Naledi Raba – poetry of self-determination

zamantungwa | July 18th, 2014 | current issue, poet profile | No Comments

I meet Naledi in her hotel room, it is the morning after she won that national Lover + Another Poetry Challenge hosted by Drama For Life at the Hillbrow Theatre. “It is Naledi Raba, right?” I ask checking that I’m pronouncing her name correctly. “Yes,” she says smiling and explains that she is Sotho but born and raised in Cape town. Although she understands Sotho she doesn’t speak it as well.


We settle into the interview and I ask her about herself. How did you came to poetry?

“I started writing… I’ve always been a reading-writing type of person. I’ve always liked to read, I’ve always liked to write. Poetry was the one thing that I was able to use, almost, as an escape. We all grow up and have stories to tell and I grew up in a township, eNyanga one of the most violent townships in Cape Town. And family life, as well, wasn’t as amazing. My dad was an alcoholic. So poetry was my way of trying to find an escape and have a little place for me, where I could be at peace with myself. So I started writing and I think it started being more serious in high school because then I feel like my content became richer, more real and raw.”

Writers are always telling stories, but we don’t always know what is it that we’re doing so we imitate tv stories, or what we read. I ask Naledi what she thought she was doing before she knew she was writing poetry.

“Before, it felt like I was just writing, I knew what poetry was, like Shakespeare but I didn’t understand that I could write a story about me and it could be poetry. I didn’t think I could write poetry. I just figured I was writing, I was sharing, putting down feelings on paper and that’s all it was. When my English teacher, one of my favourite teachers ever, read my essays she told me I was a good writer and asked if I wrote other things on the side and it started from there. I realised that this is poetry. A lot of people started reading my pieces and my work and they were like, ‘this is poetry.’”

“And then sharing and getting on the stage?”

“It was never a plan of mine. I have always wanted to be just a poet on paper, let other people [perform], and [I] just publish. I never thought the stage is for me because I didn’t even… I don’t know. I love to read my pieces, even when I perform in small places, I will just want to read. I went to New York in 2008, I was in grade 11. I think I was on stage for the first or second time there and even then I was reading on the stage but then one of the mentors at the camp said, ‘You weren’t reading that page, you were reciting. You just held it there for comfort.’ From then I decided, ok, put the book down. Lets learn, lets memorise [the words], let’s be on stage. From there on, I’ve been performing on stage.”

I ask her to elaborate on the New York trip. “It was a camp with people from different cultures and religions getting together to educate each other. So we used art as a form of expression. Some people were dancers, some people were poets, doing drama so then we had a poetry showcase.”

On the morning of the interview I listened to some of her poems found online as well as what I had captured from her DFL performance the previous night. “What I find interesting about your voice, and even your performance, [is that] you stand still you don’t do a lot of things like other people move around… and you don’t, which kind of draws a person in. But there’s this thing that you do with your voice, I don’t know what to call it. It sounds interesting, because it’s confessional poetry, it feels like you’re about to break down and burst into tears. (She laughs.) Are you conscious of that?”

“No. I feel like when I get on stage and recite, I become, not another person. I become Naledi, I become Deigh Poetic. I become myself, and a person I don’t necessarily show to other people. I think a lot of people know me as the sort of person who’s not approachable. So I think, on stage I get fragile. It scares even me, a bit; I can’t explain it. A lot of people tell me about it (the fragile voice) – I’m not conscious of it. But every time I share a piece especially when it’s a piece that’s really close to me, or because of something that has happened to close friends of mine, it just brings up situations and then I kind of relive [them] on stage. Which is why I think I love stage more.”

“So now do you love stage more than the page?”NalediRaba1

“I do, I do. I still appreciate writing [on paper] because I believe every piece deserves to be on stage but if I read it and I don’t like the way it sounds then I wouldn’t necessarily perform it. I think that pen and paper is still very important [but] stage allows people to get to know me.”

