Xabiso Vili uses his poetry as a form of social activism

04 June 2017 - 02:00 By Melanie Farrell
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Xabiso Vili performs his one-man show 'Black Boi Be' to audiences across the world.
Xabiso Vili performs his one-man show 'Black Boi Be' to audiences across the world.
Image: Supplied

"Young people in South Africa and India are facing similar problems," says outspoken Pretoria poet and social activist Xabiso Vili, 26.

"There is a growing problem with leadership, a generation of adults that cling on too tightly to power (unwilling to acknowledge the pivotal role youth play in shaping our reality), and access to university is being limited to a great degree."

Vili, who was in Bangalore, India, last month, organising a poetry festival as part of a six-week tour of the country, is not your typical poet.

"I see three major issues facing South African youth right here, right now, starting with femicide," he says.

"The others are limited access to knowledge institutions and a tendency to rely too heavily on others to solve our problems for us.

"But we are resilient."

The tour of seven Indian cities, where he collaborated with young creatives, is part of a project Vili is working on with a post-doctoral fellow from India, exploring cross-cultural artistic dynamics.

When he's not touring, a typical week for Vili involves performing at various venues in Pretoria, including the State Theatre and Tshwane University of Technology. He acts as MC for poetry sessions, in line with work he does to activate poetry spaces in and out of universities.

Vili is also a resident artist and organiser at venues that were abandoned and are now occupied by artists.

Vili says of his start as a poet: "I was an awkward child, I started writing poetry at the age of 12 and through this I was able to verbalise and externalise what was happening within me .

"This allowed me to communicate with my peers and contemporaries. That remains true to this day. Using poetry I am able to confront myself and others around many topics. This becomes my social activism."

In his one-man show Black Boi Be, Vili explores the "intricacies, beauties and horrors of being black and male in these times".

"I'm attracted to wonderfully strange, surprisingly beautiful, violently delicate things - I kind of gather them all and keep them in my poems. I never quite know what it'll be.

"I love an underdog story, so I put much of my energy into helping many an underdog. And love, lots and lots of love, a whole polyamory of love, redefining love, refinding love and its meaning for ourselves."

Vili moved from Pretoria to Cape Town and enrolled at Cedar House School. The following year, 2008, he was elected head boy.

"It definitely had a lot to do with my poetry. I put my success with people in general down to that," he says.

Vili's transition from the school environment to the "real" world had its bumps. After three years at Rhodes University and a year working as an assistant teacher at Cedar House, he moved back to Pretoria.

"I was going through a lot at that time and experienced a type of mental breakdown," he says.

"Going back to Pretoria was a return to my genesis, to discover where and how my heart beat. Pretoria really opened me up to myself and the poems flowed out from that point."


"If I had to choose the major influencers or influences in my life, I'd say the first thing is my blackness. It stays the lens from which I view and am viewed.

"Then there are my brothers, Nqobile and Sibabalwe ngengcali-siphelele, I am responsible for them and them for me. We live our best lives by supporting and calling each other out. This is how we shape the men we want to become.

"My lovers influence me, they school me in tenderness. In empathy. In love. I make too many mistakes, too often and there are things I don't do and I falter a lot, but I have learnt to do these with tenderness and be received in tenderness when they have been done."

Vili will tour South Africa in June and July, before a visit to the US in August. For more information, e-mail vilixabiso@gmail.com

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