• ©
  • Naomi Woddis

Kayo Chingonyi

  • Zambia


Kayombo (Kayo) Chingonyi was born in Zambia in 1987. He moved to the UK in 1993. He completed a BA in English Literature at the University of Sheffield, writing a dissertation on the work of Saul Williams, and an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Chingonyi took part in the second round of The Complete Works national development programme for the promotion of equality and diversity in poetry, under the mentorship of Anthony Joseph. He has published two pamphlets and one book: Some Bright Elegance, The Colour of James Brown’s Scream, and Kumukanda. His poems are included in several anthologies, including The Best British Poetry, The Emma Press Anthology of Aunts, The Emma Press Anthology of Political Poems, Out of Bounds: British Black & Asian Poetry, and Ten: The New Wave. Additionally, he has published poems, essays, and reviews in numerous online and print publications. He is the founding editor of The Poetics of Grime, the current poetry editor for The White Review, and he has edited special issues of Magma Poetry and Poetry Review. Chingonyi has held residences at Cove Park, First Story, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Kingston, Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and Royal Holloway in partnership with Counterpoints Arts. He teaches, writes and produces music, organises and hosts poetry, music events and radio programmes, and DJs.

Critical perspective

In ‘Worrying the [Blood]line of British Poetry: Notes on Inheritance and Alterity’, Kayo Chingonyi discusses the ‘double bind’ faced by poets of colour who write, perform, and publish in a predominantly white literary culture. This bind refers to the contradictions intrinsic to the decisions that poets of colour must make about how to write, insofar as these decisions can determine how to be read, especially by literary critics. Chingonyi writes: ‘either [poets of colour] imitate the – predominantly white – canonical writers of the literary establishment, doing a violence to a part of themselves, or they write into or through their heritage and encourage a critical reading that privileges their identity.’ Either they speak in a voice and write in a style that is not their own, that has not been passed down to them by literary precedents and will never belong to them, that denies and destroys the possibilities of self-creation, expression, and possession; or they speak in voices and write in styles that lie outside the establishment of English Literature, that have been passed down to them via family, community, culture, and they are read on the basis of their marginality, in this case, their ‘racial identity’. Chingonyi argues that it is not the responsibility of poets of colour to resolve the impossible situation of this double bind; it is the responsibility of literary critics to ‘engage with what the work is trying to do as well as what they think it should do’.

Combining literary criticism and autobiographical writing, Chingonyi’s essay tests the possibilities of writing in a way that neither imitates whiteness nor makes racial identity its ‘main propositional content’. He describes his own experiences with reading, studying, and writing poetry and how they were affected and informed by race. He considers the effects of writing poetry in English and in England when English is a second language and England a second home. He describes falling in love with the words of white canonical writers and black hip hop lyricists simultaneously. He remembers engaging with a performance poetry scene while studying literature at university and feeling forced to choose between the poem as ‘a cerebral thing; the site of communion between reader and poet’ and the poem as ‘a thing to be experienced publicly like a rap lyric’. Chingonyi suggests that this litany of double binds is specific to the everyday life of people of colour in the UK: the contradictions between where you were born and where you live, between how you look and how you sound, between standing out and trying to fit in, are intrinsic to the ‘lived experience in which the self is an always-fractured thing’.

Chingonyi writes:

'To be both British and Zambian is to be neither one or the other. It is a hybrid way of being that means I can’t be accepted by either ‘side’. In the space of the poem, though, I can be both. I can write in English about my Luvale heritage. I can incorporate phrases from Bemba and Luvale making a new English to add to the various Englishes that already exist. This notion of the poem as a space in which I can exist in my fullness is probably why I have chosen poetry as my medium. What is a poem but a record of something the poet cannot get past? A memory, an impression, a phrase, some musical quirk of language? These are the questions behind most of my poems and certainly ghost the poem I have found most difficult to write, the title poem of my first full-length collection, Kumukanda.'

Kumukanda begins with Chingonyi’s translation of the title as ‘initiation’, a ritual in which boys leave their communities temporarily in order to return as men. He explains: ‘This book approximates such rites of passage in the absence of my original culture.’ The book comes close to the ritual, in the sense that it enables and documents rites of passage; at the same time, the book is a marker of loss, in the sense that it exists because Chingonyi did not take part in the ritual, he left his community permanently. They would think him ‘unfinished’ if he returned. The title poem concludes: ‘If my alternate self, who never left, could see me | what would he make of these literary pretensions, | this need to speak with a tongue that isn’t mind?’ One self left the community, he speaks in English; another self never left, he speaks in Luvale. These two selves live separately and exist simultaneously; the speaker imagines them encountering each other as strangers; selfhood splits in two, an ‘always-fractured thing’.

