Interview with MC- Iain Robinson about his show “SpitFire’
Iain Robinson aka Ewok Baggends asks a lot of questions. He opens our interview with a question. ‘I want to know,’ he smirks ‘why, when I’ve launched two successful shows, am getting an anthology of my poetry published this year by Echoing Green, releasing a solo album ‘Higher Flier for Hire’ in conjunction with Ruffinery records and in the coming months taking part in a major Graffiti art exhibition in Kimberly. Why, with all these things on the go, can I still not cover my monthly rent?’
Anyone present at the recent Musho festival to witness Robinson’s new piece ‘Spitfire’ would no doubt find it difficult question to answer. It’s a testimony to his talents’ that despite the broken air conditioner, the sweltering mid January heat, Robinsons audience barely paused to breathe, let alone fidget or fan themselves with festival programs. To watch Robinson perform, is to watch a man in command, in charge- possessed. No discomfort index can take that away from him To bare witness to such a force, is to be shaken, devastated, enlightened, elated.
Daily News critic Gisele Turner nailed it when she labeled him ‘A dangerous talent’ –‘No mealie mouthed sex boy rubbing himself up against bad boy pleasures, but a passionate voice hitched to a genuine conscience. Robinson will change opinions, form new thought patterns , mission in trackless jungles, forge treaties with fiery lashings of his tongue and the innocence of his truth.’
There should be no reason why such a talent is not gracing international stages, being snapped up by hot shot publishers, playing to packed theatres’ across the globe! Robinson has worked hard enough to be tackling bigger issues, raising questions more pressing then those concerning his monthly rent. It’s not that he’s complaining, rather, understandably, remains a little bemused.
This is after all a passion he’s been nurturing for some time. ‘In the early days at school I just wanted to rhyme, to rap.’ he explains ‘Poetry Africa’ were the first people in this town to turn around to me and invite me to perform under the banner of poet. With that title came a whole new understanding ,a responsibility behind what I was saying.’
It’s an art form Robinson claims his to have existed since time immemorial. ‘What I do is connected to something that goes beyond the written word’ he says ‘When they talk about the Minstrels and Greek story tellers, the guys that memorized and told their societies histories. This has been something that has been around for centuries. The spoken word artists, the poets, the M.C’s they’re still fulfilling those roles. They are the speakers for the people, trying to translate what’s going on in the world, commenting on a changing society and recording a new history.’
I mention that I found ‘Spitfire’ to be a much rawer, edgier piece then its predecessor ‘One Mind, One Mouth ,One Microphone’. Where as before Robinson was brimming with an exuberant optimism for South Africa, the world around him, ‘Spitfire’ features him asking dangerous questions, wrestling bigger issues, unearthing frustrations only touched on previously.
‘These shows are a natural evolution for me. I’m learning with each one. ‘One Mind’ focused on the Hip –Hop aspect of what I do. There’s a lot of misconceptions surrounding Hip- Hop. So Libby Allen (Robinson’s director) and I used the first show to dispel certain myths surrounding the genre. Bring people closer to where we eventually wanted to go with it.’
Using ‘One Mind’ as a type of Hip- Hop 101 instilled in Robinson and his director Allen, the confidence to push further boundaries. With ‘Spitfire’ he seldom relies on the microphone (a permanent feature in the last) or those impressive ‘wicky wicky’ vocal tricks, rather Robinson and his director trust implicitly in their material- the dexterity and weight of his finely tuned and rapidly fired words. Gone is the baggy hoody, any remnants of bling or artifice. The MC Guise now relinquished to reveal a sublimely talented and assured young poet. ‘Spitfire’ tells it like it is.
‘I have grown more confident to trust the words and not just the medium’ Robinson explains. ‘The poet is more the everyman while the MC from the first show was the showman. This is the natural evolution of what I’m doing.’
Which is not to say ‘Spitfire’ sacrifices the theatricality that Robison and Allen’s collaborations have become renowned for. If anything , Robinson’s pieces are distinctive in their blurring of boundaries, fusing of genres, uniting and appealing to both hip hop and theatre audiences.
