Citizen.Speak.Amplify

Weekly Dissident: Sipho Mnyakeni – “If the poet doesn’t say it, who will?”

In the Weekly Dissident today, Mphutlane wa Bofelo speaks to author, poet and motivational speaker, SIPHO MNYAKENI, about his work as a change agent; his hero, Oliver Tambo; and why the role of the artist is to engage in robust critique. 

MwB:
There is the belief that music and poetry and other art forms also often serve as obscurantist escape from social reality into the world of fantasy and merry-making. What are your views on this and how would you say your motivation, music and poetry are different?

SM:
There is a level of truth in these allegations. I don’t think we should fight anyone raising these objections; rather we should be introspective as practitioners to ensure that going forward we are relevant and realistic in both the form and content of our art.

Personally, I regard myself as a messenger, an agent of impact. I seek to pass messages that will help people make decisions about their lifestyles and hopefully contribute in raising a nation of change agents, who I call “impactors”.

Whether I recite, write, perform or present, I check my message and ensure that I take my audience with me and give them enough pauses to let the message sink in and let them make decisions. Poetry, speaking, music are all vehicles through which I pass my message of impact.

MwB:
Oliver Tambo is one of the major role models and inspirations in your life, so much that you invested energies in producing a musical dedicated to him. Can you explain what it is about Oliver Tambo that moves you and a person?

SM:
As a young activist, I was always intrigued by the amount of airtime Oliver Tambo received in freedom songs – almost half of the songs were pleas to him, or tributes to him. I knew from then that he was an important cog in the struggle engine. Most nights I’d stay up very late to catch episodes of Radio Freedom where Tambo would occasionally give messages to South Africans, giving hope that the fight we are in is being won on all fronts.

I fell in love with him and started reading up on him, to learn how he held the movement together in the harshest of times. He was the de facto representative of South Africa around the world as the apartheid regime was sidelined. Tambo represents visionary leadership and I feel we need his spirit and attitude to engulf the youth as they are the heirs of the leadership of this land.

MwB:
Please elaborate the Dear Oliver Tambo and Madibaness concepts, how they are related, and what you seek to achieve through them.

SM:
The overall concept is called Dear OR. Through this icon we plan to learn of the lives of various leaders and through musicals present them to the youth and the values they represented. This is a long-haul project as we plan to discuss many leaders, known and unknown. The first installment was the Dear Oliver Musical, which was followed by Madibaness. We have already started working on Thembisile: Gone Too Soon, a tribute to Chris Hani.

All these stories are told by way of reflection by a modern family, child or young man who, in view of his or her current challenges, gleans from the lives of these leaders to get courage to face today’s struggles. We look forward to telling tributes of  Chris Dlamini, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Okgopotse Tiro, Vuyisile Mini and others.

MwB:
How do you think a just and more equitable society can be achieved and what role do you think the arts can play in this regard?

SM:
The art fraternity needs to honestly mirror society. The commercialisation of poetry, theatre and music, for example, has given birth to artists who blind themselves to injustice in the name of getting gigs. One of the tools of perpetuating injustice is the sanitisation of the prophetic art of practitioners of the arts.

One of my poems reads: “if the poet doesn’t say it, who will?” Artists must not fail to be robust in describing and calling to order leaders. The arts need to speak truth to power without fear or favour, both to rebuke the bad and to celebrate the good

MwB:
Internationally, there is a phenomenon to turn struggle heroes into market brands and commercial items to hijack them from being symbols of resistance to oppressive and exploitative systems, institutions and practices, and turn them into icons of conformity to the status quo, using them to promote social cohesion at the expense of concealing class, racial, gender and other inequalities and contradictions in society. In South Africa, the names that seem to be victims of this include those of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko. What are your views on this phenomenon and what do you think progressive artists can do about it?

SM:
I believe when the enemy cannot get you out of church, he brings the world into church. In this case I think these leaders represent revolutionary approaches to life and, thus, their ideas are dangerous.

To sanitise the youth, what the enemy did is to move the focus away from what these leaders stood for, to presenting them as some sort of celebrities and icons of nothingness or vanity. Our task is to reassociate these leaders with the values that gave birth to them – fearlessness, robustness, revolutionary challenge to any injustice and retrogressive values. For example, Mandela’s story cannot be told by excluding his robust opposition to injustice. He wasn’t only a man of peace.

MwB:
What other projects are you currently involved in?

SM:
Madibaness occupies most of my time. However, I am also doing various talks and seminars, depending on invitations I get. My work at the Central University of Technology Residence Church continues, as we provide answers to the questions that young people are struggling with at the University. On the cards is a production called Thembisile, which will be part of a triad of Dear Oliver.

– Featured image: supplied.
– This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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