The Role Of The Artist Is To Elevate The Reality Of Others
Dike Chukwumerije In Conversation with Àkpà Árinzèchukwu
Dike Chukwumerije, 48, is a renowned poet and author of eight books, including the novel, Urichindere, winner of the 2013 ANA Prize for Prose Fiction. He is also CEO of Simply Poetry Limited, a production company that uses “poetry as a medium for engaging in critical socio-political discourse.” He is also Programs Director of the Abuja Literary Society, where he oversees weekly literary events.
Son of the late renowned politician, Uche Chukwumerije, Chukwumerije was born in Surulere, Lagos. He studied Law at the University of Abuja between 1996 and 2001. He attended the Nigerian Law School between 2002/2003, and in 2005, attended SOAS University of London, for his master’s degree in Law. At 28, his goal was to change the self-perception of Africans through his work. It was around this time he realised the importance of performance in his poetic journey. He had seen poets reciting their poems and it was immediately obvious to him that this was a more effective way of communicating poetry, “because you can maintain eye contact, and stimulate this conversational atmosphere that makes understanding easier.”
Dike Chukwumerije was listed as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Africans by New African Magazine. Chukwumerije’s art inspires other poets. Siza Kalu Amah described him as a moving train that leaves when the scheduled time reaches, not waiting for who should Obiageli A. Iloakasia believes Chukwumerije’s art “consistently reinforces the spirit of ubuntu,” and “if you ever want to introduce someone to a voice that speaks straight into the soul, and triggers self-examination and change, Dike Chukwumerije is that voice.”
“Dike Chukwmerije’s artistry is a cudgel against the vapidity of living as a Nigerian,” Pamilerin Jacob told me. “His, is a high calling, a lifelong dedication to clear, irrefutable verses that brim with light and resistance. There is, in his craft, a template for the fusion of genres, a fine blend of rhythm and memory, song and conscience, which further the goal of artistic and societal liberation. It is not an exaggeration to declare that without his body of work, we – Nigerian artists, poets – would be left incomplete.”
Chukwumerije’s criticisms of the nation, state of affairs, relationships, and culture are present in all his works. He is relentless, trusting language to stir the wheels of change. An artist’s best companion is hope. “Hope,” he said, “is the belief that all is not lost. Hope keeps you going even when there is no Faith. Hope keeps you going until there is Faith.”
Our conversations took place via email exchanges and Google Doc. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Àkpà: I am listening to your performance at the 23rd Nigerian Economic Summit, where you provided insight into all the problems that plague Nigeria, and their solutions. It is four years now. Do you think something has changed, still?
Dike: Not much has changed since then. Governance still remains an existential issue for us as a nation. However, I ended that speech by pointing out that there is still hope. If we form the habit, as a people, of at least giving competence as much weight as identity when we select our leaders, we will begin to turn the corner. That’s a start. The moment we turn the corner, we will then trigger a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle that will allow us to progressively get better.
Àkpà: Also in that same period, you performed, They Say I Live in a Free Country. That poem is one of the things I often go back to because of its criticism and definition of home. “Where I’m from is not my home… the Niger and Benue, they meet in my hands,” resonates with me, because as someone who's always on the road, people often ask me where I am from to mean where's my home. But home is fluid. Wouldn't you agree? What does home mean to you? Is it a place where you share a common language?
Dike: Actually, I performed the poem, “The Say I Live In A Free Country” about 3 years before the speech you referred to earlier. As part of that community of Nigerians born and raised outside of their nominal states of origin, ‘Home’ is a concept I have wrestled with all my life. One of my challenges with the contemporary Nigerian system is how it offers us labels and tags that do not adequately describe our actual socio-cultural trajectory. Labels like ‘Igbo’, ‘Southern’, ‘Hausa’, and ‘Northern’ are not flexible enough to accommodate people with hybrid backgrounds, who carry within themselves deep emotive connections to people and places across these stereotypical ethno-regional divides. These labels are also unnaturally fixed in time so that people are unable to move between categories. So that someone who starts out as ‘Igbo’ is unable to end up as ‘Kalabari’ in today’s Nigeria. These rigidities inhibit our socio-political evolution, by forcing us to deny the truth of who we really are. For me, ‘Home’ is honesty to self, and to one’s actual - not nominal - roots. It is that place where your earliest memories are buried - your first steps, your first home, your first friend, your first kiss, your first word, your first love. It is also that place where the people and places you are deeply connected to are. It is also that place where your life has meaning and purpose through the work that you do. If this coincides with a place where you have ancestral ties and share a common native language with the indigenes, then fine. And if it does not, then this too is fine.
