I still remember the first time I met him. It was in 2016 at a cool school event dubbed The Frequency. He was battling it out in front of an excited crowd with another poet, who I hadn’t met before either.
While he spat clever English lines, his opponent went local with Swahili punch lines. The other guy won. I’ve never seen him again.
Ivan, however, has become a constant face.
Through @kaatoony’s eyes
Last week I got to meet the 26-year-old artist from Burundi (again). He’s lived most of his life in Kenya, followed by Tanzania. East Africa is his home, he concludes.
As a poet, he’s written on and off since he was eleven. That is until he discovered performance poetry at Kwani Open Mic in February 2014. Since then he’s been consistent for the last 3 and ½ years.
Ivan Irakoze has become a well known name in Nairobi, having been crowned Slam Africa King back in October 2015. It did not come easy though; he had tried two times before. The first time he was in the tenth position.The second time he came in close second.
He’s currently a graduate student in USIU-Africa pursuing a Masters in Strategic Management. In his free time, he organizes bi-monthly Art & Poetry events through his company Ink Overflow. He says it’s a balance between being an artist and doing business.
Don’t take him too seriously though, he’s a serious joker on Facebook. He admits being a 90s hip-hop head with Tupac being his all time favorite. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like the new school – Kendrick, J Cole, Joey Badass and Logic.
Did I tell you he’s also a football fanatic? He showed up at the restaurant we agreed to meet at in a ManU T Shirt. Arsenal fans, please don’t leave.
Music junkies, meet Ivan.
First of all, who is Ivan?
I am a writer, storyteller, poet. Performance poet as well. I’m still trying to find myself. I’m someone who loves art and I believe in self-expression. I’m very big on people pursuing their dreams and expressing themselves and I believe art whatever form, is the best.
(Art lover, got it.)
You’ve started Ink Overflow and you’re organizing events. Why did you feel you needed to start your own platform?
Just to help in my own way, help the art scene. Cause I feel there’s a lot more to do.
(reminds the waiter about his ice tea)
I remember listening to this interview with Blinky Bill and he said the right thing. He said in Kenya we have an art scene and not an industry. We’re still young so creating platforms especially for spoken word, which isn’t viewed the same way as other art forms, I feel is important. So the more, the better.
So you want to grow the art scene into an industry?
Yeah, play my part. And I believe poets should be paid. Cause there are not that many avenues for spoken word. But then gaining something from your art is very important. So those were the reasons for Ink Overflow at the beginning.
In every show, you have different artists. How do you choose who to perform?
I need to see them perform first, for different reasons. If an artist performs at Ink Overflow they have to be able to leave the crowd with something. Like the crowd will be like oh I remember what they said. Like they have to be that good.
So I have to see them. And if we’re going to pay cash, no matter what sum it is, at least I paid for something good.
So there’s either I see you perform on a stage somewhere and I see what you bring, or you write us an email preferably with links to videos of your performances. That’s why I go to so many shows. That’s my excuse. Scouting talent.
So I handle performances, like musicians and spoken word. And Jessica [my partner] handles the art, the paintings. Cause she’s the artist, she’s a painter.
You also perform in some shows. Do you pay yourself?
I don’t think I can. The only reason I perform is if there’s a slot. If I feel I have something for the theme and if it’s been a while.
One of our rules is to never have one performer twice in a row. There are a few events in between artist A coming back.
I never pay myself. I should (chuckles).
What’s the vision right now for Ink Overflow?
One, to be able to pay artists their usual fees. We’ve grown from doing free shows at USIU to paying artists decent money. When I see talent I want to throw money at it, I wanna be like take my money.
So we offer as much as we can. We want to grow to a point where someone says this is my fee. And I’ll be like oh okay here you go. But that takes time. I think we’ve grown quite a bit. I like the trajectory.
Other than that, there’s trying to create other platforms, not just stage performances. So we’re exploring different ideas like video content for interviews and stuff like that. Hopefully one day we’ll get to a point where it can be like a festival.
How has your family been an influence in your work?
My parents and my brother are like the biggest supporters. My dad is fully behind it. My mom is always behind. My brother keeps bragging that we’re brothers. I like that.
I know I can count on them, their support in whichever way. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.
Your brother was even selling tickets at the last show…
Yeah… haha. We help each other out.
Shingai killing it at the previous Art & Poetry: Beauty
You write poetry on your blog. You also perform it. Which do you enjoy more, the writing or spoken word?
Spoken word. Cause even when I write it’s meant to be performed. When I’m writing, I’m speaking it as well. So if I don’t see myself on stage while I’m writing it then you’re not going to see it on the blog.
Being a spoken word artist in Kenya, what do you like or not like about it?
Wow. What do I like? I like it when artists express themselves and they voice out not their problems, but their lives and their issues. I like that there’s a voice to art. Take someone like Dorphan, he speaks for the people. If there would be a revolution he would be there. Like he’s that guy.
I like that people are different and unique. If you think Mufasa, you might think love. I like that everyone has their own style. If people started copying each other’s styles, I’d be like what are you doing?
I like that it’s growing. There’s so much talent here. I know every month I discover something new, and I’m like where have you been… you know.
