Karanja Wangui alias Toonhood is a spoken word artiste and an author. He spoke to Spice Magazine about his artistry and experiences in the art.
Where did your passion for spoken word begin?
Back in 2006 when I was in Standard Six at Ngari Primary School in Nyandarua county, I would grab any acting opportunity, even if it was in a CRE lesson.
The irony is that I was never confident and I recall a day that I was chosen to read a Bible verse on the closing day ceremony in front of parents, teachers and fellow pupils and I could not hold my tears.
I still continued to entertain, as well as imitate politicians and teachers in my high school years at Mary Mother of Grace Boys in Laikipia county.
During this time, I hated poetry and didn’t know that one day I would be doing it for a living. After my high school education, I went on to study Bsc in Computer Science at Maseno University.
Here, I still continued entertaining people with my jokes. It was until 2017 while auditioning for the Ultimate Comic Show when one of the judges told me there is more future in my poetry than in comedy.
It is his words that propelled me to develop an interest in spoken word and that’s how I started writing.
So, how did the art pick up?
I came to Nairobi in late 2017, and my first poetry performance was at Poetry After Lunch, an event that took place every Thursday at the Kenya National Theatre.
I would then go for a book club at Pawa 254 and Amka Forum where I met amazing writers who have moulded me.
Through 2018, I used to read a lot of books and the more I read, the more I learnt the art of telling stories through poetry.
It was this time that I got chances to perform in various events including Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year Awards and Kistrech International Festival among others.
I started becoming more comfortable on stage and there I would share my pain, joy, fears, shed tears, and make wishes.
In 2019, I went for an audition as a poet for Chipukeezy Comedy Club. Though I did not end up as a comic, I became a content developer and a creative director for both Chipukeezy Comedy Club and Chipukeezy Show that used to run on Ebru TV and later at TV47.
I parted ways with the production in November 2019 and joined Eroa Festivals in their event planning development around Elementaita in Nakuru county.
What have been the highlights of your poetry career?
In 2020, I was chosen as a creative director and a judge in an ongoing comedy competition dubbed Y Kenya.
Last year, my poem was featured in Sincerely Daisy, a Kenyan film on Netflix.
Same year, I won Form Ni Mistari competition by Form Ni Gani Kenya, a campaign on making people learn about contraceptives.
How did you feel having your poem on a Netflix film?
I was ecstatic as this was something I even never thought of. I hope more poets would get such recognition.
Francis Ouma, who was one of the actors, approached me and it was about hard writing in sheng yet most of my poems are in English.
I wrote the poem in around 15 minutes. He gave it life in how he performed it.
With so many poets around, how have you differentiated yourself?
I write about things that happen around me. I take it as my responsibility to speak. In short, I am an expressionist.
I love it when I am referred to as art, not an artiste. I am art. And I look forward to a day that people will earn from what they love doing and that’s what I call real joy.
You are also an author. What inspired your latest book?
It was my dream to publish a book since I was in primary school. I remember when my compositions would be read to other students and I would inquire a lot from my mother and anyone in the industry on how to write one.
I wrote it throughout 2019 because I used to lose the poems that I wrote from time to time.
There was this time I lost my book with over 60 poems. In 2020, I decided to compile my poems into a book and searched for some guidelines from my fellow published poets and that’s how my book titled What If? was birthed.
How has the response been and what would you tell an up-and-coming poet?
The feedback has been motivating since many people have been requesting the book through my social media pages and through my direct messages.
The fact that someone connects with your art is more rewarding than the money I get from selling the book.
For the up-and-coming poets, know your strengths, be you and always feel free to express your feelings.
What’s the challenging bit about being a spoken word artiste?
In poetry, there are many ‘open mic’ events where poets perform for free. This is a challenge since we need to make a living from our performances.
Poetry is not fully appreciated, and not many people understand what poetry is about, hence the need to sacrifice ourselves in paving way for the next generation of poets.