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Image: Portrait of Chika Jones. Credit: Imogirie Gaston

A young Black man thriving in the poetry scene in Nigeria and the U.K. is Chika Jones, who is only 32 years old.

His poetry and writing prowess got him an endorsement from the Arts Council of England for a Global Talent Visa. This aided his relocation to the U.K. where he continues to make waves through his talent.

In an exclusive interview with FunTimes, Jones opens up about what inspires his creativity and how poetry contributes to storytelling, which is the base of cultures.

Please introduce yourself and your poetry/writing career

My name is Chika Jones. I am a 32-year-old Nigerian, born by Yoruba and Igbo parents. I lived most of my life in Lagos and recently immigrated to the United Kingdom. I think that’s it, really.

About my poetry/writing career: I fell in love with books at a young age, and that love was honed when I stumbled on a library in my secondary school – Akokwa High School in Akokwa, Imo state. I started out writing poetry and fiction.

In 2013, as a university undergraduate, I got the chance to perform on radio – Rhythm FM in Port Harcourt, and I got quite good feedback from that performance. This made me more interested in performance poetry. At the end of 2013, I auditioned for and won the National Poetry Slam – War of Words in Lagos, and that was a launch pad into a career of writing and performing poetry.

I have written fiction and non-fiction, but the bulk of my work is in written and performed poetry. Performing in Lagos, Owerri, Abuja, Abeokuta, Kaduna, Berlin, and London, among other places, has made me fall in love with this art.

What topics do you usually write about in your poems?

I would like to preface with this – I did not set out to write about certain, most of my initial poems, have been responses to societal issues. I have written about gender-based violence and rape, about how the poor are marginalized in Lagos, about Lagos itself as a city, about the Biafran war, about what it means to be Igbo in Nigeria, about love like most poets, and more recently about racism. However, since 2021, I have been very interested in the concept of joy, what it is, why it is important, and how to capture and share it through poetry and performance.

How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages of a standard ‘Chika original’ poem

In my earlier years, my poems came from seeing something and feeling very strongly about it. Most times, this feeling was anger. This formed the bulk of the poems I wrote and performed. Of course, there were poems that weren’t borne out of anger. I had the occasional poem that is inspired by a book I read, or by a concept shared in a poem by a poet I love. These days, the poems rarely come from anger; they usually come from reading or feeling something, usually joy.

Because the process has been fine-tuned by the years, I can talk through it. Usually, I start with what I am trying to say or a feeling I am trying to elicit from the reader. The writing usually comes in a burst. After the initial draft, I then go over it to strip away the excess, the over explanations, and the unnecessary. As part of the final steps, I look at musicality and technique. Three final questions I ask are: Do the lines sing or hum at the end? Does the poem make you relook the familiar furniture of everyday life? Does it bring joy to read? Of course, as with most poems, these are questions you never answer, but I find it helpful to ask all the same.

What’s the best advice someone has given you about storytelling through poetry?

I would say it is to always allow space for the reader to come in. And this was something I read in an essay about photography either from Emmanuel Iduma or from Teju Cole. Maybe both. When writing, never let it be closed off, finished, done. Always allow space for the reader to enter because only then can they really enjoy what has been written.

What’s the worst advice someone has given you about storytelling through poetry?

I rarely receive or solicit writing advice; most of what I know and have taken to heart is from reading. So, no worst advice.

What do you feel is more freeing in poetry that is restricting in other forms of literature?

Nothing. I don’t think anyone comes to literature looking for freedom. However, if we consider differences in medium, I have learned that they are not all that different in goals. In all forms of literature, we are trying to tell a story and hoping that someone out there will understand it and it will change their life for the better.

Has there ever been a moment when you didn’t want to share one of your poems with the world because of its subject matter? If so, what did the subject matter address, and why did you choose not to share it?

I have a few love poems written solely for my wife that I haven’t shared anywhere. Mostly because I want them to live only for her. Sometimes, publishing or sharing a poem takes on a commercial nature, and I want to leave those poems out of that.

Do you think poetry will gain its deserved relevance in Nigerian/African society? Why or why not?

Poetry has always been relevant in Nigeria and Africa, and it will always be. If the question is about popularity as compared to, say, music, for example. Then the answer is there is poetry in music. Omah Lay’s recent album ‘Boy Alone’ is a good example of this. Will poets ever be as popular as musicians? On aggregate, no, because the audience they cater to are different, despite the overlap, and it will always be like that. Because you need a certain deliberateness to listen to and enjoy poetry that music does not always require, life places a lot of demands on people, and they will always find it easier to listen to music than to listen to poetry.

