Singing with words: Recalling Keorapetse Kgositsile

The Poet Laureate focused on truth, meticulous craft and the political nature of cultural creations – but was never romantic about the struggle that forced him into 30 years of exile.

“Isn’t sound continuity
isn’t sound memory
loving care caress or rage
sticking our shattered and scattered pieces together?” 

(From For Bra’ Ntemi)

In a month that has lost us the work and incandescent spirits of Myesha Jenkins and Achmat Dangor, we remember too, the birth of another departed poet. Eighty-one years ago on 19 September 1938, Keorapetse William Kgositsile (“Kgosi”; “Bra’ Willie”) was born in Johannesburg. He was South Africa’s first Poet Laureate, revolutionary, feminist, pan-Africanist, internationalist, and the writer who came closest to invoking the sound of South African jazz in rhyme. It’s a birthday he shared, very appropriately, with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians pianist, composer and teacher Muhal Richard Abrams. To recount all his achievements would be impossible. His formal accolades are well documented. Perhaps less so is the history in whose making he participated. 

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I worked with Bra’ Willie in Medu in Botswana, and the predictable thing to say would be that we all sat at his feet in awe. But Medu wasn’t like that and nor was our poet comrade. Praxis ruled. Do the work; engage in more-than-robust debates; do more work; let your words be debated; then do more work on them. 

Kgositsile was unsparing of himself and of the rest of us: writing and learning about literature and history are grounded in hard, disciplined work – so is waging effective political struggle. He would have ridiculed the notion of anybody sitting at his feet. The work was something we did together, and something we could all, however distinguished, learn from.

Communal lessons

What were those lessons? 

First, that any work of cultural creation is unavoidably “political”. Refusing to express opinions about how we live together and how we should live also represents a political choice. Second, that speaking out about important truths is a human duty. Third, that it is equally a duty to do it well, with meticulous craft.

Charles Rowell’s 1973 interview with the poet begins with his reflections on starting childhood in the back rooms of his mother’s white employer: not spending time on the streets, he became a voracious reader and – because of his mother’s sheltering silence – largely unintimidated by the racism that surrounded him. The most important book he read as a youngster was Richard Wright’s Black Boy, because it “made me realise that I didn’t have to sound like an English poet … I could tame that English to speak my language”.

When he left white suburbia to attend Madibane High School – where one schoolmate was musician Jonas Gwangwa – he rapidly learned. “[T]ownship streets were full of bullies,” he remembered. “The regular ones and the regime ones under their cloak of being the police. And as far back as I remember, I have always been intensely allergic to bullies.” And, for him, that had everything to do with being a poet, because “the production of … poetry is, like everything else produced by a people, rooted in and informed by human action and interaction”.

Making history in letters

He wrote prose as well as poetry, as a journalist for the (quickly banned) New Age in the 1950s and later, in American exile, for many other publications, including the journal Black Dialogue at Columbia University. He studied at Columbia University, earning a master of fine arts and later taught at several US institutions, at Fort Hare back home, and at universities in Tanzania, Kenya, Yemen, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.  

And Kgositsile participated in making history: cultural and political. He was a leading voice in the Harlem Uptown Black Arts Movement and a cofounder with Amiri Baraka of the Black Arts Theatre. The Last Poets were inspired to coin their name by his poem Towards a Walk in the Sun, which foresaw a time of uprising when there would be “no art talk”.

Less known, perhaps, is that he drafted Miriam Makeba’s 1963 speech to the United Nations, which won international recognition for South Africa’s liberation struggle and the ANC. He was part of delegations at both editions of the historic pan-African cultural festival, Festac: 1966 in Senegal and 1977 in Nigeria. He was a founder member of the ANC’s Department of Arts and Culture in exile, and continued to work with the department and the movement when he returned home. But that did not stifle his 1992 criticism that his own movement had been “criminally backward when it comes to questions of culture and its place in society or struggle”.

Against romanticism and toward revolutionary optimism

Although he was entranced by the beauty of music and could write deeply romantic poetry, Kgositsile never romanticised history, struggle or politics. He was dismissive of fantasies of some past African “golden age” of peace, pointing out acerbically that all societies had experienced oppression and resisted their own feudal tyrants, as well as the colonialists. But he never lost his revolutionary optimism about the better future that can be if – again – we work for it. 

Kgositsile chose what would be three decades of exile, aged only 23, so he could begin that work. He knew it had to be a process, claiming, in Amílcar Cabral’s words, no easy victories just because the apartheid regime had officially ended. And he knew that exile could be not just of the body from place, but of memories of struggle from a politics that sometimes found it uncomfortable to recall them.

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Multiple awards and achievements are listed in various online biographies and book appendices. Possibly the best short appreciation of his life and work is that by fellow writer Mandla Langa in the foreword to the comprehensive 2017 poetry compilation Homesoil in My Blood. A longer work by Uhuru Phalafala is on the way.

To return to his words, “I approach the writing of a poem,” Kgositsile wrote, “the way a musician improvises a solo on the stage … I let my imagination reach into the depth of my feeling to bring out what I am most responsive to at the moment of playing my solo with language.”

Like this:

“Soundman
that I have always aspired to be
my ear sees the tentacles
of our fragile voice
breaking through the walls of our exiles
as I remount the curve of evil times
to unearth my anchored memory.” 

(From Renaissance)

This piece was first published by sisgwenjazz

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