Choosing performance arts pays off for student slam poet

Kwanele Nyembe, the student who was crowned South Africa’s National Poetry Slam champion during the Poetry Africa Festival in October 2022, has his eye set firmly on the first prize at the 2023 World Slam Poetry competition in Brazil later this year. In the meantime, the young man is working hard at his studies and his career as a writer, actor and podcaster.

Nyembe, who was born in Ladysmith in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, lives in Durban where he is studying towards an honours degree in drama and performance studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in drama and performance arts and media and cultural studies.

Although the arts have always been in his blood, Nyembe left high school to study law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. But, overcome by his love of drama and the performing arts, he dropped out and went to pursue his passion at UKZN. Nyembe said creativity runs in his family. His mother was a primary school drama teacher and his love for the performing arts grew while accompanying her to shows and events. His father was an engineer.

His parents were disappointed when he dropped out of law school, he said, but he told himself that he was going to make it in his chosen path so that they would be proud of him.

Background and character count

Nyembe said he always had a love for writing and delved deeper into it at high school, where there were no drama classes. He would sometimes pen down songs. His writing is creative, but also based on reasoning, he said. “When you write, you must not only portray characters beautifully, but tell stories that indicate or reflect some of the social issues faced in life. Your own background and character also contribute to what you write,” he said.

Organised by the Centre for Creative Arts within the faculty of human sciences at UKZN, Poetry Africa is held annually in Durban, South Africa. Poets from across Africa gather for seven to 10 days for events, including theatre performances, readings, music and book launches, seminars, workshops, open mic opportunities and school visits.

The World Slam Poetry competition is also held annually, bringing together poets from all over the world.

Last year, South African poet Xabiso Vili was crowned champion of the 2022 World Slam Poetry in Brussels, Belgium, City Press reported on 30 September 2022. It is now up to Nyembe to keep the title in South Africa.

When he became national champion, Nyembe walked away with ZAR22,000 (approximately $1,200) in prize money in addition to the honour of representing South Africa on the world stage in Brazil this year during the World Slam Poetry Competition. His national winning poem was titled, ‘When the sun decided to set and never returned’, which touches on the love for family.

“I draw my motivation from myself and my interest in understanding the nature of things. My writing is mostly reflective of where I stand in relation to my environment. I am the person I can speak about with honesty,” said Nyembe.

Nyembe is also the co-founder of the podcast Sink or Swim, a platform that serves as a media outlet for Durban-based performing artists to talk about their work and introduce to the world the person behind it. He started that with a friend, and it seems to be well received, he said.

Talking about the upcoming World Poetry Slam, Nyembe said: “South Africa has the best poets in the world, and I am grateful to Poetry Africa for echoing this. I am looking forward to retaining the title for South Africa in Brazil.”

Poetry is “magic”

In a press statement released on 13 October 2022 after Nyembe won the right to represent South Africa in Brazil, UKZN said that, as a performer, the student had worked with the Embassy of Sweden in Pretoria together with Hear my Voice, “which curated a virtual series that incorporated creatives from different art sectors, including fashion, literature, music, spoken word, media, government, and academia, for the purpose of co-learning, adapting to change and support during the peak of the pandemic”.

The press statement quoted Dr Philip Meersman from Belgium, a jury member for Slam Jam and head of World Poetry Slam as saying: “The use of Kwanele’s voice, the deliberate delivery in [not] using the microphone, the audience interaction, restrained emotions, biblical references, together with decorticating the human body into its essence with texts that were harsh as well as blaming and bringing people together shows a well-deserved win. He is a true winner in every sense of the word, capturing and captivating his audience. He is a kind of magic that must be experienced live by the world.”

After finishing his studies, Nyembe plans to pursue art, expand his career, and uplift others. “I will be pursuing art, more partnerships, focusing on the business side, creating space for other artists to also blossom. Just to contribute to the industry and elevate the culture – those are my plans,” he said.