Poet IBé Kaba: Celebrating traditions by challenging traditions


According to his family hierarchy in Guinea, IBé should not be performing spoken word poetry. Poems in Guinea are usually recited to uplift the spirit of others. There are people in the community who are meant to be poets—but for IBé, his surname Kaba puts him in a somewhat higher class. By Guinean tradition, he ought to be listening to the poetry rather than being the poet, but his passion for the art drives him to perform time and time again.

For more information on IBé Kaba—including upcoming performances—see his Web site atlanticrock.com. Also, read his piece Funktify That Winter Blues on the Daily Planet.

Born in Kankan, Central Guinea to a Maninka family, IBé Kaba was four when he moved to Sierra Leone where he was raised by one of his aunts, a tradition common amongst his people. His childhood and education would, however, be cut short when the civil war begun in Sierra Leone in 1991. He moved back to his his country of birth as a refugee, but as an English speaker, he unfortunately couldn’t attend school in French-speaking Guinea. In the fall of the same year, IBé was given the opportunity to move to America and continue his high school education at Evanston Township High School in Chicago.

While living in Sierra Leone, IBé was very involved in storytelling. Storytelling is a revered practice within the ethnic groups in Guinea and neighbouring West African countries. Like many Guinean families, IBé’s Maninka family helps preserve their untranscribed language through griots who pass on historical and traditional stories from generation to generation. Many times IBé was given the chance to tell stories, a task he took on with great pleasure.

His love for books was profound, and he grew up reading as much as he did narrating stories. In high school in Chicago, he wrote a lot of prose and attempted writing his first book. The book, which has no title, reflected upon the war in Sierra Leone and also incorporated a love story between a young boy and girl.

After graduating from high school, IBé moved to Minnesota to attend St. Cloud State University. Though he majored in business and computer science, he continued to pursue his artistic interests. He wrote his second book, Sonofagod, while in college. This book concentrated on the life of a black African student in a predominantly white town. IBé depicts a life of loneliness in a culture that differs from his own, and how easily one can get lost within oneself.

IBé acknowledges that it was difficult living in the confines of St. Cloud—though his cousin went to the university at the same time, it was a challenging period in his life. Nonetheless, IBé involved himself with actitivities on campus. He was, for example, the committee director of the annual Mississippi River Festival at the university and served for two years as vice president of the African Student Association.

In his junior year, during a performance arts concert held at the Radisson Hotel in St. Paul, IBé witnessed a student from Macalester College perform spoken word poetry and he was immediately captivated. “I can do that,” he remembers thinking with confidence, despite the fact that he was in awe of the performance. At that, IBé begun performing spoken word poetry.

Over the years he has had major performances in New York and Las Vegas. Here in Minnesota, he has had the opportunity to present his art at a United Way board meeting, for the CEO of US Bank, and at schools across the state. IBé teaches performance writing and poetry to high school and middle school students in the Twin Cities, a job he finds very gratifying. In 2004, he was nominated for the Minnesota Academy Award for Best Spoken Word Performance, and was the recipient of the Jerome/SASE Verve Grant the following year.

Though his first two books were never published, IBé now has a third book—titled Bridge Across Atlantic which is a compilation of all his poems. The book is set for release in March of this year. The title, a signature line from one of his favorite poems, refers to the journey of Africans crossing into America. Besides the book, he hosts Souls on Display Open Mic at the Salam Coffee Shop on Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis.

Since listening to Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, IBé’s ultimate goal has been to win that prize—but for now, his goal is simply to tell the story of the African in America through his spoken word. “It is my attempt to teach the world about us,” says IBé. “And sometimes us about us. Like any other group, we have a story that is unique, fresh, and—yes—deserves and needs to be told. And this is what I do whenever I have a pen or a mic in my hand.”