Àkpà: Language implicates. I remember 2016, at Ake Arts & Book Festival, while performing, you played with the concepts of "lies/deception" and "understanding. The signifier and the signified, the idea which was first proposed in the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. You are a poet whose mode is the English language. Have you ever felt constraints? Have you ever wished to be more in a language other than English? If you are thinking in a language other than English, how do you capture that thought for English speakers? Is this a familiar problem, if you see it so?
Dike: I am bilingual. I speak English and I speak Igbo. I consider both languages as native to me because, for me, language is a tool — a specific cultural expression - to which I am not a slave. My soul and sense of being is not bound up with speaking any particular language. Because I see myself, a human spirit, as distinct from the cultural manifestations into which I am immersed by the circumstances of my birth. So, I have never felt any constraints writing in English or any other language, as long as I have the level of mastery required to totally subject that language to my creative whims, and make it say exactly what I set out to say to the particular audience I am trying to speak to. Language is however an important factor in communication, in that people are generally better able to receive what you are saying when you speak in the language they are familiar with. In that case, one either has to learn to speak in the native language of the audience, or learn how to speak the language you share in common with your audience in such a way that it retains the nuances and features of the language that is native to them. Like how Chinua Achebe writes in English and you can taste the Igbo
Àkpà: Language implicates memory, questioning and harmonising shared histories. You demonstrated this at the 2022 AfriCaribbean Forum. Since your works speak of revolutions, and just now you have told me all the things language can do for you, I am curious, given our geographies, what can language not do for us, or does the absence of language spell anarchy? I want to know what Dike does with silence. Is silence a tool also?
Dike: There are many sides to this question. On one hand, the absence of speaking does not spell anarchy. Because silence is itself a powerful language in Art and in Life. In truth, communication is not solely verbal. In fact, like an ice-berg, the bulk of effective communication is non-verbal. For you cannot communicate emotions (and the manipulation of emotions is at the very centre of what we do as artists) with words. You can only communicate emotions nonverbally. So those who say one thing with their words but say another with their body language create confusion and distrust, which can lead to anarchy. So it is important to know how to use silence - and other forms of non-verbal communication - in ways that are consistent with your words. This enhances communication. On the other hand, however, the absence of a shared language can lead to anarchy. Because communication is central to conflict resolution, particularly in diverse and multicultural societies. Without a shared language, tensions will routinely arise out of ignorance, and fear of, the Other’s intent. In such situations, a higher mastery of non-verbal communication - the ability to communicate concepts like love, trust, and respect, without words - can help to moderate these tensions. Multilingualism also helps to bridge this gap. But, in such spaces, no bridge is as solid as a shared language. Like this, a shared language sets the scene for the blossoming of empathy.
Àkpà: "This country provokes the believer in me," is a refrain in Man-made Gods. The poem accuses us all of idolatry. Of course, it is now 2022, and it is an electoral campaign season, and I see now my role in the advancement of populism [chuckles]. I feel so ashamed. I wonder, is shame often what you write towards? It might be obvious, but I am curious. What makes art work? How do you gauge/judge a successful performance?
