Dike Chukwumerije is a famed poet and writer who uses the stage to present his art in spoken words. Being one of Nigeria’s prolific performance poets, his public remarks and poems have inspired discussions about nationalism and identity across the nation. He speaks with Guardian Life about life and work.
Kindly tell us about yourself and those things people are not familiar with.
My name is Dikeogu Chukwumerije. Everyone calls me Dike. My father was very afrocentric, and so, did not give any of his children English names. I was born in a hospital in Mushin, Lagos. At that time, we lived in Shomolu. I like to travel by road. It is my preferred mode of transportation because you get to see different towns and cities, and how cultures blend seamlessly into one another. Once, as an undergraduate at the University of Abuja, out of curiosity, I traveled to Jos and Kaduna. Having grown up in the South, I thought – ‘How can you be so close to these cities you’ve always heard about and not see them for yourself?’ I am a very curious person. I can also be a very restless person, but I learned early in life the discipline of staying put and seeing things through. I read Law in school but have always been interested in economics and history. I am an introvert.
As a child, have you always been creative, tell us about your journey into being a creative individual.
I was born into an environment conducive to nurturing creative talents. My father was, amongst other things, a writer, a voracious reader, and a really good public speaker. My mother is a gifted storyteller. They were both strong believers in raising children to look inwards to discover their talents and purpose. Growing up, one older brother wrote songs, played the guitar and wrote poetry. The other older brother introduced me to the art of drawing comics. My older sister is an artist as well.
So, as a young boy, you soak in all these influences unconsciously. There was always a piano in the corner in my teenage years. You hear music, you read books, you listen to poetry, you are drawn into conversations that expand your mental horizon, and slowly find yourself becoming the sort of person who stumbles on a blank sheet of paper and immediately begins to cover it with poetry, or the plot for a novel, or cartoon sketches, or the lyrics of a song. You see? Creativity is first a way of seeing things before it manifests as a particular set of skills. Growing up around people who valued the mind and knowledge, and celebrated self-discovery and individual self-expression set the stage for my own evolution into who I am today.
You have become an emblem for performance poetry in Nigeria, how is it doing so far in Nigeria?
Performance Poetry has come a long way. I remember the first three or four shows I staged when I started out, I staged for free because people really didn’t know what this thing was. So, I had to say, ‘Just come and see’. We’ve slowly worked our way out of that space where performance poetry was something only a small circle of literary enthusiasts were aware of. Today, there is much greater awareness and visibility. And a lot of young people up and down the country are turning to it.
But we have not yet broken really into the mainstream market. So, as an industry, we are still at the cusp of the Start-Up phase. Still tweaking different models, to see which one can really catch the attention of the market. So, yes, we have made significant progress on the visibility front. But we have also made progress on the respectability front. It used to be that Performance Poetry was roundly considered ‘poor quality’ Poetry. But this was often because the best of page poetry was compared with the worst of performance poetry. But with the rise of more and more excellent performance poets, the perception is swiftly changing. We have come a long way. This is something all performance poets can be proud of. But we still have a long way to go.
Most of the centre of your performance is hinged on identity and social awakening, why do you think that is important?
Because Identity is fundamental to performance. This is true for the individual, and it is also true for the group. If you do not know who you are, you will be hesitant where you should be decisive, and lose time at every crossroad you come to. Every challenge you encounter would engender self-doubt and make you want to turn back, and so you would lack that perseverance inducing confidence without which victory is impossible. You, see? Nation-building is not an intellectual exercise. For a nation must first exist in your heart and soul before you can pay the price required to make it come alive in reality. To build Nigeria, the builder must first be Nigerian. It is not the other way round. So, today, all the building blocks are there. The natural resources.
