Culture | Slamming cultural boundaries

Montreal poet Fabrice Koffy examines the immigrant experience through verse

The energy found at the Kalmunity Vibe Collective’s live improvisation sessions, held every Tuesday at Le Consulat, is infectious – the ordinary spectator can’t help but be drawn in by the fusion of roots rhythm and self-described “organic” poetry. Fabrice Koffy is among those who began their artistic careers in the inspired bowels of Kalmunity: it was after stumbling into one of the collective’s weekly sessions seven years ago that Koffy decided to make poetry his bread and butter. That’s why the first lines of Koffy’s debut spoken word album Poésic, “Tu sais, j’étais un homme sans vocation/et puis, sans motivation,” are surely no longer true of the wordsmith of Ivorian origin. Koffy says that being a poet was a “choice”; although he’s been writing since a young age, Koffy’s full-fledged pursuit of poetry meant abandoning commerce studies at Concordia. But despite his recent successes, Koffy is modest about his work. He describes the performance aspect of being a spoken word artist as a humbling experience. On the spoken word community, Koffy says that “people look up to them, they have a mic in their hands, and people listen to what they say.”

The Kalmunity Vibe Collective was founded with the intention of providing a “voice for the voiceless,” and when you look at spoken word in this light, the responsibility that comes with having a microphone in your hand and a stage beneath your feet is one that’s not to be taken lightly.

Having lived in Africa, Europe, and Canada, Koffy has many things to offer, not least of which is the unique perspective that comes with his tri-continental experiences. He is a living testament to the French colonization of the Côte d’Ivoire. In past interviews, Koffy has mentioned learning French history in his childhood, reading about African history though the lens of French textbooks, and being unable to speak any local languages from Côte d’Ivoire. Consequently, in Poésic, Koffy imparts this thought about his francophone African identity: “Je suis le fruit de la colonisation… alors, je me demande qui je suis à present.” Having moved to Montreal in 1998, Koffy spoke to me about feeling like an outsider both when he returns to his native Côte d’Ivoire as well as in Quebec, because of the way he speaks and dresses, and the colour of his skin. However, despite feeling like he exists in a space of cultural limbo, Koffy is enthusiastically vocal about embracing his Quebecker identity. To him, being a Quebecker doesn’t mean abandoning his unique past and perspective; on the contrary, he believes in integrating into Quebec society, but in a way that doesn’t negate his past. Speaking about the crossroads between art and activism, Koffy denies that he is an activist above and beyond being a poet. But he adds that “The music that [members of the Kalmunity Vibe Collective] play is roots music – music from the African diasporas. It’s funk, hip hop, jazz, blues, afro-beat, reggae, dub…and maybe those kinds of music already have a revolutionary message within.”

On Poésic, Koffy worked with Quebecker musician Guillaume Soucy, who composed all the music heard on the album. At his upcoming show at the Montréal, arts interculturel (MAI), expect spoken word accompanied by bass, drums, guitar, and violin, along with a contemporary dance performance. Koffy says that, ultimately, his poetry is inspired by and comes down to the act of conveying emotion. Through his poetry, Koffy hopes to touch on the humanity we all share. “I want to believe I understand you,” he tells me, “because we’re the same. Knowing me is knowing you, and knowing everybody else. And writing, for me, is a way to get to know me.”

Fabrice Koffy, accompanied by Guillaume Soucy, will be performing at MAI (3680 Jeanne-Mance) at 10 p.m. on January 15 and 16.