What do you feel poetry can or cannot contribute to a country’s political system, culture, and traditions?

Poetry contributes to storytelling, which is the base of cultures. And everything else comes out of culture, even political systems. Can poetry change Nigeria? Yes, and it does every day. Everyone that reads a good poem is changed by it. However, what is more urgently needed is political activism and protests and even poems cannot be a substitute for that.

Now having a duality in two different countries, England and Nigeria, how can fellow artists in your position bridge gaps to create work that resonates across multiple countries?

I would not encourage artists to try to make work that resonates across multiple countries. Instead, they should focus on making work that they personally enjoy. My guiding principle is your work should always be, and this is a phrase from Teju Cole, ineluctably particular. When your work is so particular, it gains universality. Never start out with the universe in mind, start out with yourself in mind. That is easier when you have a firm grasp on the things you love and the things that are important to you.

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In the ’80s, every song Lionel Richie wrote became a hit. He had that magical touch. In the words of Kenny Rogers, Richie wrote music with words every man would want to say and every woman would want to hear.

Sample this: “Hello, is it me you are looking for…, Lady, I am your knight in shining armour, and I love you…Three times a lady…” These songs demonstrate creative abilities of Richie on the subject of love

Then, that creativity and soulfulness sublimated into thin air, never to return. I will tell you what happened, and it involved a woman…

Let us go back in time and briefly look at Richie’s (music) journey.

In 1981, executives of Motown asked Richie to record a solo album after the massive success of the song “Lady” which he had written for Kenny Rogers, and “Endless Love” which also became the theme song for Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Scott Spencer’s novel “Endless Love.” (He did this song with Diana Ross). To pursue a solo career, Motown wanted their prized asset to leave his brothers at the Commodores.

While initially uncertain of the move, Richie’s first solo album “Truly” assuaged any fears he had when it reaped big at the 1982 Grammys

Lionel Richie Songs

In 1983, Richie’s song “All Night Long” soared to global success, breaking all records en route to becoming the all-time Motown best-selling song.

In 1985, Richie scooped 6 awards at the American Music Awards. Later that night, he teamed up with more than forty other artists for the “We Are The World” project that raised millions of $$s for hungry families in Africa. He was one of the lead songwriters for this project

While studying at the University of Tuskegee in the 70s, a woman named Brenda Harvey, the daughter of a World War II veteran, met Richie, and the two hit it off. It was love at first sight. A year after graduation in 1975, Brenda and Richie tied the knot.

Richie toured the world and filled Stadia. He was a great commercial appeal and success. Richie’s public image was that of a romantic man who poured his heart into the music he wrote. In private, Richie’s love life was in shambles. He was away from home most of the time due to music and this created an emotional gap with his wife. In 1986, the couple separated. However, they kept their separation secret as they did not want to hinder the adoption process of Nicole, or the Ballerina girl. 

In 1988, Brenda caught Richie and a woman called Diane Alexander building the Sun Tzunian golden bridge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. An enraged Brenda attacked Richie and Diane violently, and the commotion went to Hollywood streets. Police were called in, and Brenda was arrested for spousal abuse, trespassing, and assault.

The media went wild with the story. Until then, Richie was only known for great love songs and a guarded private life. Now with the news of Richie’s troubled marriage hitting the airwaves, the world saw that Richie was human.

It was the separation and eventual divorce that affected Richie’s songwriting abilities. In his words:

“My world exploded. I was a love songwriter with powerful thoughts of love…and now, what would I write about?”

A wise man once said that when it rains, it pours.

While Richie was dealing with the separation and the media frenzy around it, in 1990, his father and source of inspiration died. And as if that was not enough, at the same time, doctors diagnosed a mysterious illness that affected his throat.

The man who had composed many romantic songs found himself unable to write or sing about love.

And when the love inside Richie died, so too did his writing prowess.

While he recovered from the infection, and remarried twice, there was no prosthetic for his amputated soul…and his later day music doesn’t sound the same. He still remains one of my all-time favourite singers

Contributed by Mukurima X Muriuki

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Poster for African Queen's feature Cleopatra (photo: Netflix)

For centuries, Pharaonic and by extension the Ptolemaic Kingdom, inspired painters, writers, playwrights, film, and theatre-makers. One of the most featured personalities of the distant times is Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-30), who ruled Egypt from 51 BC until her death.

