For a while, I’ve had little regard for imbongi of the Xhosa tradition. ‘What’s the all the noise!’ I’ve often said. ‘Why do they always interrupt things?’ The snob in me spoke… Although, I shouldn’t tell you this but, most of the time I don’t understand – lesiXhosa sivame ukuba deep! Too deep! And so, I shut the ‘noise’ out. But every once in a while comes along someone who will change your mind and force you to sit straight and listen.
Jessica Mbangeni is a beautiful, gracious, talented, inspiring and inspired imbongi (a praise poet). Daughter, sister, mother, actor, poet, singer – and now, dare I add – Slam poet! I had a chat with Jessica at the opening of the 10th Poetry Africa at MuseumAfrika about possession, the Muse, her journey into poetry and the Poetry Africa Slam Jam. She has performed on many stages all over the country and with a variety artists including the Soweto Gospel Choir and Victor Ntoni’s Mzansi pays Tribute to OR Tambo for the name-change ceremony of the Airport.
“I’d laugh at my friend who used to praise at church, I’d be so embarrassed,” Jessica exclaims. “How can you dare stand up in front of the people, in the middle of the program and say your own things!”
For someone who used to feel embarrassed by izimbongi, Jessica now takes pride and confidence in being imbongi. In the footsteps of Ntsikana, an imbongi and prophet, imbongi celebrates the triumphs of a king and a nation but also speaks up when the king is erring. An imbongi does not have to wait to be introduced or be put on the program in order for them to praise (perform). In most instances, even they don’t have a say when the Muse instructs them to speak.
Jessica never chose poetry. “It was the purpose of God… a lot of the words I utter, even I don’t know the meaning of.”
Although she had been writing for a number of years, she never thought her ‘songs’ were poetry. Friends and mentors encouraged her to write more. In 1999, she wrote her first poem, Ugawulayo, for a play – then she thought it was a song. Jessica first realised her purpose as imbongi when the “ancient muse of poetry” took over and overwhelmed her. She was trying to comfort her crying two year old son when she began to recite a poem, the words of which she believes came from a higher power. Ever since then, she acknowledges the Muse and continues to praise, writing and performing mostly in isiXhosa. For Jessica, writing and performing poetry is like possession.
“It’s like you are taken to another world,” Jessica says. “Inyange lesihobe (the ancient muse of poetry) sends you, I didn’t choose this.”
She writes and recites about the positives of this country, praising greatness and good. She speaks out against social ills – be they politics or morals, she draws from her background constantly being fed by the Poetry Muse. Jessica is dedicated to promoting, celebrating and investing in culture. When she steps onto a stage, the audience knows even before she utters a word that they are looking a proud Xhosa woman. By writing and performing in isiXhosa, Jessica wants to inform us, maintain our cultural integrity and preserve our cultures.
In keeping with her work, during the 10th Poetry Africa, she worked with ezinye izimbongi of the Tswana, Sotho and Zulu traditions – Mandisa Phandliwe, Joe Ntloana and Botsotso Mhlaba, respectively. They held workshops at high schools.
“Kids are in trouble, if they are not rolling in English. I want to instil pride in them.” Jessica reflecting on the purpose of holding such workshops. “You have to be proud of yourself, your indigenous languages and your traditional clothing. These are the things that make you who you are.”
Jessica also found herself performing in a Slam Jam (see the Slam Jam review – Poetry Seen) for the first time. As powerful a poet as she is, Jessica was sceptical about her first. Slam Poetry is after all a style that was created in the USA and influenced by Hip Hop.
“The Ancient muse of Poetry lives, so God is going to help me deal with this because I’m God myself.”
And the judges, who were made up the audience, scored her high both in Johannesburg and Durban. Seeing an imbongi clean up the Slam was really an experience. This sister is grounded in her spirituality and culture; her poetry inspires many and will continue to do long as long is… Her favourite poem is called ‘Mama Afrika’ a poem that salutes Afrikans for being who they are; it talks about peace and standing for truth in the days of struggle. It celebrates Madiba and all other influential Afrikans like Mxenge, OR Tambo, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and encourages the generations to come to carry on from where these leaders have left off. Sample it yourself…
“I’m a messenger and a voice of the people,” Jessica Mbangeni. Need we say more – the poet has spoken.