I ask her about the stage name, Deigh Poetic. “So my name is Naledi and at the end it’s ‘di’. I grew up with people call me Di and so because of poetry, and since high school, everyone has seen me as this little poetic one. If there’s an event at school they’ll ask me to write a poem for the awards ceremony or write a poem for church or write this… Then people were like ‘you’re very poetic.’ I still wanted to keep being Di because I write a lot from how I’ve grown up. So I thought ‘Deigh’ and everyone, whenever they think Naledi it’s ‘the poetic one’ so I thought ‘Deigh Poetic’ and that was it.”

“Tell me about the poems that you performed at the DFL finals. Very sensitive subject matter, very pointed language, very confrontational as well. I hear you also speaking about church. Tell me about the process of writing those poems and being able to perform those poems in front of people that may be offended. [Some people] may get you or not get you.”

“I always feel very… not worried, but I’m very wary about performing pieces like that because most of my pieces are very angry. I’m in your face, I want you to listen and you will listen to me. And I’m always wary about that but those two pieces: To Whom It may Concern, I’m bisexual and I’ve been with women more than I have been with men, and this year I lost two of my friends, who I grew up with, to hate crimes. One was shot and one was kidnapped for a year, raped and put in a bin. We found her this year. So I wrote it for them because they will ever be able to write it for themselves. And with, I Know You Said No, when I heard about, I think Sihle is her name, the lesbian who was raped and they put a toilet brush in her vagina, and also my friend who was found in a bin, when they checked her body she had been raped multiple times and it was a guy living on the same street [as her]… so those two pieces for me are in my heart. Sometimes I write in such a way that some poetry lovers who are more conservative could feel like … you know. And even Christian people, I don’t perform at church anymore. I’m Roman Catholic and, obviously, the language… And I’m not into editing my pieces to suit certain situations, [it’s] one of the reasons I don’t perform in church any more.

“I think the one thing I appreciate [the most] about this DFL [competition is that] when I sent my poems I was like ‘read them, can you see what’s going on? I say what it is, the way it is. Is this allowed?’ And they DFL organisers said, ‘[this is] a free space’.”

“To Whom It May Concern/ My first love is a woman and if you’re wondering I am one too/ I know you would never understand but there’s something so real to me/ about waking up to the sound of a heartbeat under breasts than any other chest…”

I ask her to talk a bit more about where she draws her inspiration and subject matter from and if all her work is confessional. “It depends – different pieces for different things. To Whom It May Concern is very confessional. My family is very Christian based. My parents are Methodist and I went to a girl school and you’re going experience stuff. I made a conscious decision that I do love women and it’s something I wanted to speak about because people don’t want to hear about that. So for my subject matter, I write about things that happen to me personally. So To Whom It May Concern is a confession from Naledi, and then I write for everyone else who relates in this story. I also try to respond and react to political things that happen. I try to be an activist in my poetry because I think art is very… people don’t realise the power of art and activism. And [I’m focused on] gender inequality and sexuality issues. Other people love politics and religion but for me, I think sexuality and gender issues are right in the core of everything else.”

“When you perform work that plays in that space the ‘I’ in the poem isn’t necessarily you. You might write a poem that is completely removed from yourself and when you perform it in public, people think the ‘I’ is you. Have you ever had to defend or explain the ‘I’ in your poem?”

“Yesterday, I ran into a lady who was in the audience and she told me that the poem I Know You Said No took her back because it was a real experience for her. I wrote I Know You Said No for someone else. So I had to say, “thank you for going there with me but it was for someone else.” After I wrote To Whom It May Concern, it was like I was coming out as a lesbian so a lot of people were like, ‘you’re my role model. Don’t you know Naledi, the gay girl, she wrote To Whom It May Concern’. In Cape Town, the poem went viral and that’s how people know me. My brother was like ‘Oh I heard you date girls, I heard your poem’ and I was like ‘well my first love was a women but I didn’t say I’m only with women’. I think sometimes people take parts that relate to them but then they relate them to me as well because I’m the writer of the piece. Sometimes, yeah, I have to just clear it up, even to people I’m close to. Especially with To Whom It May Concern. I had to make it clear that ‘yes, I’m there but just remember that it’s not always [me]… by writing my poems I’m writing for you as well but it doesn’t necessarily have to be something I went through for it to be a real piece.’”