The enduring fascination with Cleopatra has invited many controversies, including discussions about her ethnicity, centuries after her death.

The Ptolemaic queen of Egypt was a reason for a heated discussion when, in 2020, Gal Gadot was cast as Cleopatra in a Paramount Pictures’ film that never went to production. Apart from some media users calling it inappropriate to use an Israeli actress to depict a ruler of Egypt, the critics also described the Wonder Woman star as “very bland looking”, accused the production team of whitewashing the history, and eventually argued that Cleopatra “should be played by a Black actress”.

Today, the coin has been tossed, again. A trailer, which was recently released for Netflix’s upcoming docudrama series about African queens, has re-awakened discussions about Cleopatra’s ethnicity.

Many commentators have felt that the choice of British actress Adele James was a wrong choice since it portrays the Egyptian ruler as having black African origins. One character presented in the Netflix’ trailer clearly says: “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.”

Caucasian Cleopatra?

Cleopatra VII Philopator is usually associated with beauty, an image carved in our minds with the same strength as her not-so-flattering busts is engraved on coins of Patrai.

Cleopatra bust on Patrai coin

While beauty parameters change over the centuries, the concept of a Caucasian Cleopatra was only reinforced by popular culture through numerous artists. When the Egyptian queen appears in paintings, such Cleopatra Before Caesar (by Jean-Léon Gérôme), The Death of Cleopatra (Achille Glisenti) or Cleopatra and the Peasant (Eugène Delacroix), she is portrayed as an absolute beauty with an alabaster skin, corresponding to the 19th century beauty standards.

Cleopatra Before Caesar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, (oil on canvas, 1866) CLEO 4

More recently, the same narrative was adopted by filmmakers in historical and fictional movies: an Italian comedy film, Two Nights with Cleopatra (1954), starring Sophie Loren; A Queen for Caesar (1962), featuring French actress Pascale Petit; while Joseph L. Mankiewicz cast Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Cleopatra (1965).

Trying to verify Cleopatra’s beauty based on the writings coming from historians of the era is no easy task. They usually comment on the queen’s character, hardly mentioning her appearance.

Dio Cassius (c.155 – c.235 AD), a Roman senator and historian who spent decades documenting the history and political changes of the time, describes the Egyptian queen as a “charming and intelligent woman who uses her beauty to captivate and manipulate everyone around her”.

The Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch (c.46–c.119 AD), said: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” When Plutarch mentions Cleopatra’s “irresistible charm,” he applies it to her intelligence, persuasiveness, and political strength, attributes that made her one of the most iconic rulers of all times.

Without a doubt, the Ptolemaic queen had to take care of her appearance – one of the requisites that allowed her to win the heart of Roman general Julius Caesar and solidify her power – yet her ethnicity, skin colour or detailed features remain a subject of debate. The known depictions of Cleopatra are often loose adaptations of history, intertwined with the personalised convictions of their creators and audiences they address.

Lineage of Cleopatra

An Egyptian expert in Greco-Roman history and a professor at Egypt’s Ain-Shams University, Hassan Ahmed El-Ebyari, has studied the lineage of her family. Cleopatra has been a main focus of Ebyari’s research; he spent decades looking into literature, historical records and other documents mentioning the queen and centuries surrounding her reign. He has shared his findings on multiple programmes aired on Egyptian TV channels.

“Cleopatra’s ethnicity should be looked upon from two angles, the lineage of ethnic groups present in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period, and her family in particular,” Ebyari tells The Africa Report. He adds that as a daughter of Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra’s ancestry leads to Ptolemy I Soter (367-283 BC), son of Lagus. Ptolemy I was a Macedonian Greek general who came to Egypt with Alexander the Great and his rise to power marked the beginning of the Hellenistic period in Egypt.

“Until Ptolemy V, the rulers married siblings keeping the lineage going from Lagus. As a political move, Ptolemy V married Cleopatra I Syra (204 – 176 BC), a princess of the Seleucid Empire, a Greek state in West Asia, considered a division of the Macedonian Empire. As follows, Cleopatra’s ethnicity cannot be questioned when speaking of her father’s side,” Ebtari says.

Badrashin ethnicities have the light brownish skin complexion, a completely different tone than a darker skin colour known to Southern African nationals

Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII then married his sister Cleopatra V and according to official records they both had two children before the mother disappeared from court documents.

The debate then surrounds the children, with Cleopatra VII being the first born during this time the records have disappeared.

