Word to the Wise – Kleon McPherson Spoken Word Champion

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

Word
to the Wise – Kleon McPherson

Spoken
Word Artist

By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

Wednesday
13 January 2016

The
oral tradition in Caribbean culture is one of the strongest features of our
literary heritage. A significant element of the region’s culture is embodied in
our inventive use of language – in everyday conversations, limin’, on the
streets, in maxis and taxis, in the markets, in Speech Bands, in the carnival kaiso
tents, in the lyrics of our calypsonians and soca artistes, and the vernacular
of our radio DJs and MCs – all modern day chantwells, griots or oral historians.
The tradition is also maintained in the contemporary Spoken Word scene where younger
writers sharpen their skills in verbal battles and lyrical masterclasses drawing
on topics from a deep well of often searching and controversial subjects.

Mutabaruka
and the late Michael Smith from Jamaica, Paul Keens Douglas or Sprangalang from
T&T are amongst the most celebrated Caribbean wordsmiths.

Currently,
Crystal Skeete is one of Tobago’s acclaimed poets/Spoken Word artists. A doctor
by profession and former T&T track and field athlete whose most famous
piece Maxi Man has been seen almost
90 000 times in YouTube hits. She’s one of a posse of T&T writers who
comprise the Free Speech Project poets[i].

Amongst
the thriving Tobagonian cabal of Spoken Word artists secondary school teacher
Askala George won the 2015 Spoken Word Festival held at Gulf City Mall in
December, where categories for both Young Adults and People’s Choice were well
represented.  The annual event,
inaugurated in 2012, focusses on literacy, education, books and reading and is
a collaboration between the Empowerment Foundation of Tobago, Mood Writers,
Tobago Ingenium Debate Forum and Tobago Writer’s Guild.

Another
standout face in the island’s Spoken Word milieu – and also a Free Speech poet
– is Kleon McPherson.   One of his most celebrated performances
occurred in a double header clash during December at the Trinidad Theatre
Workshop in Belmont and Bar Code in downtown Scarborough, respectively. Over a
long weekend where the lyrical assassin’s biting and ruthless delivery – with
content to match – achieved the verbal laceration of arch rival Kyle ‘Skeeto’ Amos,
both performers brought expert and astute word play and observations to a
captivated audience, together with topical and sharply witty verses. In the end
though it was McPherson who eclipsed his opponent over several closely fought
sessions.

The
well informed intellectual combines his Spoken Word performances, with a career
as a Researcher in the Administrative Offices of the Secretariat at the Tobago
House of Assembly Legislature Building, in uptown Scarborough, where he has
been employed for around 8 months after transferring from the Community
Development and Culture Division.

I
met up with the articulate writer recently and learned more from him of the
history and background of the Spoken Word genre in T&T and his role and
continued participation in it.

Hailing
from Carnbee, where he still lives, and with links in Plymouth, the writer’s distinctive
tones can also be heard on several radio and TV adverts, and he was recently
featured in a Christmas special featuring many Trinbagonian entertainers.

McPherson
is too modest to state whether he himself or Amos triumphed at December’s poetic
jousting match but it is widely acknowledged to have been a victory for the enthralling
and assured performance of the smaller island’s contender. A review of his captivating
YouTube productions, and of the recent clash, capture a performance style which
requires more than one adjective –  composed,
acerbic, passive aggressive in delivery, sardonic, lucid and with clear diction
– and extremely entertaining.

The double award winner – he picked up Young
Achiever of the Year and Youth Awards [Performing Arts] last year – also runs
RE Promotions which coordinates charity work and schools’ supplies and is
dedicated to enhancing the cultural and entertainment landscape of Tobago by
promoting the island as a top choice destination for social activities and
events.

Active
in the Spoken Word scene in T&T for nearly 5 years he recalls his early
days – overcoming scepticism that the scene was elitist and not for him – describing
an interest which began almost by accident. 
Having studied at The UWI’s Cavehill Campus, where he attained a Bachelor
of Arts degree in History and a Masters in Cultural Studies, it was at that
institution where his debut performances saw him recite the pieces entitled Leggings and A Hot Shhh [of which more later].

Pointing
to the sometimes limited focus of many of his Spoken Word peers – racism or Black
consciousness for men, and domestic violence and sexism for women – he sees
himself as unique and different in his performance style rather than attempting
to fit into a specific category.

Describing
himself as an organic intellectual, rather than an academic minded writer and citing
Tobago’s Mood Writers and The Def Poetry Jam TV show as early influences, he has
now established a distinctive style which he describes in this way: “I favour
precision in my delivery and the same standard in my writing”.

His
verbal self-portrait is accurate and although he mostly stays away from
mainstream politics in his poetry, omitting any commentary about political
parties from of his work, that doesn’t mean that his work is not penetrating or
enlightening. Black – which he
describes as his most serious work, illustrates this assertion, as does Su Ling a message piece, whilst Skin
Deep depicts the contradictions of the high-powered glamourous fashion
world, and A Vagrant’s Plight contrasts
Caribbean plantation society with the metropolitan societies of western Europe.

Versatility,
as well as accessibility, is important to any writer and one of McPherson’s pieces
– A Hot Shh – achieved both popularity
and a number one spot on a local song chart. He has also delivered his work to
Tobago Jazz Experience, performed at Machel Monday during Carnival and is often
kept busy with performances during the Emancipation Day period.

Versatile
in writing and skilled in a broad cultural arena as stilt walker, carnival band
leader, and cultural researcher, [tenor] pan player with Bethel’s RDC
Redemption Sound Setters, the 2014
Verses Bocas Poetry Slam [ii]
Finalist [now First Citizens National Poetry Slam] was also featured in
the Caribbean Beat Magazine March/April 2015 issue.

Having
recently announced a possible collaboration with the legendary Paul Keens
Douglas expect big things from this versatile performer and writer.

The
Caribbean oral tradition lives on.

Word
to the Wise – Kleon McPherson

Spoken
Word Artist

By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is a Caribbean/London based arts
editor, writer and journalist for www.thenewblackmagazine.com.

He writes about political, social and cultural issues.

Email:shaunhutchinson@thenewblackmagazine.com.

[i] T&T Radio Station 96.1 WE FM, features Spoken Word poets four
times a day in its Free Speech Project segment.  The writers’ videos are uploaded to the
network’s YouTube channel, and are also featured on the station’s Facebook
pages.

[ii] NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival,
hosts the Verses Bocas Poetry Slam, sponsored by First Citizens bank.

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