“We are seeing our dreams unfold before our own eyes. That’s addictive. We also understand that we’re trying to build legacies for our children to inherit, if we stop now, we’d be letting them down and that’s unforgivable.”
– Qhakaza Mthembu

Writer, Ziphozakhe Hlobo, speaks to Qhakaza Mthembu, the Managing Director of the Word N Sound Live Literature Company, about their 5 years journey, success stories, poetry and the future.

Qhakaza, you have a beautiful name . . .

Thank you!

Do you like your name?

I LOVE my name, how could I not? My parents will forever be the coolest people for naming me Qhakazambalikayise!
So, let’s get straight to it. What is Word n Sound & how did it come about?

The Word N Sound Live Literature Company was started 5 years ago with the simple aim of bringing poetry back to life in Newtown. Over the last 5 years we’ve grown to host premiere poetry events all over the country. Through our weekly and monthly shows and Festivals we have grown a strong community of writers and a national poetry circuit linking up some of the biggest poetry brands/festivals in SA, Zim and Botswana.

The company is run by 13 young creatives whose aim is to develop an industry that pays artists what they are worth.

I’m going to ask you to name drop some of the biggest names in poetry that you guys have worked with . . .

Wow, we’ve had the great honour of hosting the likes of Lebo Mashile, Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile, Phillippa Yaa Deviliers, Myesha Jenkins, Napo Masheane, Kojo Baffoe, Makhosazana Xaba, Tu Nokwe, Pops Muhammed, Joshua Bennet, Inua Elms, Yrsa Daley Ward, Dean Atta…hey name them, and they have probably rocked our stage…if not, they will soon.

How does that feel?

Unbelievable! To know that we have the support of legends we have looked up for years is mind blowing. It’s encouraging, it lets us know we weren’t crazy to start this. It also helps to know that we can call on just about anyone for help. The way we have built the company is in such a way that all artists feel like an important part of it, this makes it easier for them to buy into our dream.

I’ve never been to Word N Sound, but I can see that you guys are one of the biggest (if not the biggest) poetry house/s in South Africa in terms of consistent events (among other things you do), how do you guys maintain such a reputation and the calibre of artists you bring and mould?

It hasn’t been easy and there have definitely been moments where giving up seemed like a wise decision, especially when it comes to finances – it takes an average of 5 years for a company to start breaking even and making a profit. But we can’t stop, not anymore. Too many people have bought into the dream, too many people have poured their blood, sweat and tears into the company and we’ve pulled off way too many mind-blowing projects to ever give up.

The trick has been bringing the right people on board to drive the company. All my business partners are dedicated to the bigger picture, we all want this…real bad. There is a huge vision that’s behind the movement, we have worked hard to gain the respect of artists and companies locally and abroad. We are seeing our dreams unfold before our own eyes. That’s addictive. We also understand that we’re trying to build legacies for our children to inherit, if we stop now, we’d be letting them down and that’s unforgivable.

As for the talent on our stage, all we can do is keep providing a platform for artists to take advantage of. Those who want to sharpen their skills, keep coming back to be better than they were the last time.
You’ve clearly mastered arts administration. So, take me through the process of planning an event briefly; what are some of the most important things to look at?

Event design and management isn’t easy. I’ve been doing this for over 10 years and it’s still tricky.

The first part is curation. Who do you put on the line up? It’s a fun but sometimes frustrating process. It’s all about designing the show in your head and seeing how each element unfolds and how the acts work together to create an unforgettable show. When it comes to the actual show, we have a very strict Production Manager, Xongani Maluleka, who runs a tight ship. We sign an agreement at the beginning of the year to secure all our dates with our venue. Each month we collect artist’s technical requirements as early as possible to make sure we have everything they need to deliver their best.

Our content team collects artist profiles and interviews them for promotional content for the site. We design posters and set up an event page to share those interviews, images and videos to give the audience a taste of what to expect (in case they have never heard of the performers).

Our marketing team write up press releases and send them out to our media list in hopes of landing a few tv/print/radio/online interviews.

On event day, the entire team is at the venue at least 3 hours before doors open to set up, check sound and prepare the artist holding areas.

