When James Baldwin described the writer's goal as stringing together sentences that were as clean as a bone, he wasn't to know that poet Kayo Chingonyi's debut collection Kumukanda would achieve exactly that. Kayo makes use of the scenic clarity that is only available on the 11th floor of tower block council estates in inner-city London, painting images borrowed from your favourite Channel U throwbacks.
Born in Zambia in 1987, Kayo moved to England aged six. Being away from his home country meant that he missed out on experiencing Kumukanda (translated as "initiation"), the rites of passage young boys from the Luvale tribe must complete before being considered a man. Kayo's paths to adulthood were instead explored through performing poetry on stage.
To coincide with the release of Kumukanda – Kayo's debut collection of poems and assorted works – I met with him to discuss his influences, grime's poetic value and the raging battle between manhood and masculinity.
VICE: Hi Kayo. Since publishing your first chapbook and winning the Poet Society award, I can imagine that your experience as a writer has shifted. Has your process changed at all?
Kayo Chingonyi: Some Bright Elegance was released in 2012 and I was 25 years old. I collected work from my late teens and early twenties, and really what I was capturing were the early stages of my writing. Since then the work I've been making is more in the direction of where I want to go; it is more overtly political and I'm incorporating some of the influences I have picked up along the way. A lot of my drafting happens in my head as I'm cycling, and I keep the idea flowing in my mind until I can write it down.
Poetry and spoken word is your chosen medium – did it find you or did you find it? And what is the relationship between the written word and performance?
I remember as a young child always being interested in writing short stories. Poetry came to me by accident because I was writing lyrics when I was 13 years old and, at school, we would be set tasks of writing poetry. I was good at it but I didn't enjoy it until I got involved with a poetry slam that was mentioned in assembly, and from then on I was exposed to poets, spoken word performances and live nights. At it's best my work is a marriage of the poem on the page – something that can be read and contemplated by the reader – and also something that can be listened to. I write to satisfy a curiosity that comes about through the creative process of being preoccupied with an idea or a philosophical question and seeing where the poem takes me.
The striking cover art for Kumukanda, "A Radical Under Beechwood", is the distinct brush stroke of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who was most recently cited as a direct inspiration for the visuals behind Solange's "Don't Touch My Hair". What inspired this choice?
At some point I knew I wanted a black man or a boy to be on the cover, because Kumukanda concerns itself with black masculinity, self-fashioning and that transition from boyhood to manhood – which, within blackness, has a number of complications, one of which being some black men not being permitted to enter into manhood from boyhood due to structural prejudices. I considered several images from Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's portfolio, but what I'm really drawn to in her work is how she draws performance; dancers, actors and exhibitionist figures.
There's a clear and strong underlying presence of contemporary music in your work – in particular, black British sounds such as garage and grime – that is really felt in Kumukanda. What role does music play in your life and in your artistic practice?
My creative work is not always drawn from my lived experiences in a direct way, but it is always informed by it. Music is very much a part of who I am as a person; it shapes how I understand the world and, at various formative moments, music has always been there. It's the one thing besides poetry that never goes away. I make music entirely for my enjoyment and entertainment, but it is something that fills me and eases my mind. While writing is a job and directly related to my career, music will always be my sanctuary – like a friend, almost, and music has been that to me before poetry entered my life.
During your time as the ICA's Associate Poet you were key in the programming "Poetics of Grime". What is the poetic significance of grime lyricism and who are some of London's best poets?
I got into grime as distinct from garage around 2002 through my cousin, who is a music producer. He started making beats using Music2000 on Playstation, and he was the one who gave me tapes of pirate radio, and he would always be singing songs. He would eventually get into spitting and formed a crew who made their own tapes – from there I got into grime, the DJs and instrumentals. But I was always an observer. I wrote rap lyrics, but grime was different. Requiem was an MC name that stuck with me for a while, and I even performed poetry under that name for a period of time.
The significance of grime is people finding a way to be creatively expressive even if they don't have access to knowledge through traditional means; instead, they may learn about philosophy through a Wu-Tang song. Grime is poetic in that same spirit of being someone who doesn't have much to do, observing the world that surrounds you and having political and philosophical conversations with yourself and the world through the means of words. That engagement with the world through words is what makes grime poetic; as soon as you begin to describe something, you're already involved in a fiction-making creative process, and poetry means making. The lyrics themselves are very intricate and expansive structures that take a long time to perfect. The rhythm in a grime lyric is very much designed, even though it can seem effortless.
Dot Rotten, especially in his RIP Young Dot era, is one of London's best poets. That mixtape is very poetic because he is exploring different possibilities for the lyric. There are chanted lyrics, lyrics that are spat and sung, the rhyming patterns in Dot Rotten's lyrics are really complicated and he's weaving them in and out of each other. Similarly, I think that Wiley is the quintessential craftsman who works hard at writing lyrics. He never slacks off from it and has improved with time, whereas others have found a signature or a formula and stuck to that because it's successful. Wiley has been – possibly to his detriment – restless. And although Dizzee Rascal has exceptionally catchy and musical bars that grab people, there are intricacies in what Sharky Major and Kano were doing, it has taken a long while for people to appreciate them fully as lyricists.
What is it exactly about the overlapping relationship between masculinity and race you're addressing in your work?
Within the wider consciousness of what black masculinity consists of, the opportunities for tenderness and softness are rare. Perhaps the only space to be tender is the barbershop. There are people who have spent ten years rolling with their boys and they still can't express love, which they obviously feel for these people, and they can't say so overtly. When it is expressed it has to be cloaked in machismo posturing. So I'm trying to find a space for uncomplicated, unmediated, unqualified love and tenderness of that kind that can exist between black men. So much in the world encourages black men in particular to hate themselves, each other and to be complicit in that mutual destruction. And so it remains a revolutionary thing to advocate for love.
Being away from your country of birth, Zambia, and therefore not able to practice Kumukanda traditionally, what was your alternative?
There was no alternative, but some of the formative moments I have experienced in the UK stood in for the rites of passage. Such as my first interactions with police officers, when I had reached an awareness of how my black body exists in the wider consciousness and how to stand up for yourself. Those are situations in which a black boy is forced to grow and reach adulthood prematurely. But there is no formal thing I could do to approximate the tradition of Kumukanda – it's really something I began to miss in my late twenties and started to think about the things that are missing in my life that are tribal and traditional.
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