Lee Mokobe was an aspiring spoken word poet living in South Africa, dodging the shadows of social boundaries with which he’d never comply, and searching for light by way of spoken word.
“For me, poetry is a way to discover my own self — or at least that’s how it began. I do it for the kids in my community. The kids in my situation, or in similar situations. If I am able to occupy any space, what story am I bringing with me? Whom am I amplifying and why?
Poetry is an investment in sharing the stories of where I come from because there is no one with my story. I do it for the artist that is also African, that is also Trans, that is also poor. There is no one like that in the media. So I will occupy the space in a bold way.”
Vocal Revolutionaries is a poetry community — founded by Lee — that was born out of that hope. The hope that Lee knew poets, creators, and dreamers alike would stand up and fight for.
Lee and members of Vocal Revolutionaries began engaging with a larger, global community of poets in 2013, when they attended the Brave New Voices festival.
Brave New Voices brings the world’s most talented spoken word poets together for dynamic performances and slam poetry. It’s about speaking, but it’s also about listening to the voices that stand up and allowing space for a changed mind born out of a shared perspective.
As Lee explains, “We didn’t have anything like Brave New Voices where I come from. We have no youth poetry in Capetown. It’s astounding and life changing to be able to participate in poetry in the context of a community. It’s a safe space for us to speak out, and that’s life changing.
I am forever grateful to the poetry community for taking a township kid at the bottom of the totem pole and pulling me into a world where I could suddenly see the arts as a viable life option.
I finally have a space for creative expression. After I was outed at my school as a queer kid, I withdrew into myself. Poetry was a way for me to rehabilitate myself and gauge where I was at emotionally. And I have people who want to listen. That’s the most important part to me – that I have room to grow.”
And Brave New Voices opened Lee’s eyes to a part of creating he had never considered: collaboration.
Writing poetry can feel like a lone venture: writing and feeling emotions so raw there is no space for another. But Lee knew that wasn’t so, and so did Andy Mkosi, a multimedia South African artist who knew poetry was about more than words.
“In Cape Town, artists often operate as islands, we assume others are not willing to jump in assist and so we suffer in silence. But through collaborations of this nature we rewrite the narrative and break those boundaries.
Collaborating really meant thinking out of my own comfort zone because I had to consider a lot of the things Lee stands for and what he likes or would love to see.
So it also helped me in a sense to reflect on how much I know about him and also generally the people around me. One powerful thing that I got to learn from the collab was that I share a lovely bond with Lee, I mean to trust someone with rewriting your story surely has to come with some strong sense of faith you have in the individual and the work they do and stand for.”
And so, these two artists came from completely different artistic worlds to create alongside each other – speaking from their hearts into each other’s to create work that was bigger than any one artist.
There was just one obstacle: by this time, Lee had moved to the United States and Andy was in South Africa. They were two artists with no creative overlap – they were in different continents and working in different mediums. Their collaboration would have to find a way across borders and time zones to transcend limitations of location and create from one shared creative space.
And so, they woke up early and stayed up late, they emailed and video chatted as much as possible. And yet, they pushed through to speak to the stories of those who had not yet found their voices.
See Lee and Andy’s work in this visual collaboration – imagery by Andy Mkosi and words by Lee Mokobe.