Dike Chukwumerije is a Nigerian spoken word and performance poetry artist and an award-winning author. He has eight published books including the novel Urichindere, which won the 2013 Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for Prose Fiction  and a poetry theatre production – Made In Nigeria – currently touring the country. His ‘Made In Nigeria’ performance poetry has spanned over 14 Nigerian states, and is still counting. Chukwumerije was cited as one of the Top 100 most influential Africans by New African magazine in 2016. He studied for an LLB Law at the University of Abuja and later obtained a master’s degree in Law and Development from SOAS, University of London. He was a 2021 Judge for the NLNG Prize.
LitVo: Could you describe your relationship with Nigerian literature?
Dike Chukwumerije: This is an unusual question. Well, I guess, one can say I have a working relationship with Nigerian literature. I am a practicing poet, after all.
LitVo: Is idealism a good approach to creating any work of art?
Dike Chukwumerije: ‘Idealism’ can mean many things. I am not sure in what context you used it. However, when defined as the belief that ideas precede reality, then (for me) idealism is the only approach to creating a work of art. Because ‘art’ should never really be a passive representation of reality. There should always be an attempt, in art, to interrogate, interpret, and shape – not just report – reality.
LitVo: You said in one of your interviews with Saddiq Dzukogi about your transition from idealism to realism. What parts of idealism do you miss?
Dike Chukwumerije: I think in that interview I may have been referring to my transition from page poetry to stage poetry, and the shifts one has to effect in one’s writing to make that transition successfully. One of those shifts is from an inward-looking orientation to an outward-facing one. This means to write less as a means of decongesting your own chest/head, and more as means of helping your listeners make sense of what is happening in their own chests/heads. I don’t really miss much from being a page poet because I still write page poetry. But I know which types of poems work better on paper, and which ones lend themselves best to live performance.
LitVo: I get this queer feeling listening to you read, virtually. The directedness, the ability to mesh light entertainment with militarism; how much has family/childhood contributed to that part of you that is critical?
Dike Chukwumerije: My upbringing as I suspect is the case for most people, has contributed significantly to who I am today, and how I do things. My performance style is however, more directly the outcome of years of experimentation with live audiences. Learning what works and what does not work for me. Because a performer has to strike the right balance between their own personality (how they are comfortable communicating on stage) and what audiences want. So, I like direct speech. But I also know that being subtle is critical when talking about certain subjects, and that humour is always a great aid for comprehension.
LitVo: “What has Lagos done to you?” This is a self-investigating question — about how a part of us perpetually relinquishes to society. The parts we militate. What parts of Lagos do you idolize? And do you see Abuja taking up that mantle any time soon?
Dike Chukwumerije: I was born in Lagos and grew up there, so it holds my childhood and early teenage memories. These are important foundational memories for any human being, as they constitute one’s first sense of ‘home’. So, that Lagos swagger, streetwise, drive and energy will always be a part of me. Abuja has its own ways. I don’t think it’s a competition between the two cities. There is enough space in the heavens for every star. Abuja is patiently forging its own unique brand and cultural energy. And I am also happy and proud to be in that mix as well.
LitVo: Will you call your works patriotic?
Dike Chukwumerije: Yes.
LitVo: Spoken word, because of its simplicity and theatricality is immediate. This immediacy creates active socio-political discussions. Do you see the spoken word form as a palatable medium to an audience not actively engaged in intellectual matters of their state?
Dike Chukwumerije: It would have been even practical if Nigeria’s socio-academic structure allows a kind of serious intellectual discussion/reform and application. Spoken Word is engaging and entertaining but, when it deals with weighty matters of politics for instance, is also provocative and educational. So, for audiences that have no interest in socio-political matters, Spoken Word can help ease the transition from that state of indifference to one of concern. For one minute, you’re marveling at a sentence construction or applauding a particularly apt rhyme, and the next you’re turning the essence of what has been said over in your mind. By coming in a creative form, Spoken Word can help deepen political consciousness in those who are ordinarily uninterested in these things.
LitVo: You said, and I quote “Tribe is the natural enemy of the state.” Since over a decade, the decline in Nigeria’s economy and consequently, people’s faith have declined rabidly. Do you see a change in anything that is now, especially with the persistent call for confederacy?
