By day, Didier Lalaye is pursuing a Ph.D. in medicine and developing a mobile health service for Chadian children through the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands. But the 34-year-old isn’t satisfied with bringing change through medicine alone. By night, he also takes to the stage under the name of Croquemort (pronounced CROK-mor), a French colloquial expression from Chad that essentially means to wake up the dead. His nom de guerre is fitting: Croquemort is among a growing band of Chadian millennials taking on the central African country’s many social ills — with slam poetry.
Ruled by President Idriss Déby since 1990, the oil-exporting nation has seen per capita incomes crash since 2014 amid fluctuations in global crude prices. Youth unemployment stands at 10.14 percent, according to market research firm Statista. In 2017, Chad ranked 165th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. The country’s press is “not free,” according to Freedom House, an international democracy watchdog organization, and the government runs the country’s only news agency. But none of that is stopping Chad’s new wave of change-makers.
This is our biggest fight.
Epiphanie, Chad’s only known female slam poet.
Through studio records, public performances and competitions, Chad’s slam poets are stirring debate on unemployment and corruption, pollution and women’s rights, racism and inequality. Ray’s Kim (aka Bunda Boss) was the first of Chad’s slam poets, starting in 2007. Now 29, he has three albums, with a fourth on its way. And he’s no longer alone. Croquemort started with slam poetry in 2010 and now manages many of his home country’s key slam poetry initiatives. Among them are the Coupe d’Afrique de Slam Poésie [African Cup of Slam Poetry], which launched in November 2018 in N’Djamena, and the Festival International N’Djam s’enflamme en Slam, an annual festival that started in 2014 and drew 6,000 entries in 2017.
Nac Le Xenopi, who took up slam poetry in 2016, focuses on women’s rights. There are collectives of artists, such as Chad Slam. And there are those fighting multiple battles, such as 27-year-old Epiphanie, the country’s only known female slam poet, who started co-hosting a private radio program on slam poetry earlier this year.
“I intend to help my sisters learn to love slam and to express themselves through this art,” she says. “This is our biggest fight.”
For the moment, Déby’s government is focused on controlling the narrative in the mainstream media. Apart from the country’s only news agency, the government also subsidizes the daily Le Progrès in exchange for its support, and it owns the biweekly L’Info, according to Freedom House. Two private newspapers have loyal readerships, but few copies reach beyond the capital. The government owns the largest TV channel, Télé Tchad. And though freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution, security agencies have frequently arrested journalists. In comparison, slam poets have so far not drawn much government attention, says Croquemort. But the clampdown on traditional media serves as a pointer to the coming challenges for slam poets as their audiences — and impact — grow and begin to rival the press. Already, they’re not immune from government action.
Earlier this year, activists and human rights groups staged a protest in the country’s capital against austerity measures introduced to satisfy the terms of a recent $312 million bailout deal approved by the International Monetary Fund. On Jan. 29, nearly 60 protesters were arrested, according to local news reports — including a member of the activist group Au Nom Du Respect (ANDUR), whose spokesperson is Ray’s Kim. Days later, after denouncing the government’s crackdown in a press conference, the artist was briefly forced underground to avoid arrest. But with about 6,000 Facebook followers and multiple invitations to perform beyond his own borders, the 2016 Chad Cup of Slam Poetry winner won’t be silenced anytime soon.
Ray’s Kim says he only wants good governance, “freedom of expression, equal opportunities, justice for all, respect for the rights and duties of both [citizens and government.]” And he’s willing to share his knowledge as a slam poet. He participated in the November 2018 African Cup of Slam Poetry as a “noncompeting” guest, and worked with Alvin, Chad’s representative at the event, on the flow and vocal tone of his poems.
To Nac Le Xenopi, known as Clément in everyday life, slam poetry is a way to address “the sorrows of … mothers abandoned by society, [who] become prey and objects of … [a] racket of policemen and municipal guards.” He tells me he watched a close family member married off at 15 years old, and how that personal experience has shaped his views on this subject. “I write to denounce the marriage of children and minors,” he says. He also advocates allowing women more time between pregnancies — a powerful message in a country with a fertility rate of about six children per woman, according to Statista.
Educational and social barriers restrict women’s involvement in slam poetry, Epiphanie says. She hopes to be a trailblazer for women and to remove at least some of their psychological barriers. The radio show she co-hosts has a title that translates to “Frequency Poetry and Slam.”
What makes this art form — often augmented with instruments and at times even singing — different from, say, rap, are the lyrics, according to Croquemort. It’s more poetic, he says, and there’s less focus on the background music. “When you rap, it’s fast, so you can’t hear very well. But if you speak, [the audience] can hear everything you say.”
Croquemort keeps himself busy, traveling, studying, working, slamming and planning festivals through his nonprofit organization, Tchad Plus. The November festival included not only the poetry slam competition, but also workshops, exhibitions and fashion shows. And Croquemort hopes his slam poetry reaches beyond his fellow Chadians. He also wants to rip apart stereotypes some people have about Africans — such as the idea that there are no schools, or nice cars, or that everyone has wild animals for pets. Europeans and Africans are not that different, he says. “We are just human.”
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