What I don’t like? Uhh… that it doesn’t pay enough. That it’s seen as a hobby, which most art is. So until art is taken seriously then we’ll still struggle for it.
There’s crazy talent. I don’t like that people like art until it’s time to buy it. You don’t wanna support the artist; I’m not for that.
What is your style and do you write everything out of experience?
I used to write everything out of experience. I think I still do for most of my stuff. But the few times I’ve tried to be fictional is when I’m doing storytelling. So I’m trying to do more of that, I’m trying to move more into storytelling than just the love pieces and all that.
My style is, I speak from my experiences. And someone, one of my friends said I take people on a journey. I don’t know if that’s true. But I like the idea of, we start the story here and by the end you’ve experienced this whole story like you were there. That’s what I want to achieve.
I can write about any topic, but I’ll usually write either about life, love, dreams or death.
Who is the most underrated poet you know? And don’t say yourself.
Underrated, I don’t know. The way I see it and the way I think it should be is when an artist is on stage, they’re the best artist during that moment. So whoever’s on that stage should be the best poet of all time for those few minutes. Like no one will touch it – that’s their moment.
So when I see a performance I’m always like I wish I had written that, I wish I could do that. For me if I see an artist on stage I’m like, they’re better than me at that moment.
Undiscovered? I don’t know cause most of the guys I’ve seen have performed at Slam. And Slam is like the biggest stage we have.
Wait, now I could tell who I wish I could write like. But they’re not underrated, they’re really good. I wish I could write like Kaesa. I think that’s the first name that goes to mind.
I’m amazed by a lot of people, but Kaesa’s style is something I don’t have but I wish I could have. I can see myself writing some of my other favorites, but I know I can’t touch what Kaesa is doing.
What is it about Kaesa?
He’s just so deep. You know how in science there’s scientific language and then there’s layman’s terms? I’m layman’s terms. He’s scientific but artsy. I wish I could do that.
(somebody get Kaesa a hot cuppa coffee)
You’re also an events junkie like me. What’s been your favorite event this year?
I’ve been to so many. And I always see you at them.
Too Early For Birds. Were you there? (unfortunately no)
It’s more of a play but it was… It was magnificent. And they have two more coming up so I’m just waiting. What I loved about it is it’s a play but it’s based on true stories. Based on history so you’re learning as you’re watching. And it’s funny.
And you believe you’re there in that moment of time. Cause it’s based on Kenya’s history so 1922, 1918. They make it like you’re there. That’s something else I wish I could do.
Wow. I know it’s based on Owaahh’s blog.
Yeah. So Ngartia and Abu Sense adapted the stories on the blog. I think they’re 13 in total, that they picked. They did about 5 so the other two [shows] will have the rest of the 13.
And it’s just incredible. I feel like that’s how school should be. Forget a history class, go watch the play and then learn like that. I remember more from that show than from my history class.
And it was such an amazing show they sold out KNT (Kenya National Theatre). And not a lot of people sell out KNT.
(You know who’s going for the next one).
What’s been your favorite event to perform at?
Can I say my own? I enjoyed the last Art & Poetry. I also liked the one I did in September. Utam Festival, the one organized by Fadhilee. That was fun.
I’m forgetting a lot of things. Yeah, I think those two come to mind.
Speaking of Art & Poetry, there was Beauty and now there’s Masculinity vs Femininity. What message are you trying to spread using this one?
Basically just trying to explore how society expects you to be. If you’re a man there’s this idea of masculinity, machismo, lack of emotion. You know if you’re a woman femininity. Pink. Like these social constructs, you’re supposed to fit into.
It’s not a bad thing to be masculine or feminine. But we shouldn’t be limited by what society defines man or woman as.
I think that’s the main thing. Trying to explore different things; we’re all unique. It’s trying to say that guys can have some femininity and women can have some masculinity; they can be strong.
I know Shikkiey is performing, Abu Sense. Who else?
Trabolee. He’s a rapper, poet. I think he’s one of the best rappers in the country. Yeah, up there.
There’s Zeshari. She’s a singer-songwriter. I like the lineup. And I’ve seen them perform so I know what to expect.
I know I’m not the only one who loves the quotes posted daily on the Art & Poetry Facebook event page. Deep messages from men and women about what masculinity and femininity is and isn’t. You should check them out too.
I still remember in April when I dragged, I mean accompanied my friends to their first Art & Poetry gig. It was such a beautiful success, even my friend Wendi wrote about it on her blog.
This time around there will a surprise guest artist on Sunday, June 18th. Ivan refused to tell me who it is. But he assured me we won’t disappointed.
Ivan truly started from the bottom organizing free poetry events in USIU with a group of friends. Now he’s at the exquisite Michael Joseph Center at Safaricom House, which in his opinion, is the best place to hold events.
And to think it all began with watching Def Poetry Jam videos by Russell Simmons.
The themes keep on changing and Ink Overflow has two more events planned for this year. However, Ivan doesn’t want to perform in just one venue. He wants his poetry and storytelling to take him places, wherever in the world he can go. He wants to fly.
He’s way bigger than the Frequency now.