“This opens a debate of who Cleopatra’s mother was,” says Ebyari, adding that some scholars suggest that the famed queen was born to Ptolemy XII’s relation with another woman from the Macedonian royal lineages, while others point to a possibility of the mother being Egyptian from Badrashin, a county where Memphis is located.

“Badrashin ethnicities have the light brownish skin complexion, a completely different tone than a darker skin color known to Southern African nationals,” the researcher says.

Ebyari points to the fact the Mediterranean basin remains fairly similar in skin tonality. The presence of foreign nations in Ancient Egypt created a mixture, however at the time of Cleopatra, following almost three centuries of Ptolemaic rules, it is historically impossible to find African features in the royal circles, he says.

Sub-Saharan African ancestry

Away from the scholarly circles, some media followers believe that Cleopatra’s African ancestry is proved by the 2009 discovery of the bones of Arsinoe IV, Cleopatra’s younger sister. The claims made by Hilke Thur, an archaeologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and former director of excavations in Ephesus where the bones were found, created a huge media commotion.

Thur’s skeleton presentation pointed to Europeans, ancient Egyptians, and Black African components, a fact that was not equally represented by the media. In addition, Thur’s theory was challenged by many scholars calling them “highly circumstantial”.

“Perhaps more important than the colour of her skin is the culture with which she identified herself,” says Sally-Ann Ashton in her Honours Thesis Reflections of Cleopatra VII through Time: Cultural Perceptions of Gender and Power.

“She may very well have or not have Egyptian or African ancestry, or both. Still, there is resistance to the idea that Cleopatra was Black, for it has been ingrained in the literature and in our popular culture that she was Greek and Caucasian,” she says.

From all accounts, it seems that Cleopatra did indeed consider herself to be Egyptian first and foremost, not Greek or Macedonian

“It is also important to accept that ethnicity is not only about the degree of colour or culture; it is also about choice. Cleopatra was referred to as ‘the Egyptian’ in Roman sources; even in modem films, she often calls herself ‘Egypt.’ From all accounts, it seems that Cleopatra did indeed consider herself to be Egyptian first and foremost, not Greek or Macedonian.”

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Students of Wesley Girls Senior Secondary School, Yaba, at the commissioning of the model STEM lab in the school set up by GetBundi Education Technology Limited.

In commemoration of World Creativity and Innovation Day, a United Nations day, which is celebrated on April 21 to raise awareness around the importance of creativity and innovation in problem solving with respect to advancing UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Chief Innovation Officer of Businessplus LLC, Ekundayo Ayeni, has called on the Federal Government to improve the country’s quality of education by fixing the educational system through prioritising STEM education in schools.

Speaking with The Guardian, he said students should have access to modern technologies and learning resources, filled with more practical rather than theories.

In his words: “Any nation’s ability to access high-speed internet is necessary for the advancement of technology, by offering incentives to private enterprises to increase their coverage and by funding government-owned networks, Nigeria can invest in enhancing its telecommunications infrastructure, the country might increase its research and development (R&D) spending to promote technological advancement.

“This can be accomplished by setting up R&D facilities, supporting research initiatives, and providing tax breaks to companies that make R&D investments, the government can fund incubators and accelerators for startups and offer tax breaks to companies that make technology investments.

He added that the country has experienced significant progress in recent years in terms of creativity and innovation, though lagging in its investment into research, limiting Nigeria’s innovation level as a country

“We have a weak legal framework for the protection of intellectual properties and this is discouraging innovations as the creators are unable to fully protect it.

Our educational system is inadequate in many ways and this is affecting the quality of the workforce.

Many graduates lack the necessary skills for creativity and innovation, limiting the country’s capacity aside from the graduates who are going the extra mile to develop themselves,”

This year’s theme on World creativity and Innovation Day is “Step out and innovate” to embrace the idea that innovation is essential for harnessing the economic potential of nations

According to UN, the concept of creativity and innovation is open to interpretation from artistic expression to problem-solving in the context of economic, social, and sustainable development.

On World Creativity and Innovation Day, the world is invited to embrace the idea that innovation is essential for harnessing the economic potential of nations. Innovation, creativity, and mass entrepreneurship can provide new momentum toward achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It can harness economic growth and job creation, while expanding opportunities for everyone, including women and youth. It can provide solutions to some of the most pressing problems such as poverty eradication and the elimination of hunger. Human creativity and innovation, at both the individual and group levels, have become the true wealth of nations in the twenty-first century.

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