“I promise I said no / but I realise when you’re crippled in front of a broken man/ with nothing but skin and scars protecting you/ they become delusional/ thinking that your bites and your scratches and your screams and your scars/ will somehow circumcise them back into shape/ this time around/ I did say no…”

“What made you want to enter this competition?”

“I didn’t even know about it. Not that I’m an anti-slam person but I’ve never considered myself to be a slam poet because it’s depicted to be a very dramatic and I’m this little fragile person. I’m more of a gig at a chilled event kinda person. I’ve never [thought] myself [able] to do slam poetry. Mbongeni, who’s my coordinator, told me about [the DFL competition]. The theme made him think of me and he said to try it out. And I did. At the regionals, I was still sceptical because people were slamming and I got on stage with my little husky voice ‘hi guys’ and everyone was thinking ‘what is she gonna do’. Then I came second and I realised this is actually real. And now when we talk about it we stick to saying is the DFL Lover + Another Poetry Challenge. Try to take away “slam” because it creates a certain stereotype and kinda takes a few other people away. When I hear slam, I’m just like ‘nuh-uh’.

“When you came to the final were you revved up, pumped up telling yourself that you’re going to win because well it’s a competition!”

“When I met the [other] competitors, people were reciting their stuff and I still wasn’t sure if my type of poetry was gonna make it through. I was wishing that as this fragile, confrontational yet emotional poet, [I could] come in and show [everyone] that slam could be raw like this, slam could be emotional like this. So I did come in thinking that even if I don’t win, I wanted to make that impact. I wanted someone who writes like me or someone who feels like this is their type of art to feel like they can enter a competition. My coordinator kept on the telling me that having made it to nationals I could win but I didn’t really think so. I’m confident in myself but I didn’t think that my type of delivery would be considered slam. But I knew I [had] definitely come to a competition and I wanted to make an impact. I think, as cliché as it sounds, the most importantly thing, I just wanted to get out there and see if a different crowd of people which is Jo’burg, cause I’ve only performed in Cape Town, would appreciate it.”

“And how do you feel now?”

“I feel like they did. That was the main thing for me. Even when I got up [on stage] the second time and people remembered me from the first poem I felt, ‘they know me now, they know Deigh Poetic, they know Naledi’. Now, going into the second round, I wanted to make them proud of me. Because I had made them look at me, know me, I wanted to make them proud.”

“Now that DFL is done, what is up with Deigh Poetic, where are you heading with your work?”

“With my whole poetry life, I don’t have a set plan. I want to perform some more. I feel that there’s so much more that I can still learn and I’m not as well known as I’d like to be outside of Cape Town. I want to venture out and perform in Jo’burg, Durban and get myself known.

I find myself to be writing a lot more pieces now which I don’t get to perform and I, maybe I’m giving too much, but I’d really like to publish. Start out lightly just one poem here, and one poem there… but eventually, before I’m twenty-five I wanna have a collection out, by Deigh Poetic. I think for me that would be my biggest goal. I think some people don’t get a chance to come to watch poetry because they think, there’s a certain aura or a certain type of person who sits in a poetry audience so maybe they will appreciate reading it.

“How far away is twenty-five?”

“I’m twenty one, I have a lot of time to perform, a lot of time to write some more. I think my pieces [will] branch out to different issues, other issues I haven’t written about and try those out.”

“You’re studying at the moment?”

“Yes, I’m studying at the moment, at UCT. I’m studying Psychology and Gender studies. I’m graduating this year.”

Psychology and poetry make for an interesting combination, I wonder about the marriage and even separation, how they complement each other.

“I’m studying psychology because I love people. I’m interested in the way people think. I think they definitely complement each other but in a way, there’s a little contradiction. I know my parents wanted me to study but I think, [this is] a recent realisation, that we don’t all always have the luxury of studying what we want. I think if I had the choice I would’ve studied poetry. If there was a degree in poetry studies I would’ve done it. But we don’t always have the luxury of studying what we want but we can become our truth. And for me my truth is poetry. That’s who I wanna be. But I also love psychology. I want to have that degree and maybe I’ll be a performing artist and have the degree or I’ll become a clinical psychologist and still perform. But it’s two things that I’m going to make possible. Whether they fight with each other or not, it’s two things I really want.”

