Inua Ellams on A Toast to the People
Poet and playwright Inua Ellams chats about politics, performing and working with Saul Williams for Edinburgh International Festival's new spoken word series, A Toast to the People
Inua Ellams is looking forward to visiting Edinburgh again. "You guys seem to have controlled the pandemic far better than we have," he says wryly. "So I'm looking forward to escaping the madness of this part of the country."
Ellams, a Nigerian-born, London-based poet, playwright and performer, first came to Edinburgh for the festival season in 2009 with his debut play, The 14th Tale: it won a Fringe First. Since then he's been back and forth various times with various projects – and he's been busy. Over the past decade, he's released two poetry books (Candy-Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars, The Wire-Headed Heathen), written numerous plays (including the sensational Barber Shop Chronicles, set in Black barber shops in six cities over the course of one day), organised and thrown R.A.P parties and seen his dusk-to-dawn cultural walking tour The Midnight Run (inspired by slow night-bus frustration) grow into an internationally celebrated event. Now, he's returning to Scotland's capital to take part in A Toast to the People, Edinburgh International Festival's five-night series of poetry, discussion and story-telling, performed by ten acclaimed spoken word artists.
Each poet participating in the series has written a poem inspired by the phrase A Toast to the People, taken from the Gil Scott-Heron song of the same name. What does the expression mean to Ellams? To him it’s all about "respect, giving credit where it's due." "The 'people' could be NHS workers or nurses or doctors, or other people who survived the pandemic," he says, "or even those who passed away because of the pandemic. It’s about recognising your community and raising them up." Having said that, the poetry he's written for the series is not explicitly about COVID-19. "When I sat down to write this, I didn't write about the pandemic. Trying to create art about it feels a little premature seeing as we are still in it," he notes. "The pandemic was in my mind but it isn't what I address in the poem."
He doesn't let on what topics he will be addressing – you'll have to be there to find out – but does hint at a night filled with magic. Each A Toast to the People event brings together two spoken-word artists and Ellams is partnering with the legendary poet, musician and activist Saul Williams – one of his earliest influences. "I think Saul is an incredibly talented metaphysical poet at heart," he says. "He's also a musician. He's also an African American. He's illuminative and vast. John Keats said that poets are the midwives of reality. I feel as if Saul fell off the edge of reality and keeps on dragging what he found back to Earth, bringing it back to us."
Artistically, Ellams thinks of himself as being "more grounded in reality" out of the pair – which he describes as a "compliment" to Williams – but adds that they "echo and support and contrast each-other in gorgeous ways." He says, "Saul is an old friend, an old acquaintance, an old inspiration of mine. I hope that this event will be vast and beautiful and emotive and explosive but also human and humane. Yeah, it'll be fun," he adds with a glint of mischief. "If I wasn't performing myself I'd want to be there and just listen and try to leave with some of the jewels."
A Toast to the People is billed as 'a celebration of emergence, of the kind of world we might find and of a new world order that we might imagine and make possible.' With everything that has happened over the past few years – the stark reality of inequality exposed by COVID-19, the hurtling dread of climate change and the movements to counter it, the global rise of Black Lives Matter and resistance against police brutality and racism – does Ellams think that a new world could be on the horizon?
"I'd like to think we are on the brink of change but I just don't know," he replies after a pause. "There have been so many revolutions at so many times in so many ways... and the cycle just perpetuates itself where voices get louder against an establishment that finds ways to silence those voices or ignore them." He speaks about rulers "doubling down" when they sense dissent, referencing Priti Patel's "draconian" anti-immigration policies – "the deep irony being that Britain colonised half the world by crossing vast bodies of water and arriving illegally and shooting down whoever spoke out or tried to stop them from doing so."
While not blindly idealistic, however, he is hopeful. "It's been great to see young people on the streets protesting – seeing that global support against tyranny, sparked by Americans but echoed right across the world," he says. "Even in Nigeria there were Black Lives Matter protests – because a lot of the police force and the soldiers committing extreme violence there are trained by western powers."
The poet's challenge, Ellams reasons, is to ride the tide of change: trying in the meantime to "digest" the most complex aspects of "all this" and release them back into the world, as articulations that are simple, clear and true. "It's about holding a mirror to the world and saying: this is what you guys did," he reflects. "Not even to ask, what are you going to do next? But just to hold it there and see what happens."
A Toast to the People: Inua Ellams & Saul Williams, Edinburgh International Festival, Old College Quad, 24 Aug, 8pm, £14; a digital version will be available to watch from 28 Oct to 27 Nov