As he stepped forward to the microphone, he knew what many people did not know: he was about to win the 2017 War of Words (WoW) national slam. His greatest rival and one of the slam’s favourites, the dark-skinned Charlee, had just performed an energetic eulogy, to a mild applause. Taking the spot where Charlee had stood only seconds ago, he slightly adjusted the microphone stand, wiped a part of his face, leant forward, clasped his hands on his groin, and spoke into the mic: “Well, I need you to understand that I’m not just poetry, I’m prose.” Barely pausing to catch a breath, he said, “I am the character haunting your favourite novels, the tragedy awaiting Shakespearean couples!”
And on he went, weaving words, conscripting his audience into a world of his making. When he said, “I can waltz a Soyinka out of his own silver flock” the audience screamed their amazement and delight and after “I am the energized muse, I will not power down; I laid waste to Mario Puzo, I’m the Godfather now” everyone was clapping and screaming and cameras were clicking away, lights flashing. Phenomenal performances had been witnessed at the WoW contests, however nobody had been prepared for a peculiar finale as this. While the master of ceremony sought the verdict of the seated judges, the crowd accepted Wayne Samuel as the champion. They would go on to christen him ‘the Godfather’.
To Paul Word, the 2014 winner of the slam, Samuel’s victory was utterly “well deserved.” Innocent Momodu, poet and former judge of the Eko Literary Slam, told me that a good poem does not always win slams; good presentation does. A captivating voice, good diction and “how well you can fuck around with people’s head can help you win, and Wayne has all of these qualities. He’s a good performer. He knows what a slam is all about and he has done his job. If he won Charles, then he could have won anybody.”
But not everyone was convinced. Freezing Paul, one of the contenders who lost to Samuel in an earlier round, believes that the victory was as a result of sheer luck. “He was not the best poet at that competition, he was not the best performer.” The judges, too, had a soft spot for Samuel, he alleged. “He simply got lucky.” In a conversation before the kickoff of WoW Season 7, Freezing Paul told Samuel: “If you apply, you cannot make it. It’s not possible; you can’t win this back to back.” Freezing Paul’s position was informed by the fact that “poets are hungry” to make names and establish legacies, and that there was a general willingness to give the present winner a run for his money. “It’s easy to lose but harder to maintain a victory,” he said. “I thought that since he had won it, why don’t you chill? Why are you coming out again?” He wondered if Samuel was trying to tell other poets that they had no clue of what it meant to be a performer. To him, the prospect of a Wayne Samuel’s failure at the new edition was more realistic than another victory.
But Samuel, earnest to prove his doubters wrong, entered for WoW’s Season 7. And then the fear started. “It wasn’t that I had some detractors, every single person was a detractor,” Samuel told me. Some said he wouldn’t make it past the semi-finals. “There was so much pressure, when people said that I couldn’t do it, I became very afraid.”
Performance poetry has always been a revered craft in African societies. Minstrels appear at events, often in distinguished garbs and, through poetic narratives, recount or create tales and unleash expressions that stir the mind and engulf the heart. This artform has evolved over the years, however its effects have not lost resonation and appreciation. Nigeria has witnessed the advent of performance poets like the late Ezenwa-Ohaeto and Ikeogu Oke, and in recent times the Made In Nigeria series spearheaded by Dike Chukwumerije, has lit up cities across the country. Efe Paul, Titilope Sonuga, Chijioke Amu-nnadi, Chika Jones and Iquo Diana Abasi Eke, are other prominent performers working in the form today.
Adebola Afolabi (stage name: RezThaPoet), who has created a space (Griots and Bards) for spoken word expression in Lagos, traces the contemporary history of Spoken Word to The Last Poets, a group of African-American poets who have been credited for creating the “blueprint for hip-hop.” But Spoken Word is not hip-hop. There are no musical instruments to pace the flow of words and, according to Afolabi, it is more intellectually sophisticated. “Rap can water down,” he says. “Spoken Word is more scholarly and consciousness-driven than it is entertaining.”
Poetry slams tend to heighten the entertainment value of Spoken Word, as performers battle with one another, jostling for the crowd’s love and the Judge’s scores. Although the first poetry slam is said to have been at a Chicago jazz club in 1986, such contests have found deep roots in Nigeria, since the turn of this century, with the rise of platforms like Wordslam, The Lagos poetry Festival and War of Words National Contest.