“Writer’s block. Do you ever experience writer’s block and how do you deal with it?”

“I never sit down and plan to write a piece. My pieces come at very strange moments. I work at the university library so I’ll be at the front desk and a piece will come to me and I’ll write it. If while I’m writing I get writer’s block, I try not to force anything, like making words link to each other. If it’s not working at that moment I leave it. I feel like when the time comes for it to come back I’ll finish it. But obviously if there’s a gig that I’m planning for and I really wanted to perform this piece, I always listen to poetry and it kinda relaxes me and I get back to the space I was in and I write again.”

“Who are the poets that you’ve read, or seen performing that you’re inspired by?”

“There’s a guy, brother in poetry, Native Refugee, he’s a Capetonian spoken word artist and rapper. He’s amazing. I’ve seen him perform and he’s kinda like me in a weird way – [he has an] emotional and fragile way of delivery. Another poet is Kyle Louw, he was also in the competition, he’s also really amazing. Then, I haven’t seen her perform live I’ve only seen her on youtube, King Nova. I think she’s really amazing.

“What is it about Nova that you like.”

“I was performing at this other show and this random guy comes to me, he’s from Rhodes and he said I perform like Nova but ‘you’re just more angry’. I think when I listen to her pieces there’s a sense of… I like poets that demand you listen to them. With Nova, one line, second line, third line, you can’t do anything else but listen. I respect that in a poet, to be able to get on stage and get it and own it and make it yours. I like her language use; I like her play on words. I like poets who, after they finish performing, you leave and you’re still thinking about them. To Do List for Africa is the first poem I heard from Nova.”

I decide to put her on the spot and ask her what she thought of her competitors, particularly their content. Her eyes grow big and I laugh, “Well you come here [to compete], you’re particularly interested in gender politics and the intersectionality of our lives. The interesting thing for me was that there were very different opinions and I’ve been thinking that I don’t know if as a judge I’d let that poet through not because they suck as a poet but I’m thinking ‘did you just say that?’ So when you listened to the other poets, what did you think and feel.”

“I noticed was that it was clear to see which corners we were coming from. It was clear to see that for some it’s a personal thing, for others, it’s an opinion or a reaction. But there were poets who were telling a story, their story, because they were the theme and there were poets who were performing in response to the theme. That’s what I noticed. There was a clear line between poets who were the theme and poets who were replying to the theme. And by being the theme, being Man.Woman.Any.Queer(ies), specifically, queers and queries… so it was clear, I could see who was who.”

“About activism and poetry, how much do you think as poets and as writers we can be part of the activist movement and make an impact? Are you able ever, to gage from your own work, and feel like by writing and performing this poem I have hopefully done this…”

“I think there is space for activism and creating an impact but at the same time, usually I feel like we’re preaching to the converted. If I’m performing To Whom It May Concern, I’m probably going to perform it to people that maybe have experienced hate crime or are LGBTI but I’m not going to go into a space of people that are anti-LGBTI and perform To Whom It May Concern so that they could get where these people are coming from. So I think, I’m trying to be an activist but [I] still battle [to] going to the spaces I know I need to go to for the activism to make an impact. Being at UJ or UCT, you’re performing and creating an impact for people who are more likely to be aware of the situation.

“[We need to] go to a township where people are less informed about it, they don’t understand poetry but I think they’ll get the message. I think us, writers, performers, poets, we’re trying but not in the spaces that we need to go. And I think we know the space we need to go to we’re just not sure about the reaction from those spaces. That’s something even I need to work on. That’s what activism is about. Going to the spaces where you know you’re not expected to. Not the spaces where you’ll get an applause and encouragement by people who have heard it already.

We’re trying though.”

Naledi blogs at

Naledi Raba DFL 2013 from Black Letter Media on Vimeo.

Poems-For-Freedom-Mag&Ipadthis article was published in our print quarterly number six, Poems For Freedom.

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