The first time I was confronted by the reality that a good number of young poets were ‘sounding and moving like me’ while performing poetry, I was still a literature teacher and poetry coach at Nabisunsa Girls School.
In 2012, Mr Juma Kaddu, then the ‘Careers Master’ of the school, shared with me how he had noted, from the students’ poetry performance he had attended, that the rhymers (the poets in school) recited, sounded and even gesticulated like me. At first, I thought it was a compliment (after all imitation is the best form of a compliment,) but after I was summoned by the Head Teacher Hajat Aisha Lubega on the same issue, I realised it was a note of genuine concern. I was advised to help them grow into themselves. But I did not appreciate the criticism at that time. In my defence, I was not teaching them to imitate me. If anything, I thought was doing exactly what the Head Teacher was already recommending I do.
The Nabisunsa poets were probably the most exposed poets to other genres. They watched Def Jam poetry videos, Button poetry videos, and Ted Talks poetry performances every weekend, they interacted with many, many performance poets I invited weekly to meet them or to feature at their poetry recitals (name a good performance poet you know in Uganda and probably they have been to Nabisunsa); they staged monthly poetry readings where they shared their own works, the older students used to train the younger poets in performance poetry in preparation of recitals, they performed at Bayimba Festival, I took them to watch drama at the Kampala International Theatre Festival, etc.
But with all this exposure, the students were still ‘reciting poems like Mr Kagayi.’
And it was not just the school administration taking note; even my colleagues in the English Language and Literature Dept were voicing similar observations. Even my fellow poets noted ‘the imitation’ and let both the students and I know of it: Slim Emcee even publicly and addressed this issue when he met students at school and at the Uganda National Theatre. It seemed whatever concoctions I was serving as medicine to cure ‘this disease’ were not working. So I resolved to seal off the criticism once and for all: I stopped performing poetry on the school premises.
I also realised, since now ‘I had an identifiable performance style’, I had to change my stage delivery to maintain my authenticity. So I gravitated towards dramatising my poems. I realised while reciting poetry sharpened articulation, it had a downside: it easily creates a monotonous style of delivery so a poet ends up sounding the same way even as they recited different poems. Meanwhile, drama helps the performer easily become a different persona with each poem performed. This was when my team and I put together THE AUDIENCE MUST SAY AMEN.
I also resolved to stop training the students in performance poetry. I asked them to do it themselves or the alternative would be to invite a guest trainer.
But still, the ‘Kagayi imitation’ issue did not go away. It followed me into the Verse In Vac poetry program and there, I did not know how to immediately react because Verse In Vac was comprised of students from schools where I was not working; students who, perhaps, had watched some of my You-Tube videos and had maybe just heard of me. Even Moses Serugo once commented on how the SMACK poets were imitating ‘the ‘Kagayi Style’ of performing poetry.
And now, on reading through Pamela Acaye’s Facebook post (written in 2020) where she notes how she had to expunge the ‘Kagayi Imitation’ ghost from a poetry training session late last year, I realise this ‘Kagayi imitation’ issue has not gone away. Despite the pains I have gone through to expose the poets to the multitudes of great performance poets (having them watch and memorize Africa’s best performance poets eg Koleka Putuma’s and George the Poet’s works, having them even meet George the Poet, buying them poetry books and theatre tickets to watch various literary events), the ‘Kagayi Imitation’ saga still follows me.
I believe I have grown as a performer and I have different stage delivery ranges. I still coach poetry in high schools but I no longer perform for students. Even for those poets in Verse in Vac, they can only watch me ‘in action’ with the rest of the community as and when I stage a public show.
So I do not know what this ‘Kagayi imitation’ thing means anymore. Short of killing every poet ‘accused of imitating Kagayi’, now I do not know what to do. What I know is this: I am done fighting it. I am done trying to fight my own reflections. Maybe I should admit it, and maybe we all should:
I am a genre.
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