Founded in 2013 by i2X, a media company that is arguably one of the major organisers of Spoken Word poetry events in Nigeria, the WoW made its debut edition in the June of that year. The chief aims of the contest were to use Spoken Word as a mirror that reflects Nigeria’s social and cultural realities, provide emotional therapy to the public and offer some income to performing poets, in a country where performance poetry has little financial reward.
After seven editions, funding remains the organiser’s major challenge, “but somehow, some way, we keep going and growing the competition,” Olumide Holloway, a founding member of the contest told me. The growth of the competition is not solely manifest in the widespread publicity and increasing numbers of nationwide entries it has been getting since inception, but also in the growth of the contest from a one-day event to one that spanned the course of three weekends in WoW Season 6 in 2017. The WoW Season 7, held last year, cut through eight weeks.
“Most of the thriving young poets in Nigeria today have in one way or the other participated in our events and competitions,” Holloway said. However, the organisers have bigger hopes for the contest. The ultimate plan remains to grow it into a “global franchise” and have an influential place in the world entertainment industry.
When Wayne Samuel was a child, he would enact the parts of the “aggressive” superhero movies he had seen in his head. He would perform gestures he had seen actors make and sharpen his voice to sound like theirs, lost in the illusory world in his head. Years later, he would confess that the childhood experience with movies which prompted imitations were his first encounter with “identifying and re-creating art.” As he grew older, he outgrew the characters and vistas in his head. He didn’t put up any original artwork until he was about twelve to thirteen years old.
An only child at the time, Samuel was raised by Suziette Ukey, a single mother who was studying Theatre Arts at the University of Benin, ironically the same university he would grow up to attend. She would return home from school and play videos of her stage dance performances for her son. The effect of these private screenings on the young Wayne Samuel was profound. “I started to understand storytelling through dance,” he told me during a lengthy interview over the phone. “My mom writes, my dad writes—although I wasn’t much exposed to him when I was growing up.” He also had an aunt that studied Visual Art in college. “There is a lot of art in my family,” he said. “I think one of the benefits of my mom being her is that she made it seem natural. Like she didn’t seem surprised that I could do all these things, and because of that it felt natural to me and made it easy for me to fill up the role and felt my way in the dark spaces.”
One of the advantages of having a young mother, Wayne admitted, is the exposure she has and the support she endlessly offers. “Sometimes she is the one that sits me down and says ‘I could introduce you to this person, this person is into this and that, he could really help you’. She’s in the creative industry, there’s a lot of things I could leverage, but I want to find my own way.”
In his late teens, Samuel left Lagos for Benin-city to study Mass Communication at the University of Benin. In 2014, as a freshman, he was part of the quaternity that founded the Creative Writers Club on the university campus. And it was that same year that he was approached by a friend, Chioma Okereke, accompanied by “some other guy from the campus fellowship”. She informed him of an upcoming event at one of the Christian Fellowships on campus and asked him to make a spoken word presentation. “I was like, ‘what’s that?’” Samuel had never heard of spoken word prior to the meeting. “She said that all I had to do was rhyme and speak. I did that. All I had to do was write a couple of lines and made them rhyme and I memorized it.” What would be his first spoken word performance is now a blur in his mind because “that was so long ago.” “The interesting thing is that it came to me more easily then that it does now. Back then it was so easy for me, like breathing.”
Spoken Word became a new interest to him and took a large chunk of his time and enthusiasm. “It was the last board of my creative abilities,” Samuel admitted. He performed spoken word poems at mostly Christian Fellowships at the university. In his sophomore year, he released his first Spoken Word track, I Left Lucy for Grace, a piece steeped in the Christian theology of grace and redemption.
In the first semester of his third year at the university, Samuel came up with a concrete and “all encompassing plan” which was to build a media empire in Africa. “I realized that I’m not just a spoken word artiste, I’m not just a writer, I also understand the way art works. I can recognize art when I see it, and that means that I’m not just a creator I am a curator. At some point it is going to get bigger than me just creating; it is going to transcend that and go into curating.”
But Samuel had eyes set beyond Christian platforms. He applied for the WoW Season Five and his entry was accepted. Despite being a crowd favourite, he crashed out at the preliminary stages. “When I crashed out, I saw the reason why I failed. I knew precisely where I’d gone wrong, I knew the mistakes that I’d made.” When the call for WoW Season Six was made he returned to the contest “with a vengeance.”
