and as I began to have some sort of ideas I felt that people needed to know about, performance poetry became more important to me. So, to me, performance poetry is a tool that allows me to communicate to the world what I believe and hold dear.
How and where do you get inspiration for your poems?
Inspirations come from everywhere. Honestly, inspiration comes from everywhere. I am inspired by everything, but generally, maybe in the last 10 to 12 years, the dominant sources of inspiration have been love; love is always inspiration to art, and politics, and religion - the whole questions of who we are, why we are here and what our purpose is. I think these are the three dominant sources of inspiration for now. But generally, one is inspired by everything - music, movies, things you see on the streets, bill boards.
Let’s talk about the business side now. For how long have you been doing this?
I have been doing this for maybe 9 to 10 years now.
How has it been?
On the business side, it’s very tough because performance poetry is a new phenomenon to the Nigerian society. Particularly, when we started, people didn’t know what it was. They needed to see it first to know it. You are faced with that barrier of trying to sell something nobody knows. But by persistence and consistency, we’ve been able to build a brand, particular here in Abuja, where people have been to one or two shows and they have seen one two thing you do. They have seen it and they like it and they have become by themselves a sort of publicist or marketers for you to tell other people.
So it’s been organic growth for us; we’ve been growing slowly. I think the first commercial show I did was two or three years ago; before them it had been free. We just did it for free.
So, how were you funding the shows when they were free of charge?
You have to have another source of income to fund it. At that point we were doing it as a passion, trying to build a market for it. The demand didn’t exist, so we had to build up the demand. We had to keep showcasing it for free. We were doing it just for free; just come and see, come and see. I think the first commercial thing we did was in 2012 or 2013, I can’t remember. By then, we believed we had developed enough traction to put a price on it. A lot of people said it would not work, that it had never been done before; you cannot charge for poetry, nobody will come. True to what they said, the first time we put a price on an event, the numbers fell. But then we persevered and the numbers have been growing. Now, one is able to make money from poetry; what we couldn’t do a couple of years back.
When you say you now make money, does it mean that you now cover the cost of your production and still make money?
Yes. You are able to cover your cost of production. The margins are very thin; you are not a multi-millionaire yet. Even though sometimes people can invite you to come and perform and pay you, that’s a secondary source of income that can allow you make ends meet. But in terms of putting a production together, the margins are very thin. A lot of time, you are just barely breaking even, or just below breaking even, or just above breaking even for full blown production. Obviously, it depends on what kind of production you are doing. Last year, we decided to do a massive production entitled ‘Made in Nigeria’. Just thought it was important we were doing something big, really big to put poetry on a stage where people had never seen it before. So, a lot money went into that and that money hasn’t come back yet. Even though at every show people pay for tickets and money comes in, we’ve not been able to break even yet. But we have broken other grounds with that show in terms of audience attendance, publicity and visibility, and in terms of reach. There are other positives that have come out of it that eventually would translate into profit. So, it’s a medium to long term perspective.
So you see the industry getting better?
Yes. It has a lot of potential. There is a lot of demand. It has a growing demand. A lot of young people are beginning to be attracted to it. They are beginning to see it as viable. They think, ‘This person is doing it, I can do it’. So it’s creating that traction. It’s the beginning of an Industry. It’s only a question of time before somebody makes a breakthrough out with it. I am 100 per cent sure of that. It’s just a question of time.
What can we do as a society to unlock the potential in the industry?
I think funding is the big issue. Having the money to put a show together is one issue; another issue is publicity, mainstream publicity. Art forms like this that are still sort of relying, almost exclusively, on social media for publicity, can have its limitation. There is not enough publicity in the mainstream media. The thing about mainstream publicity is that it carries a certain air with it. People tend to take it more seriously when they see you on mainstream channels as an art form. In a place like Abuja, the major constraint is venue, place where to do things. Abuja doesn’t have a theatre. Abuja doesn’t really have a space for art and cultural activities; so, you’re forced to do things in hotels, restaurants - just wherever you can find. I think particularly, from the point of view of the government, we have a place like the Cyprian Ekwensi Center for Art and Culture at Area 10, Garki, but like everything managed by the public sector, it’s not really been available and maintained. I think even the private sector could be looking into it, to invest in a theatre. How can a whole capital city not have one viable, vibrant theatre? I think that it is definitely going to happen in few years as the industry is growing.
Talking about the private sector, you know the private investors are always after what is coming back to them, so what can people like you, those in the industry, do to make it more attractive to private investors?
I think in terms of attracting funding, there are two ways: its either you appeal to people, you beg for charity, donations, which an artist often has to do. Second thing is to show that there is potential for profit; there is a viable market here. And, typically, you do that by demonstrating the size of your audience. So as artists, apart from working on our ability to write proposals, we also need to work very hard and grow the audience for what we do. Artists and writers tend to be very insular, you know: ‘I am just doing this thing, I don’t really care whether people appreciate it or not’. So, I think it is good we also have other groups of artists who care whether people appreciate or not, and who deliberately cultivate a market and audience, because when businessmen look and see hundreds and thousands of people are coming, people will begin to say this is an opportunity for them to invest.