‘There’s definitely a theatricality to it.’ he explains ‘You have to be sensitive to the fact that not many people can sit and listen to someone slamming or talking for an hour. With ‘Spitfire’ Libby and I took our cue from comic books. It’s an alter ego thing as Clark Kent is to Superman , Bruce Wayne to Batman , the hustler character is to the poet ‘Spitfire’. The hustler character is trying to understand what his purpose is, trying to make sense of the world, finding that idea worth selling. No one should be allowed to just pick up a microphone, they must first learn to understand the responsibility that comes with that.’
No stranger to the local theatre scene, Robinson has appeared in productions ranging from the annual Actor’s Co -Op Shakespeare set work (Macbeth, King Lear) to the Playhouse Company’s festive season musical ‘My Fair Lady’.
‘My Fair Lady?’ I laugh, ‘I never thought I would see the day- M.C extraordinaire- Ewok Baggends, box steps his way through a Learner Lowe musical!’
‘That’s the beauty of this town,’ he grins ‘Durban forces one to diversify to survive-as a result you end up having more extreme experiences then you would usually have. This helps in the merging of my styles .Durban is a ‘live’ city, everything here hinges on live performance. Being on so many different stages allows for a pretty holistic training and you ultimately end up bringing all those influences back to your craft.
When I mention the word activism in ‘Spitfire’, Robinson looks slightly perplexed. When do we stop saying and start doing? Practicing what we preach? What are the responsibilities that come with spitting fire?
‘This is a constant question for me.’ he replies ‘I’m standing up there and saying all these things but what am I actually doing about it? My dilemma at the moment is that I don’t have all the answers to these questions I’m asking. I’m too caught up in thinking about the questions. That’s all I can do right now. There’s a definite frustration of not been able to solve or answer things. It’s something Libby cautioned me about –using clever words to disguise one’s own apathy. In the shows I don’t pretend to know all the answers. As I develop it, grow it, it will become clearer. I can start sharpening my delivery to a needle point. Right now It might seem that I’m smacking people on the head to give them a jolt but hopefully by the third show it’s going to be honed to the point of a hypodermic needle to the vein.’
So what keeps such a talent fighting the good fight in what many deem the artistic backwaters of the country? Had Robinson taken his talents to Jozi, there is no question they would have been promptly snapped up, wrapped up and released to the hip hopping masses.
‘Fame like that feeds you, you can escape yourself through that shit.’ he says ‘You have to ask yourself what is it you really looking for when you do this stuff? I have no ambition to be the next Eminem. Just because I connect with this culture doesn’t mean I have to champion the stereotypes surrounding it. I’m on the edge of making what I do live. I can feel that potential here in Durban. I’ve tasted the possibilities, that’s got me locked into working out how to make it work.’
Despite the general lack of funding and support, Robinson remains upbeat toward his home town. ‘Durban,’ he sighs ‘It’s a factory man, it produces some of the most insane talent but local talents need to learn how to create their own opportunities. This generation is a pioneering one. The foundation has been laid. It’s up to us to keep building. In my opinion there’s not even a first story to this house we building. So far no one has been willing to take the risks to go higher. Still no ones prepared to build something worth living in.’
Once again attempting to find answers leads us back to the big question. ‘So what’s the answer ?’ I ask, and for once it seems Robinson might just have one. He explains the negations underway with Themi Ventures to turn the Kwa-Suka into an independent music, film and theatre venue.
‘Take somewhere like Bean Bag Bohemia,’ he says ‘cross it with an independent cinema and theatre and put it one place. It’s a place where fresh ideas will get generated, where there’s an influx of new shit happening all the time. Its cutting edge and by that, I don’t mean people walking on stage and shitting in a jar. We want audiences to be able to turn around, and say I saw the beginning of that. I was present at the birth of that work, or that talent, before it rocked the world. We want to put an end to this idea that local audiences should feel obliged to support young artists and new work.’ It’s a case of ‘must see’ over ‘charity’.