Dike: Any emotion is capable of inspiring art. Whether shame or pride, joy or sorrow, the job of the artist is to trap emotion in art. So, yes, when you write you want there to be a transfer of emotion from you the artist, via the medium of your art, to the consumer of that art. You want your art to move your audience to feel, not just to think dry, rational thoughts. An emotional state is a far more effective spur to action than a mental state. But, no, shame is not an emotional state I deliberately write towards often. I am more inclined toward evoking positive emotions. I think positive emotions are more powerful than negative ones. And that when it comes to getting people to commit to long-term actions, you are more likely to succeed when those actions are linked to positive emotions in their minds than negative ones. So, faith will always be stronger than fear, and love will always go further than hate. For me, art work when it moves, when it goes beyond being a spectacle that is admired or applauded, to being something that meets a deep psycho-emotional need within the listener or watcher. This is one of the parameters by which I judge a successful performance. But there are others.
Àkpà: What is the role of the artist?
Dike: The role of the artist is to elevate the reality of others. It is to take what everyone sees, hears, touches, and experiences regularly — so much so that they have become desensitised to its beauty or the multiple potentials embedded within it — and rearrange it in a way that makes the audience feel like they are seeing, hearing, touching or experiencing it for the first time. In this sense, an artist makes the ordinary, extraordinary. That’s on one hand. On the other hand, the role of the artist is also to familiarise strange realities. It is to take what everyone sees as alien, strange, reprehensible, disgusting, wrong — so much so that they believe they have no connection whatsoever with it - and rearrange it in a way that makes the audience feel like, ‘Oh, I recognize this. I know this.’ In this sense, an artist makes the strange, familiar. So, you can say that the role of the artist is to make the familiar, strange, and to make the strange, familiar.
Àkpà: So, Where Is Jos? is a harrowing poetry clip. Maybe, because of its examination of altered days, nights, and unlived lives. It is always difficult for me to watch it because it leaves me broken and empty every time. What is your process? Just like I have noted early, inspiring feelings with your work is what happens, naturally. It isn't forced. Who are your influences?
Dike: I begin with an idea. Then I draw out a broad outline. Then I begin to flesh out the details of each segment. Then I work on transitions. Then I read through and edit. Then I perform and edit for the performance. Then I showcase the work to a curated audience and use feedback for further edits. Before I present to the public. I prefer to work after a good night’s sleep when my brain is freshest. And research and reading is an important muse for me. Yes, I am definitely an evocative artist, and the expression of emotion is a big part of my art. My primary influences are within my family. I was born into a family with a high number of creatives, and their approach to art is still a major influence on me. My elder brother, Che, was my immediate reason for becoming a poet and remains a major influence. His good friend at the time, Onesi Dominic, writes beautiful lyrical poetry and is a big part of my history. I enjoy Soyinka’s combination of intellect, advocacy, and art. And Achebe’s ability to bend English to the whims of the Igbo language. Fela’s afrocentricity, and Maya Angelou’s conversational style of performing poetry. I recently encountered Bruce Onobrakpeya and was blown away by his prolificacy and discipline.
Àkpà: Wouldn't you agree, actions, especially violence (of any kind), first takes prominence in language? It is why genocides happen. The theme of this year's Lagos International Poetry Festival is Babel. How do we keep on adding bricks to our tower, regardless of our multifaceted, multidimensional selves? Surely, it is not enough to say "drop your weapons and embrace peace." Violence respects no colour/tongue is a popular maxim in your oeuvre. What must change, the language or the people?
Dike: The language must change first, and then the people will follow. But, yes, it is not enough to say “drop your weapons and embrace peace”. Because by ‘language’ here I mean ‘narrative’. What is required is a comprehensive narrative that articulates our shared reality in words that are factually correct, but simple and strongly evocative. This narrative then has to be successfully infused into popular culture, through the gateways of art and entertainment, education, and religion. It is a narrative that must give historical validity to who we are, connect us emotively to our shared geophysical space, articulate the overlaps in our current reality, and give us a futuristic sense of destiny.
Àkpà Árinzèchukwu is an Igbo writer. Their work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, the Southampton Review, Poetry Review, Adda, Fourteen Poems, Arc Poetry, Clavmag, A&U magazine, Middle House Review, and elsewhere. Shortlisted for the FT/Bodley Head Prize for Essay Writing, longlisted for Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction, they are both a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee. The winner of Poetry Archive's Worldview, and a finalist for the Black Warriors Review Fiction Contest.