What do you think the government can do to help?
There is very little encouragement in this sector. A few weeks ago, I was at a conference abroad for a sort of cultural entrepreneurship for different countries. One thing I noticed was that some of our counterparts from other countries had a lot of access to public sector grants. Government essentially would have a pool of money set aside just to promote cultural activities in a city. So you can imagine a place like the FCT (Federal Capital Territory, Abuja) having N100 million set aside. All you have to do is write and say I want to do this project and you will be given the money. I think that is one thing the government can do; because a lot of young people are into the arts but they don’t have support. So, it creates jobs and employment for people. Look at a city like Abuja, no statues, no art works in the public space. At the roundabout, it’s just dry. There is nothing anywhere. So, if you have a government that puts up stuffs like these, it would be creating jobs for young people. So, that’s one big thing for government to do, even if it is like N10 million every year. Just let people know that there is a fund they can apply to for cultural projects in their cities and there will be projects everywhere. And like I said, space is very important. The government has the best facilities in Abuja. You have places like the National University Commission with an amphitheatre; you have Merit House, etc. How about opening it at subsidized rates for cultural events, so that when you go there and you want to have a cultural event, they give you at a rate that suits what you are doing. These are very simple things that any government can do. Because the energy is there, you don’t have to create the art yourself; people are just looking for channels.
If you were to advise a young, aspiring performing poet, what are the three things you would tell the person?
Well, I’d say passion; passion is priceless. Like I had explained, it’s not like you are making tonnes of money for doing this. The primary driver is passion, so you have to be passionate about this thing that you are doing. Two, there has to be a commitment to excellence. You have to practise and practise to develop yourself. You have to be committed to perfecting your artwork, the reason being that it is so new and so unknown. You probably would not get more than one chance to convince the audience that this is worth their time. You might just have one shot, so you have to be very prepared when you get that opportunity. The next thing I’d say is network. Use your social network to share your art works. Net-work with other artists; don’t be a loner.
There’s the poem of yours, ‘I’m Not From A Broken Home’. I can imagine where that is coming from, but at what stage did you realize that though your parents were not together, you were not from a broken home?
Like I said quite earlier, in that write-up, it was my mother. She was very instrumental to helping me. Divorce is a very traumatic experience for the children. A lot of time, people focus on the parties involved, but there is always a very traumatic experience for the child. There is nothing that is more painful, as a child, than being put in a situation where you feel you have to choose between your father and your mother. It’s very traumatic for a child. So, it creates all kinds of problems. Sometimes, it creates anger in the child against the parents; you can hate your parents. So, growing up, I had a lot of confusion in my emotion as to who to love, who to be loyal to, who to be obedient to, whose side to take; a lot of anger. And then it was my mum who helped me to negotiate through all these things by helping me to understand that it was not in my place to choose either side and that mine was simply to love my parents and to receive their love in return; that whatever happened between them was their business as two adults and it wasn’t my place to take to anybody’s side. And I remember one of the greatest gifts she gave me was letting me know that she loved my father; that even though she was not with him and they had issues, she loved him. And it was such an important assertion; it helped to heal me. She also made me understand that, sometimes, you just accept people for who they are; you don’t keep insisting that (things must be this way or that). Even if the two of you cannot live together, it does mean that person is a bad person, it just means that the two of you cannot live together; you are different, just accept them as they are. So, there were little conversations we used to have at a very critical stage in my life, when I was about 15 or 16, that just helped to redirect all that anger to things that were more constructive, and to help me to be a more emotionally intelligent person. So, I give her fully the credit for that.
In one of your poems, ‘We Are One Nation’, you said so much about Nigeria and her unity; is it that you don’t believe in the present agitation for Biafra Republic from Southeastern Nigeria?