“I was coming back to take everyone down,” he told me, his tone resonating with mischief. A self-professed rabid competitor, when Samuel heard that the likes of the widely acclaimed Paul Word, the 2014 winner of the contest, was returning to compete, he was excited. “It would be really nice to take down a past winner. I was also hoping that Graciano (another revered performer) was going to perform because, like I said, I wanted to beat the best.”
At the preliminary stages, he was beaten by Paul Word. It was far from “easy”, Word told me.
But Samuel wasn’t deterred. “I saw every single thing coming,” he said. “I knew that the final round was going to end in a draw. I knew that there would be a one-minute faceoff. And I knew that I needed something definitive to finish it off.”
It turned out not to be an easy ride. At the time, Samuel was battling with adjusting to a new environment and the added pressure generated by the contest made it all feel suffocating. He spent nights practicing, polishing his lines and embellishing his acts. He had zeroed his mind on winning, imagined himself on the dais delivering the prize acceptance speech to an appreciative audience. He was caught up in the euphoria of an impending victory.
He soared through the stages and at the last round found himself facing Charlee, whose birth name is Prince Charles, one of the stars of that Season.
Wayne Samuel and Charlee have a fascinating history: they were both students of the University of Benin and members of the same department; however, Samuel was a class ahead. Both were members of the Creative Writers Club on campus. Both began actively performing poetry in school. And now, after knocking their individual opponents out, were the last contenders of the supreme prize.
The time allotted to each contestant was one minute. There was a coin toss between the two finalists. Charlee was to perform first. He mounted the stage and shot into a freestyle, and the theme of his act was “something that was related to what I was planning to do.” With his performance, Charlee, despite having “blown everybody away,” according to Paul Word, had set the stage for a perfectly demolishing clap-back from Samuel, one which the impressed Paul Word would succinctly describe as “mad”. However, Samuel had his own internal struggles on stage. He had delivered his piece with such overpowering excitement that he lost his calm and control of his lyrics. The tempo was nothing like his rehearsals. In the end, “the stars aligned” to make him win that season. “It was awesome,” he confessed. “Really awesome.”
Samuel’s only regret was that Paul Word couldn’t make it to the grand finale. “It would have been a bit more enjoyable for me if I had gone to faceoff with him. Because I didn’t want there to be any doubt in anybody’s mind whatsoever that this guy is the Godfather.”
The prize-winning piece was written in about forty-five minutes. As he scribbled the work, he wondered what he could say that would be potent enough to sink any opponent. “Then it occurred to me—disruption,” he said. “Disruption is when you do something totally unexpected that gives the desired result.” Everything he had witnessed other contestants showcase on stage had been poetry-inclined. “Coincidentally and par my projections, Charlee now decided to do a poem about how he is poetry. The first thought that came to me was: hey, you people, I’m not just poetry, I’m prose. Because it’s true. I’m more prose than I am poetry. Everything I said in that piece is actually true. I wanted to show that I am on a class of my own, man.”
Winning the War of Words Season 6 had its benefits. Wayne Samuel became the Godfather. He was awarded the sum of N100,000 by the organisers of the contest and appeared on Silverbird television. Those that had not heard of him now did. The invitation to perform at shows kept pouring in. For a young man in his early twenties who had just left the university, the future couldn’t be more promising.
WoW Season 7 had its new breed of groundbreakers, and the presence of the immediate past winner made new foxes hungry for a feast. It was like a Royal Rumble match-up where everyone wanted to knock out the big guy. And Wayne Samuel was the big guy, the Godfather whose throne was sought.
“I thought to myself that even if you do lose that the fear of losing isn’t going to stop you from trying,” he recalled. “It’s not about the fact that you might fail—you could actually fail—but you have to be bigger than the failure.”
Unlike the previous edition when he was certain of victory, Samuel was assailed by doubt as he weighed possible rivals. Accepting the possibility of failure was easy, especially in the face of mounting criticism and emergence of new favorites for the prize money, which had been upgraded to N250,000. But he was also determined to make a statement. “Suddenly, it wasn’t about winning. It was about taking a step forward despite fear.”
When the contest fully kicked off, Samuel noted how effortlessly “shots were fired” at him. Laughing, he recollects how a performing poet stated, “A different poet should win this slam, else history will repeat itself.” Other artistes threw shades his way, offloading punches on his ego, ramming spikes into his fragile confidence. Ironically, Samuel had a secret collection of diss poems. “No one’s heard them because I never got tied with a poet I wrote about,” he told me. He confessed that the odds that confronted him thickened when he could barely remember his poems. “I had hardly had time to learn my lines and I was rewriting almost daily. In fact, none of my performances were hundred percent. None. It was either I was moving too fast, or too nervous. Or I was mixing up my words.” It was a struggle to keep himself together on stage and make a reasonable impression. “Everybody wanted to see me go down, man.”