Dike Chukwumerije: For Nigeria to change for the good, we have to have a clear vision of who we ought to be, where we ought to be, and how we ought to get there. And then, we will need a critical mass of individuals willing to pay the personal sacrifices required to make that vision a reality. At the moment, many of our struggles are driven more by what we are deeply against rather than what we are sincerely for. The call for confederacy may fix a few things but it cannot of itself fix the culture of ignoring, bending and breaking laws that is widespread in our society, from the frequency with which we beat traffic lights to the normalcy of corruption. This is the culture that ensures that regardless of what laws and constitutions we formally pass, outcomes generally stay the same. For this culture to change, you need a leadership that commits to placing itself first, and then the rest of society, under the Rule of Law. This is not an attribute you have to wait till you get into office to begin to demonstrate.
LitVo: Decades after your graduation, the fight for elemental things as stable light, shelter, food, etc, still continues in Nigeria. When will it be less culpable for militating artists to give up? When will it be less culpable for you to give up?
Dike Chukwumerije: For me, giving up is not an option. If Nigeria fails, the repercussions will be severe and will cost us all many, many generations. We must persevere in the struggle. If we do, wherever we fall, our faith will seed new plants.
LitVo: New poets follow this trend of exploring self in society and not against society, almost like the man has died in contemporary poetry. And this dogma is not singular in context, there’s also a perpetual infuse of melancholy in art forms. Confessional, critics say. Nonetheless, poets as I am, are faced with following this trend of confessionalism. What is your hold on the large percentage of ‘contemporary’ poets neglecting the more direct form of protests and embracing the confessional?
Dike Chukwumerije: Be yourself. Do what is within you to do. There is a place, a purpose and an audience for every type of art. I, in this season of my life, am not an inward-looking artist. And I encourage others who have that tendency, but may be swayed by what others are doing, to similarly follow their own artistic convictions.
LitVo: Your poems are making headway everywhere. How do you feel when young artists are self-limiting and you are not able to virtually or physically motivate them? How do you cope with a failure that is haplessly the society’s?
Dike Chukwumerije: It weighs heavily on me. But, fortunately, I also meet enough people who I have been able to motivate. Like I too was motivated as a young poet once to follow my heart and stay the cause no matter what. So, every positive feedback I get, no matter how far the space between, encourages me. Sometimes, you just have to focus on the positives.
LitVo: Critics of your ground pounding novel, Urichindere, almost came to the conclusion that you ‘agree with Samuel Becket’s theory of splittism which preaches the need to be bad and good at the same time.’ Dualism, they infer. In Nigeria, everything seems to be made of two identities: the Nigerian and the sane. As Nigeria progresses, do you see the up and coming artists going through, what you call, a convert’s democratic process, where we can be meritocrats and lovers of the state?
Dike Chukwumerije: It’s interesting how in your statement ‘In Nigeria, everything seems to be made of two identities: the Nigerian and the sane’ you identify ‘Nigeria’ with what is negative. This is quite common behaviour. Other cultures appropriate positive values to themselves, regardless of the widespread existence of vices amongst their people. So, Americans appropriate ‘freedom’ even though slavery and racism is a big part of their national identity. The French appropriate ‘egalitarianism’ even though class divisions are a huge part of their history. We, however, appropriate things like ‘African time’ and ‘insanity’ as what it means, quintessentially, to be Nigerian. It is not a reflection of reality. It’s a reflection of what we choose to focus on and enlarge. I see the beauty in myself as a Nigerian. And I know that ‘freedom’, ‘respect’, ‘equality’, ‘dignity’, ‘meritocracy’ are all part of my heritage too. All these concepts also have roots in my history and society. So, yes, all human beings (and societies) carry light and darkness equally within them. And what you speak to and focus on is what will command the stage. So, yes, we can become meritocrats and lovers of state tomorrow. For the seeds of that reality are already within us.
LitVo: You are a leading spoken word artist in Africa. There has been this debate about spoken word not being poetry. Ahmed Maiwada loves to say this. What’s your position on this? What is spoken word, and what is poetry?
Dike Chukwumerije: Spoken word and poetry are art forms that overlap. It’s like the classical musician saying rap is not music. Poetry can be Spoken Word and Spoken Word can be Poetry. But not all Poetry can be Spoken Word, and not all Spoken Word is Poetry. Furthermore, in a certain sense, I don’t really consider Poetry as a genre in itself. I see Poetry as a set of tools mankind evolved to make speech more enjoyable and memorable to the listener. Before the invention of the written text, everything was Spoken Word. Everything had to be Spoken Word because without the use of poetic devices, speech is boring and easily forgotten. Poetry, in the sense of the narrow technical art form, came with the invention of writing. And, in a sense, is an attempt to isolate and showcase rhetorical devices that have always been an important part of every type of literature. So, while Spoken Word focuses more on the story or the message and uses rhetorical devices as a means to an end, the narrow genre of Poetry tends to focus on the exhibition of rhetorical devices while relegating objective meaning to a secondary position. They are opposing extremes of one tradition – the tradition of elevating boring speech/text into art with the colorful use of figures of speech. The connection is only broken when Spoken Word drops its use of rhetoric and becomes ordinary academic speech. That is the only type of Spoken Word that is no longer Poetry. It is the language, the creative use of poetic devices and figures of speech that makes poetry. Not the form.
