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SLAM POETRY

New word order – SA slam poet Xabiso Vili’s ‘battle cry’ conquers the globe

New word order – SA slam poet Xabiso Vili’s ‘battle cry’ conquers the globe
Xabiso Vili. Image: Supplied

On 29 September South African Xabiso Vili was declared winner of the 2022 World Slam Poetry Competition, among 40 slam poets representing nations around the world. Bringing this award home for South Africa, Vili says ‘the sky is not the limit for South African poetry’.

Xabiso Vili began writing poetry at just 12 years old. His passion for poetry is what has kept him alive: “It is how I have coped and made sense of the world around and inside me.”

His upbringing in rural South Africa has shaped his work as a poet and how he navigates the poetry space. “As a born male and being raised to be traditionally masculine, while interacting with my blackness and queerness, there are so many stories I have unravelled within and around my identity that many South Africans can resonate with,” he says.

When Vili performed his slam poem, Forget How to Die, in Brussels in the final round of the World Slam Poetry Competition, it was, he explains, the realisation of one of his lifetime dreams – the poem is a universal piece that speaks to marginalised communities, from women to queer communities to black people.

“I brought this title home for other South African poets who are looking toward the future. 

“It was a reclaiming of life, a battle cry that we will no longer die at the hands of society, of ourselves, and of the bureaucratic world we are leaning toward,” Vili explains.

Now 31, Vili is an award-winning performer, writer, new media artist, producer, digital strategist and social activist. He has released an album, a one-man show and a poetry collection, and co-authored a young adult novella, to name a few of his achievements.

Vili plans to use this title to “explore what spaces poetry can access and what kinds of societal healing poetry can bring about”. 

“I’m strategising the ways that poetry can shift the world… I’m imagining the reality that poetry can change our society, starting with healing individuals.”

Read in Daily Maverick: Saving African poetry from obscurity

A step forward for South African poetry

He’s passionate about South African poetry, noting that it operates like a mirror in which other people can see themselves. South Africans are able to find profound healing, insight and understanding through coming together and bearing witness to each other’s stories. He believes South African poets are doing vital work, trying to make an impact; they are “innovating” and “exploring new mediums of creation”, he says. “South Africa has the best poets in the world, and it is a ripe breeding ground for some of the most powerful poetry I’ve ever seen.” 

Vili has travelled all over the world and met many international poets who have influenced him, but “there is something about South Africa’s history, dynamics and languages, and being born into a culture and tradition of protest, that allows such incredible insight into the human and political condition of the country”, he adds. 

Xabiso Vili is the winner of the 2022 World Slam Poetry Competition. Image: Supplied

Xabiso Vili is the winner of the 2022 World Slam Poetry Competition. Image: Supplied

There is a powerful written and oral storytelling tradition in South Africa: “Being able to stand on the shoulders of the South African poetry tradition and take it to the rest of the world is incredibly affirming to me.”

Read in Daily Maverick: Mourning loved ones, weeping for lost years, writing to purge – join me on a journey in poetry

A mission to help others

Vili says poetry is a form of therapy and hopes that the healing that the written word has sparked inside of him can be replicated and shared. “It only makes sense to use the art form that has housed me and healed me for so long to try and achieve the same for others,” he says, believing that poetry offers humanity a path toward joy.

 “Xabiso represents a generation of young South African Slam Poets who actively use their voices to advocate for a more just social order,” notes Marlyn Ntsele, managing director at iSupport Creative Business.

Xabiso Vili.

Xabiso Vili performing. Image: Supplied

Vili was also recently selected as the New Generations Featured Poet for the 26th Poetry Africa Festival presented by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He will perform from 6 to 16 October in Johannesburg, Durban and online. 

The Slam Jam competition this year will select the poet who will represent South Africa at the World Championships in Brazil in 2023.

“It’s one of the best festivals in the world that any African poet is honoured to be invited to,” Vili explains. “I’m incredibly grateful and humbled I get to share such an inclusive, illustrious stage with some of the best poets from all over the world.” 

To get an “inkling” of the power of South African poetry, Poetry Africa is “the best place to start… Getting to this moment in my life is a fulfilled dream for me, and I’m looking forward to what is to come”. DM/ML


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