However, Paul Word, who was a member of the audience, told me that right from the onset he knew that Samuel actually stood a good chance to win because there were “new faces” that lacked experience and “didn’t really stand a chance against him.” Word, nonetheless, was impressed with his former opponent. The Samuel he defeated a year ago was not the same person he was seeing on stage. “He had improved massively. And, I’m not going to lie, I’m not sure I would have defeated him if I had met him in the 2018 competition.” Freezing Paul, too, despite his initial convictions, had a change of mind. By the time Wayne got to the final, “I knew he would make it, or take the second place.”
Wayne Samuel didn’t go down as he feared he would. He stood long enough to qualify for the final round. His opponent this time was Adigun Olusola, also known as Solaspeaks. The almost 7 minutes faceoff ended with the judges unanimously declaring Wayne Samuel the winner of the WoW Season 7, making him the first performer to win the prize twice consecutively.
Paul Word was not “overly surprised” at the record-setting victory of his old rival because not only had Samuel’s craft gone to a new level, now “he was a beast.” Freezing Paul told me that Samuel “fought for it” and “dusted everything.” Momodu thinks that for Samuel to win the prize twice consecutively then “there must be something special about him.” Holloway is assured that “with the right management, he will surely be a major force in the emerging spoken word poetry industry.”
Samuel confided that he initially thought that the success would serve as the right platform to talk down his critics and gloat at them. But the greatest price of this particular triumph was exhaustion. “I was so exhausted that I couldn’t now hate anybody for doubting me. I really just couldn’t. I didn’t have it in me anymore. I’d given my all. I was empty.”
The 23-year old has now released a couple of spoken word mixtapes that can be found on his Instagram page. His poetry often cuts across Christian themes. His art embodies his faith. “My poetry goes wherever the truth is,” he said. When Samuel looks at life, all he sees is “random chaos.” That is why, to him, a good person who consistently exhibits goodwill could still, in the end, wind up with terrible results. The only thing reliable, he informs me, is God. “He has proven time and time again to be absolute. My faith is strong because I observe and I know that He is the fabric that binds reality together, the pillar that keeps the sky from falling and the anchor that keeps me from capsizing, or worse, getting lost at sea.”
He is presently working on releasing a spoken word album this year, which he tells me will be “definitive”. The subjects to be captured in the debut have been drawn and meticulously refined, and he is in no hurry to engage in production.
Despite being known more as a spoken word artiste, Samuel has had significant success as a writer of fiction, which he accepts as his ultimate love. He thinks that it is much easier to be a spoken word artiste than it is to be a novelist. Last year, his fiction manuscript was long-listed for the Quramo manuscript prize, and this year a short story collection will be released. “The short story collection would be a marketing tool for the novel; something to give people a taste of my writing abilities.” He is pleased that the manuscript found its way to the long-list. “I can’t believe it got that far.” He declined to reveal the title to me because he had been “advised” not to. He is convinced that the book, which is a mix-up of sarcasm, farce, alternate reality and autobiography, has a lot of potential. It also interrogates the concept of formal education in Nigeria. He sees the Nigerian educational system as a parent that abuses you and sees the assault as “a favour, something honourable.” Samuel’s university experience was disillusioning. He had to put up with lecturers that thought teaching to be an act of mercy, something students ought to be eternally thankful for, rather than a duty that demands diligence and humility in its discharge.
The positive response of people to his art has been inspirational, “especially coming from strangers,” he noted. Once, a shy child walked up to Samuel on a Sunday and bashfully told the artiste that he saw him on television. “It was like he was in awe of me. Like he can’t believe he saw someone on TV and here the person is. It was almost like he was saying that he couldn’t believe that a superstar attends his church.” The encounter was illuminating, and made Samuel recognize that he is no more an anonymous figure in the shadows.
But he is wary of empty flattery. “I like compliments, but these days people use words loosely.” He confesses to being more endeared to people that make helpful suggestions on how his craft could be improved. He is open-minded to opinions, but never allows his instincts to be ridden. “I always pay attention to criticism. It is necessary. You could have blind spots, you know.” ✚