When you watch Nigerian-Canadian spoken word artist Titilope Sonuga perform, you would be captivated to say the least.
Even in the noisiest of places, with people networking over drinks and meals, the room goes quiet the instant she lets out the first line of her poem… and this has nothing to do with her possessing a commanding tone like a lot of orators do. Actually, her tone is anything but forceful. Rather it possesses some sort of warmth; a soothing quality that is both powerful and gentle at the same time.
Her words are always so simple – no heavy vocabulary, just plain unpretentious everyday words, but with depth; so much depth, almost as though she is telling a personal story, pouring out her heart, sharing her secrets and drawing you into her world – all without the theatrical, sometimes aggressive movements typical of spoken word artists during performance.
You get the same experience every time you watch Titilope perform – whether on stage in real life or as an actor in GTBank’s NdaniTv viral web series “Gidi up” where she replaces Oreka Godis playing the character “Eki”.
As she performs spoken word poetry in her calm demeanor, all you can think of is “…so much depth, surely there is a story here” and there is indeed.
Titilope, who is the last of four girls, was born in Lagos.
She says of her childhood “I lived a fairly sheltered childhood, my dad encouraged us to read a lot [so] when I wasn’t at school, I was at home playing with my sisters or reading a book. He was particular about academic excellence so needless to say, we were very serious kids.”
When she was 13, her family moved to Edmonton, Canada where they would go on to live for the next 17 years.
New to teenage and her environment – she was in the middle of negotiating race for the first time and without any prior warning, she was suddenly the black girl with an accent who couldn’t understand certain nuances of Canadian life.
“On an almost daily basis…” she recalls “I had to explain that I hadn’t lived in a hut, or village… that I hadn’t seen lions in the streets, and that I hadn’t just learnt how to speak English.”
To her, it all seemed ridiculous; suddenly, her understanding of her identity was shaken and she recalls feeling “small and embarrassed”.
“At 13 your desire to fit in and be cool is so great,” Titilope explains, “so being othered was tough to negotiate.”
Sonuga was in a new place trying to adjust to her new life and just about the same time found poetry; a channel to express her emotions and pour out words which otherwise would have been difficult. “Great poetry can alter the way we see ourselves. It can change the way we see the world,” says Robert Housden, author of poetry collections such as Ten Poems to Change Your Life, extraordinary poetry by some of the world’s most known poets. “You may never have read a poem in your life, and yet you can pick up a volume, open it to any page, and suddenly see your original face there…”
For Titilope, it became a way to unpack all of the feelings and wrestle the complex emotions of her formative years; with it, she didn’t have an accent, and so could express herself without being judged.
“Poetry became my happy place and once I began to share it with other people, I realised the gift in being able to remind someone else that they are not alone, that we are all in this together.”
Finding poetry may have coincided with the happenings in her life at the time but Titilope argues she didn’t just stumble on poetry; in her words, she’d always carried it with her but hadn’t quite figured out how to express it. She also explains that finding poetry gave her freedom but just ‘writing’ it was not enough.
“I started by writing poems and stories,” she says. “…But over time, I began to find the courage to use my voice [as] there’s power in the spoken word and I wanted to tap into that.”
After overcoming the awkwardness of those earlier teenage years and trying to fit into her new environment, Titilope studied engineering and went on to practise for about five years before her passion for writing and performing overtook her and she decided to focus on that and move back to Nigeria.
About three years ago, the name Titilope Sonuga may have been unfamiliar to some and the face unknown, but you could see her in her signature low cut hazel-tinted hair or waist-length braids, clad in Ankara shorts at intimate events around Lagos working hard to establish herself as a spoken word artist. Unassuming and without airs, one would never have suspected that outside the shores of the country, Titilope was already something of a spoken word celeb, who had met with the late poet and activist, Maya Angelou, and shared a stage with renowned poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, and others at the first spoken word showcase of the Achebe Colloquium on Africa at Brown University. She was also winner of the 2011 Canadian Authors’ Association Emerging Writer Award for her first collection of poems, Down to Earth.
Fast forward to 2016; the days of trying to establish herself as a respected spoken word artist here in Nigeria are over. These days, the tinted-hair, braids and Ankara shorts have been replaced by a full kinky afro and a womanly aura and her résumé boasts of new entries like performances and presentations at local and international events, including the Lagos International Poetry Festival, Taruwa Festival of Performing Arts, and the prestigious Aké Arts and Book Festival.
Most notable is her being the first poet to appear at a Nigerian presidential inauguration ceremony, performing at the May 2015 inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari. Titilope, who very recently got married to her brand executive partner, is also Ambassador for the Intel She Will Connect programme, an initiative to bridge the online gender gap for women and girls through a combination of digital literacy training, an online peer network, and gender-relevant content.
Her growth is irrefutable and impressive, and though the almost tomboy look has been replaced by a more sophisticated appearance, her simplicity and peaceful aura remain; losing that would perhaps mean losing her core essence as even her debut poetry collection is titled “Down To Earth”.
Whether she is writing of her personal journey, as she did to powerful effect in her 2014 collection, Abscess, or on topics ranging from the vibrancy of Lagos to the difficulty of healing from communal trauma, Titilope presents a world of sublime, latent beauty struggling to come to terms with itself.
Finding her art is indeed synonymous to finding herself as meeting with Titilope Sonuga or experiencing her craft, you get no feel of that uncertain teenager she once was.
“Art saves lives,” Titilope says in a way that shows you she believes every inch of it.
“It changes ideologies, it puts us face to face with an undeniable truth about who we are and who we wish to be, [and] a world without art isn’t one I want to live in.”