I think the grievances are very valid. People have grievances; those grievances need to be addressed. However, I came to a very different conclusion: I don’t think Nigeria is finished; I don’t think Nigeria is irredeemable; I don’t think that Nigeria is something that cannot be fixed. My position has always been that I am a Nigerian. There many people like me. Some people have different life experiences. You might have an Igbo person who was born in the South East, grew up in the South East; I accept that we will have different worldviews. I am one of those Nigerians who was born outside my region of origin, grew up outside my region of origin, went to school and met friends; so my own perspective is very different as well. Nigeria is very real to me. She is not just an artificial entity; I grew up in her, my memories are in her. If you take her away, you are also taking away a big chunk of me, my consciousness, my identity. So, it is not a theoretical argument for me. I cannot just easily dismiss her, because she is my history, she is my home, she is my part, and she is my country. I haven’t given up on her. There are also many things that I see that give me hope. I talk about this with my friends. I have seen inter-tribal marriages, friendships, relationships, partnerships that give you hope that people can rise above tribal and religious divides and come together; that people can agree and have one mind on issues. I have seen so many countless examples that give me hope. For me, in final analysis, the poverty of someone in Enugu State is not different from the poverty of someone from Sokoto State. The bad governance that somebody in Anambra is suffering is not different from what someone in Katsina is suffering. So, I feel that the good causes of our situation are not being correctly identified; that it is not a Muslim or a northern person that is keeping you down; there is a systemic incapacity for good governance that is keeping everybody down. And we need to address that and not this sort of whipping up these parochial sentiments. So, yes, I agree that the grievances are valid; how to tackle them is where I disagree. I don’t think that it is good to encourage our brothers and sisters to hate other people, and dividing the country is not the solution. I think we need to invest in love, in tolerance, in understanding, in meritocracy; these are things that would bring people together regardless of tribe and religion.
Do you have any aspiration to step into your late father’s shoe in politics?
Ermm…, one thinks about it but I don’t seriously consider it; not at the moment at least, because I just feel that I have a lot to contribute in this socio-cultural space. I think politics is reactionary; in my view, politicians do a sort of what is populist: they follow the trend; they don’t usually set the trend. So when Nigerians say that politicians are corrupt, it’s because the society is corrupt. They reflect the society much more than they set the trend for the society. And a good politician in office, unless he has a socio-cultural backing, a populist backing for progressive policies, he cannot implement them. He needs people to want him to do this thing seriously for him to do it. But a situation where what the entire people are asking you for in the village are boreholes, motorcycles, and all these little things, and they keep re-electing you, you will have no incentive to take on the big and more serious issues. So, it is for us to sensitize our people to let them realize that they should be asking for more from their political leaders. Don’t just be asking for boreholes, ask for better life; ask for good education for your children; ask for a good system; ask for a good country, and ask for a just country. When we begin to make bigger demands on our politicians, then politicians will live up to our expectations, because that is what politicians do: they want to get re-elected and whatever it is you demand from them to be re-elected, they will give it to you. That’s how I see it.
What else do you do when you are not writing poems?
Nothing much, to be honest; I live a very boring life. It is either I am reading or writing or attending to general needs at home with my family. (Laughs) I live a very boring life.
Did you see yourself ever giving up poetry?
I don’t think so.
What if someone offers you a big job?
I will take the job and I will still be writing poems (Laughs). I may not be doing public performance poetry in five to seven years from now. I think it will fizzle out by then and I have other interests. So, I won’t be doing performance poetry for the rest of my life. But, in terms of writing poetry, it’s always been there. Like I said, for me, it is an outlet. I can only get it out by writing, so I will always be writing. But I don’t think I will always be a performance poet, performing on stage and doing productions for the rest of my life. I will like to do other things. I will like to teach in a university as a lecturer.
Finally, do you have role models?
Yes I do, in several of areas of life. My parents are very strong models for me, for different reasons. My dad was a very disciplined, very focused person. Mum is a very emotionally intelligent, very subtle. There is this happiness and joy that she has in her. My brothers, too, are there. I am blessed; I am surrounded by people who are very talented, very strong personalities that inspire me. I always tell people that one of my mentors is my younger brother, who very early in his life decided that he wanted to be a businessman, and I just couldn’t understand, because he had a very good job; he quit it voluntarily and started on his own. That was an inspiring act. I always think back to it; that if he had the courage to follow his dream, I can do the same. I have a younger brother who has been to the Olympics, and knowing his journey, how he got there, the amount of work, the amount of sacrifice he put in there, is inspiring. So my family is full of people that inspire me greatly. There are other people outside there, but these are people that made the most impact on me. I think when you are inspired by somebody you know, it’s stronger, because you know all their stories, because those are the kinds of things that I like. So, I know their stories; I see them every day; I know their weaknesses; I know their struggles; I know that they are not always correct and always perfect and always succeeding, but I just see how they constantly continue turning things around and that, for me, is very inspiring.
What does love mean to you?
Wow! What does love mean to me? The only thing I can say is that love is a conscious decision to stay, to commit to something and to stick to that decision. I think, increasingly, that that’s what love is to me. It is not an emotion; it’s not how you feel - the same way a father would put food on his child’s table every single day, it doesn’t matter how he feels. I don’t know, maybe because I am in that phase of life where I have young children, you have a marriage, you have responsibility, so you don’t really have the luxury of romance, not that it’s not important. When you begin to realize that if you keep waiting to feel before you act, that the world would go to blazes; things need to be done, so you just realize that whatever it is that makes you get up, regardless of the fact that you are not feeling anything, and do, that is love.