Diana Mpyisi and the Spoken Word Rwanda

Photo by David Nkurunziza (for Spoken Word Rwanda)

Diana Mpyisi is the founder of Spoken Word Rwanda (SWR). In the following interview, courtesy of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Rwanda, she talks about her work, her education, how SWR came to life, and future plans. At 34 years of age, Ms. Diana is also founder and CEO of Blue Oceans, a Kigali-based communications and media consultancy firm.

Conducted by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Rwanda, the following Q&A was first published on the Embassy’s Facebook page.

All we know about you is that you are the founder and creative director of Spoken Word Rwanda. Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in different parts of East Africa. I moved back to Rwanda after ‘94. After high school in Rwanda and Uganda, I did my undergrad in Journalism and Political Science at University of Johannesburg in South Africa, and my masters in Creative Media Enterprises at University of Warwick in the U.K. Creative Media Enterprises is technically turning artistic concepts into businesses. I have been working in media and communications since I was 19. My first job was a news anchor during my gap year. And then during university, I was a columnist for the New Times for 5 years. It was called “Frankly Speaking.” I wrote about anything really. Frank. Mostly, socioeconomic, sociopolitical commentary, but light touch, nothing too heavy. In 2012, I started my company called Blue Oceans – a communications and media consultancy firm that I dedicate my professional 8am-5pm time to, until today. Other after hour initiatives that I’m passionate about include Kigali Global Shapers, of which I was the founding curator from 2012-2013, but in which I’m still very involved today.

How did you come to start Spoken Word Rwanda?

A colleague and I were sitting, and thought, ‘There is really little to do in Rwanda when it comes to entertainment.’ We wanted to do something different. Something entertaining, but also educational and inspirational. My colleague, the co-founder, is a lawyer, and I am a journalist, but we had the same idea: to do something fun where people can express themselves. When I was in Johannesburg, I used to go for underground poetry nights in a place called Melville. I found it to be just the most inspiring and coolest thing ever. It inspires people to tap into hidden talent. We did the first Spoken Word in July 2011. We used to do it every week and it was a full hour every week! It was crazy. What it showed us was, Number 1, people hungered for this type of thing. Number 2, there is serious talent. Poetic and musical. We were shocked. We thought we’d probably do it once or twice and then it’d run out of people. But here we are, almost 5 years later, and the talent is still there. Most importantly, every year, there is a new batch of spoken word talent. We now do it once a month. It was never easy in the beginning, but we’ve just been going forward, simply because we’re inspired.

Diana Mpyisi on the microphone

What is the background of the poets?

They are usually young professionals, students and expatriates. Their background is very varied. The majority of them studied and live in Rwanda. Their fluency in English, French, Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili is simply because it’s a passion. They seek to expose themselves and their exposure is self-directed. In fact, the ones that have lived or studied abroad are not the majority of the artists on our stage.

Who are the people behind the scenes?

From about late 2013 till until just recently, I did most of the donkey work alone with temporary teams that came and went. Today, I’m ecstatic to say that there’s an official team of five people taking on different roles: reaching out to our poets and the audiences, developing creative content, working with the logistics set up on D-Day and strategic planning for Spoken Word Rwanda.

Where is Spoken Word Rwanda today, compared to five years ago?

2015 has been a prolific year in terms of the content of artists and also in terms of new audiences. We have Spoken Word Rwanda fam—the usual audience. But we also have new audiences, and new poets. Importantly, we’re working toward cementing relationships with large corporate sponsors. Ideally, partnerships would involve to branding of the event advertising, posters, banners. One thing we’re keen on is to be able to financially cater to documenting each Spoken Word Rwanda event and push it across social media. Such partnerships would be a win-win situation as sponsors gain visibility and a space to push forward their product, and their support will help us to grow exponentially. We also started a cover charge this year February, 2015. Before, it was always free. But we couldn’t grow the way we wanted to grow. We charge 2000 rwf per session (excluding poets/performers) and that goes to light, sound equipment, photography.

Are there any events apart from the monthly poetry evenings?

We also have annual Spoken Word Rwanda festivals. We’ve done two so far. The first one was a huge two-day event where we had dance, creative writing, and spoken word workshops. We invited award winning writers (Commonwealth Writers Prize) from across the region. It culminated in a spoken word night with artists from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya. The next day, we showcased the film industry in Rwanda partnering with Kwetu Film Institute. The second festival, we partnered with Goethe Institut. We took the festival to Gashora Girl’s Academy. We had 150 students from 5 different secondary schools from up country, as well as from Kigali, and we bussed them to Gashora. We had photography sessions, creative writing sessions, poetry sessions, and evening of spoken word on the final day in Kigali. The next festival is going to be really big. We are celebrating our five years next July. So we are thinking of partnering with more stakeholders and involving more audiences.

Have you thought about holding the sessions in public space, outside?

Yes, we’ve thought about it, actually. We want to hold our 5th year anniversary festival in the car free zone in town. By then, I believe the relevant authorities will have more experience in handling events in that space as it was set up fairly recently, and welcome more frequent use of the zone. I think we should have poetry slams as part of the festival next year. The last couple of years we played more of a nurturing role, but now I think our poets are at a level where competition can be encouraged, have slam poetry and improvise on the spot. I would love to have Spoken Word Rwanda host the first official slam poetry event in Kigali – have it widely attended and include as many varied poets in English, French and Kinyarwanda. We are ready to make it more edgy and competitive.

Microphone at Spoken Word Rwanda

What is the ultimate goal of Spoken Word Rwanda?

Our underlying philosophy has always been to act as a catalyst and have other similar initiatives likes ours mushroom across the country. I think 4 and ½ years later, this is the case as seen with other outfits that organize spoken word/poetry recitals around Kigali this year. As pioneers of spoken word in Rwanda, I’m happy to see this happening!

Right now, our next long-term goal is to create a mindset where spoken word performers and other performers off our stage are remunerated financially. We believe in supporting our artists and Spoken Word Rwanda is currently working towards paying our poets for the talent they showcase on our stage. We hope other organizations that seek out spoken word artists will adopt this and support local talent. The starving artist cliché is not one we should make a reality! Our poets are the reason we are where we are today. That’s a big part of our plans for 2016!

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