Interview, Narratives

Saraiya Bah – The 21st Century Griot

TE: Poetical “decluttering?”

SB: Not decluttering: memorising poems. It started off at one a week but now I’m trying to up the ante a bit and memorise at least two a week. I’ve also recently become part of “coffee creatives” where we meet up once a month for coffee, talk about our goals and plans individually as well as what we can do collectively to motivate one another. We also set targets that we are held accountable to.

TE: Impressive. Without trying to gender essentialise, from what I’ve observed – and I know an anecdote isn’t evidence – female poets seem to enjoy a much stronger network of emotional support than male artists. Is there something to this?

SB: There’s often a negative perception of women that we’re not very supportive of one another; we’re very catty or quick to bring each other down. In our case, however, the collective formed because we were admiring each other from afar and when we finally met it was a case of: “I’ve been following you!” “Oh my gosh! I’ve been following you! Why don’t we meet up?” There’s a saying: if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go further, go together. Even though our styles are so different there’s no way we can crossover if I’m just minding my own business and pushing myself the best way I can. Rather than admiring peers from afar, why not uplift each other. There’s a similar campaign that you’re part of that I think could work…

TE: Oh, “The Eligible Bachelor.”

SB: Yes, “The Eligible Bachelor.” I think that could work.

TE: Definitely. There are a lot of guys, especially on the poetry scene – Caleb Femi and Lionheart, for instance – who are exploring different notions of masculinity or rather, masculinities. Instead of having a homogenised, monolithic notion of manhood it’s a topic that’s become much more openly debated and discussed, especially over the past twenty to thirty years. There’s still some prevailing archetypes that us males might feel a lot of pressure to conform to but compare our current situation to thirty years ago: it wouldn’t necessarily be taboo for a man to cry in certain situations now whereas in the not so distant past, especially in Britain, “stiff upper lip” prevailed. Speaking of culture, how does your Sierra Leonean heritage inform your writing?

SE: My dad is from the Fulani tribe who are known to be poets and storytellers. My mum is from the Sosso tribe, which is the thirteenth descendent of the Malian empire. They’re predominantly in Guinea and Sierra Leone but you can also find them in Senegal and Liberia too. When I was younger my aunt and grandmother would sing us songs that told stories; a lot of our traditions are passed down orally and that’s how they’re remembered.
Even some of our everyday sayings are poetical – we rhyme things out. Storytelling and poetry permeate everywhere. It’s beautiful.

TE: How do the historical and contemporary connect in your own work as an “Afropean?”

SB: I’m a first generation British Sierra Leonean raised in London and every Wednesday I do a live Facebook poetry recital. So my delivering poetry orally perpetuates that tradition and it’s gone global in a short space of time.

TE: I’d noticed. Plus the way you linked your Facebook recitals to the oral tradition is profound. Although embedded in “The Matrix,” your recitals are a modern iteration of a classical tradition that exists across cultures.

SB: Oh my gosh! You’re right! I’m the griot and the device, iPad or phone is the equivalent of the fireside where stories were shared. Everyone watching, hitting the like button, the shocked face, the heart – they’re my participants. It’s call and response. I’m calling and they are responding to me. Wow.

TE: A 21st century griot.

SB: I think I’m going to change my strapline right now! It’s “Headwrap Mami”, a play of words on Drake’s-

TE: “Champagne Papi”.

SB: Yeah!

TE: So that’s the origin of your alter ego!

SB: Well, now it’s “21st Century Griot!” Thank you Tommy Evans!
Social media: @saraiyabah

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