The favourable geographical location. The international clout stemming from the symbolism of our size. The years of co-existence that has allowed a mutually intelligible language and culture to emerge. The building blocks are there. All that is lacking is the builder. And that is why social awakening is important. We have allowed anger over the past, and ignorance about the potentials in the present to cloud our vision of the future. The founding fathers played their part. They gave us a geographical space with premium potential. The intermediate generation played their part. They devised stop-gap measures that allowed the country to stay together, in spite of its ethno-religious differences, so that with Time children can be born here who see Nigeria as truly and honestly theirs. Those children – those beautiful ones – are here. This generation, and the ones coming, have but one task. To give birth to this nation. But, first, you must believe.
Where would you say your creative juice springs from and who were your early inspirations?
My creativity springs from the way I see the world, and what I believe are fundamental truths about the human condition. My perspective allows me to see connections between things, peoples, cultures, and experiences that other people do not readily see. This is the mental and intuitive ability that feeds what I do as a poet. And I owe that ability to the upbringing and education – both formal and informal – that my parents exposed me to. And to the unique life situations that God has allowed me to pass through. For, ultimately, you are the way you see things. As is already obvious, my parents were early inspirations. My older brother, Che, was my introduction to poetry. In fact, my first ‘poems’ – before he patiently explained to me the meaning of ‘plagiarism’ – was his poems copied into my exercise book. And then I met his friend, Onesi Dominic, a poet as well, who also made a lasting impression on me. These were my early inspirations.
What would you say are the challenges you are faced with as a thinker and author in Nigeria?
The challenges are not very different from those that we all face as Nigerians. A culture of poor governance has created a difficult physical environment that punishes us all by compelling everyone to exert extraordinary effort to achieve results that, in better governed spaces, are quite ordinary. This is the hidden tax that poor light, poor water, poor schools, poor hospitals levies on everyone – including writers and thinkers. Years of living under such conditions has additionally caused us to develop a coping culture, otherwise known as ‘man-know-man’. Since things don’t work automatically, we invest a lot of our resources in getting to ‘know’ people in positions and places, so that when we have a need, things can be made to work for us by our ‘friends’. Such a culture – of nepotism – is the opposite of a meritocracy. In a meritocracy, people care more about what you know than who you know. And that is the type of culture you need for ideas – and investing in a knowledge industry – to truly flourish. These are the transitions we need to make as a society. And we all – writers and thinkers included – need to prioritize pushing for these transitions with every opportunity we get.
What is the next chapter for you, and what works in the pipeline are to be expected?
I have three spoken word shows I am currently staging. One of them – the Made In Nigeria (MIN) Poetry show – is on a national tour. It is a show that presents Nigeria’s history from amalgamation to current times in 20 poems, and an integration of drama, dance and music. And we have taken it to 21 states in the country already. I would like to take it to the remaining 16. I am working on other shows as well. I am also planning to do more work on mentorship. And it’s been a while since I wrote a novel or put together a collection of poems. That’s something else I am looking to do in the near future.
Generally, speak about your work and what you strive to achieve.
I think a reading, writing and speaking culture is at the heart of modern civilization. Where relationships are based on shared ideas, not just shared lineage or kinship. Where leadership is based on sharing a vision others find inspiring, and not on sharing money or patronage. But a culture does not just drop from heaven, it has to be cultivated. And one way of cultivating a culture in which how a person thinks is more important than where he or she comes from is by promoting the Arts. For, ultimately, Art is about imagination. To admire a work of art is to admire the imagination of its creator. To be inspired by a work of art is to be inspired by the mind of the artist. And once you make a habit of being inspired by ideas, and acting on that inspiration, you have laid the ideological foundation for a civic society. That is why I do what I do.
Being a new year, what advice would you give as a guide as the countdown has begun?
Be intentional. Don’t spend your life reacting to things. Decide where you want to go and walk steadily in that direction. Doing a little consistently will get you much further much faster than doing a lot in epileptic fits. And don’t forget, in the moment, to be happy. For tomorrow – if you are waiting for tomorrow to laugh – never comes.