LitVo: As a Nationalist Spoken Word Artiste, what’s your position on rotational presidency bandied around by political parties in Nigeria?
Dike Chukwumerije: Nigeria is built on three fundamental principles. One, federalism – which implies recognition and respect for our diversity. Two, accomodation – which implies a proactive effort to carry along the different regions, ethnic groups and peoples when decision making has to be joint. Three, meritocracy – which implies a commitment to a basic set of rights and standards, which must apply to all citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion. This is the intersection of ideas that gave birth to Nigeria. Rotational Presidency seeks to accommodate, but it does this, currently, at the expense of Meritocracy. Finding a sustainable way of balancing Meritocracy against the need to Accommodate is the riddle at the heart of the Nigerian question. I am not yet clear about how best to do this but for now I tilt towards erring on the side of Meritocracy. Let the paramount consideration be competence. However, we must keep an eye on accommodation and representation, for once a government becomes too one-sided, this fact will in itself begin to create its own problems. The ideal would be a meritocratic ruling class that, nevertheless, understands the need for government to be representative. So, meritocracy is enshrined in hard law, and accommodation is rooted in social norms and pragmatism.
LitVo: You are loved by many Nigerians and across all regions because of the accessibility of your lines as well as their patriotic configurations. It is evident in your works that you are pro-Nigeria and justice. Your works teach coexistence among Nigerians. Meanwhile, your dad worked for Biafra in the post-independence era. Why do you believe so much in Nigeria in an era when contemporary literary artists are fleeing the country? Why do you think secession is still a threat in Nigeria, 60 years after independence?
Dike Chukwumerije: My dad had no choice in 1967. He escaped being killed during the pogrom in the West and fled to the East. He had to fight, as does everyone and anyone who is pushed to the wall and given no other option. The scenario today is different. The afflictions we suffer today we suffer together as Nigerians. Poverty, insecurity, unemployment; these things are not selectively targeting only one ethnic or religious group for extinction. They are affecting us all. And the cause is bad governance. Not Muslims or Christians. Not Hausa- Fulani, or Igbo. The cause is BAD GOVERNANCE. We cannot tackle bad governance disunited, because under-performing politicians are able to exploit our ethno-religious rivalry to perpetuate themselves in power. To break out of the poverty and unemployment cycle we are in, we have to elect better leaders. To elect better leaders, we have to vote, not according to the lines of ethnicity and religion, but for a better life for ourselves and our children. We need to break out of the old ethno-religious voting blocs and build new voting blocs around our shared sufferings as Nigerians. A well-governed Nigeria has many advantages from size to geographical location, to cultural symbolism on the global stage that will provide every Nigerian, and every Nigerian group, with the platform needed to achieve their full potential. This is why I advocate for that space. As long as over 60% of us are still not engaging actively in the political process, there is still hope. It means that the dysfunction we are seeing around us today is a reflection, not of the majority, but of the minority. The option for political engagement is still open and not yet exhausted. This is not the time for war. The threat of secession continues to loom because we have not gotten the governance right. The less socio-economic options people have, the more xenophobic they become. In other words, sadly, when people suffer the effects of bad governance they tend to blame their suffering on rival ethnic or religious groups. So, the response to bad governance for most people is to begin to agitate to kick out foreigners and non-indigenes. It is not very far removed from how we blame witches and ‘village people’ for our problems. But the problem is BAD GOVERNANCE. The problem is under-performing politicians in public office. And you fix it, not by hating your neighbour, but by using the poverty you share with him/her as motivation to go out together and vote for a better life.
Adepoju Isaiah Gbenga is a teen author from Osun State. A budding poet and a fiction writer. His works has been published or forthcoming on One Humanity Newspaper, Nigeria Review, Nigeria Review Chapbook, ShallowTalesReview, Opinion Nigeria Newspaper, Ebedi International Writers Residency Publication and elsewhere.