Fractured selves, strangers that resemble each other, and doubles recur in Chingonyi’s poetry. In ‘Alternate Take’, in which a little boy grieves at his father’s funeral, the speaker conflates a younger brother, his father, and himself in a complex layering of figures that hinges on their differences from each other even as it erases those differences. These fractured selves are related to racial identity and to loss, which are inextricably linked: the loss of ‘original culture’ and the loss of family, the experiences of absence and grief. In ‘For those orphaned late in life’, the speaker imagines calling into the empty house of childhood and ‘answering yourself’: ‘you hear, for the first time, the timbre | of your voice how someone else might’. This poem, which concludes Kumukanda, is itself a double; it resembles the first poem in Chingonyi’s first publication, ‘Gnosis’. This poem begins with a father grieving for his dying son, foreshadowing the conflations in ‘Alternate Take’, and a ‘stubble headed boy’ grieving for his mother. The father sings as he grieves; to the boy’s disbelief, he continues to sing: ‘for all this man stops | to find the tune that, even now, isn’t lost.’ In the encounter with loss and the experiences of absence and grief, the father continues to sing. Perhaps it is because of his encounter with loss that he cannot lose the tune; perhaps his experiences of absence and grief enable and necessitate the continuation of his singing. Loss, absence, and grief run throughout Chingonyi’s poetry; correspondingly, he never loses his tune. His poems sound, sing, abound with music, dance, and songs of different kinds.

Chingonyi alludes to many artists and genres of music – including James Brown, Biggie Smalls, Sammy Davis Jr, Prokofiev, house music, hip hop, reggae, garage, pop music, folk songs and sea shanties – but the dominant sound of his poetry is the sound of grime, its rhythms, lyrics, and environments. In the essay ‘Bard in Da Corner: Drawing the Line Between Poetry and Grime’, he writes: ‘When grime first broke out […] it represented a musical shift from the club to the street. It was music for those too young for clubs, or who wouldn’t be allowed in because of the “no hats, no hoods” policy. It was, and still is, the music of alleyways, street corners, stairwells, concrete – and it sounds like it too.’ It is important to note that Chingonyi’s poems take place in various sites, mostly across the UK and West Africa: street corners, markets, nightclubs, university campuses, rented flats, dusty villages, industrial towns, cosmopolitan cities, hills and coastlines. His emphasis on Northern English towns and rural settings refutes stereotypes about blackness and urbanism (his poems are included in the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ sections of Out of Bounds: British Black & Asian Poetry, an anthology which aims to move beyond the bounds of London in its presentation of a ‘map of Britain’ charted by the movements, experiences, and perspectives of poets of colour). However, alongside the refutation of such stereotypes, Chingonyi critically and creatively engages with the environments of the street – the everyday lives of black men on street corners – with regards to racial identity, social relations, cultural production, and the experiences and effects of racism.

Discussing the approximation of kumukanda in relation to his geographical and cultural displacement, Chingonyi writes: ‘some of the formative moments I have experienced in the UK stood in for the rites of passage. Such as my first interactions with police officers, when I had reached an awareness of how my black body exists in the wider consciousness and how to stand up for yourself. Those are situations in which a black boy is forced to grow and reach adulthood prematurely.’ Certain situations force the black boy to recognise himself as black, triggering the fracturing of the self into unrecognisable selves and stereotypes. Chingonyi considers the causes and effects of these situations, selves, and stereotypes in ‘calling a spade a spade’, which focusses on the linguistic, psychological, social, and structural violence of the ‘N-word’. Sometimes the speaker starts to identify himself with the hateful and harmful significations of the word; or he resists the identification; or he resents the identification but feels unable to resist, struggling within the limits of the double bind. Sometimes the poems end before the speaker has decided how to respond to the impossible situation of racism, what to do, what to say. Chingonyi suggests that rites of passage do not simply consist of individual responses to racism, but entail finding collective ways to continue, to learn, to relate, and to love. Grime is significant because it enables self-creation, expression, and possession between black men on the street, outside the university and the literary establishment, in public and in common. Black social life and self-love is essential for the song to continue: ‘So much in the world encourages black men in particular to hate themselves, each other and to be complicit in that mutual destruction. And so it remains a revolutionary thing to advocate for love.’

Nisha Ramayya, 2018


The Colour of James Brown’s Scream
Some Bright Elegance


Dylan Thomas Prize (longlisted)
Jhalak Prize (shortlisted)
Costa Poetry Prize (shortlisted)
Geoffrey Dearmer Prize