What’s your take on talent in South Africa right now (especially with regards to poetry)?

Yoh! SA has insane talent! Every show blows me away. Artists are on a mission to master their craft and it’s beautiful to see.
Okay . . . And, so, what do you think is needed to take it (the talent) to the next level?

What we need is more independent spaces built specifically for the advancement of artists. We need workshops on writing and performance. We need to look critically at the performances we put on to see how to improve next time. We need to interact and collaborate more with our peers locally and internationally. We need a far more critical audience that has no appetite for mediocracy.
Word N Sound recently hosted an AfrWEka festival in the month of May, and we know that May is Africa month. How important was this, especially in light of the recent horrific xenophobic attacks in South Africa? What was the mandate? And was it fulfilled?

The Xenophobic violence in our country earlier this year and back in 2008 were just horrific. It left one feeling so helpless in the face of such injustice. Knowing all too well the power of words in moving people and re-shaping ideas, it was a big deal to be given the opportunity to create a response from the artistic community. The whole idea was to use poetry and artists from the continent to bring across the message that we are African before we are South African, Namibian, Malawian, Zimbabwean…

Unity among us as Africans is important.

Realising, through the stories weaved into the poems, that we are far more alike than we are different, is the true power of poetry. We had the honour of hosting some of SA’s best wordsmiths alongside poets representing Zimababwe, Malawi, Botswana, Lesotho, Ghana and Zambia. In celebration of Africa Day we hosted a series of Twitterviews exploring different views on the continent, the arts, business, politics and books. It was a good way to share ideas and have conversations not limited by the borders that divide us.

What have been some of your worst times in the process of working within the art industry, be it in relation to sponsors, artists, spaces, business partners and/or personal conflicts?

Our first Festival was quite possibly one of the toughest challenges I’ve faced. I just wasn’t ready for how much putting on a Festival while still working full time would take. It was our first attempt, we were inexperienced and relying on a small team. It was tough! But five years later, we have quite a few successful festivals under our belt and it certainly is getting easier. Finding spaces for our shows is another major challenge. Venue managers are looking to make a profit at the bar more than proving support for art.

Our business objectives are essentially very different. Differences between the team are always tough to deal with. We have had to part ways with two business partners in the last 5 years, it’s really not easy, especially when the relationship goes way back into childhood friendships. But we quickly realised the importance of separating business from the personal in order to keep the company strong.
That must be tough. And, I think one of the toughest things in this business is criticism especially when you are still building the brand. Have you experienced detrimental criticism in terms of what you do?

Well, not everybody likes Word N Sound. Our objectives have been questioned and others think we are elitist in how we function, there are misconceptions about how much money the company has. Hearing negative comments about your brand/company is never easy.

How do you handle it?

You always have to remember that some people will always sit on the side and passively criticise. Those don’t worry me because I know our contribution to the industry far out-weighs theirs.

Constructive criticism is great, I really don’t mind hearing it because it’s the only way for us to keep growing. Criticism based on misconceptions doesn’t bother me. As long as I know our objectives are pure and our relations are transparent in all ways, then I sleep easy. When we get feedback from our audience we’re always grateful that they got in touch to air their views, we then discuss them at our monthly meetings t see what changes need to be made or how we respond to explain the reasons behind whatever decision is in question.

Last question, since you started, how has the poetry industry progressed or declined in your opinion (for yourself and those around you)?

Ah! Poetry has just gone insane in the last 5 years.

I feel like we jumped on board just at the right time. The energy was just right, the poets were hungry and the audiences were ready for poetry on another level. More and more poets have come out the wood work in the last 5 years, there are more poetry movements putting on shows, more poetry productions and musicals are being produced and slam culture rules supreme. We have seen poetry enter mainstream media a lot more, poets are featured in events of national and international significance more, like the opening of the Afcon Tournament.

Even advertisers are making use of spoken word as a tool to convey their message and more poets are getting booked and paid for gigs locally and internationally. There is a new wave of poetry and it’s awe inspiring to be such an active part of it all. It’s all exciting.

I don’t know where it’s all going, but I’m excited.