At the Aurora Theatre in downtown Berkeley, amidst a motley congregation of people, a trembling poet from Hampton Roads, Virginia walked up to a microphone. She was here for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, put on by Youth Speaks. The poet began her poem with a tear in her eye and, halfway through, sobs started to leak from between her words and wash over the room. People began to shout, “Go!” One woman in the corner fanned herself furiously, claps sounded, tension increased — the room pulsed with it.
Now, the audience could hear her poem and see it. It glistened in her eyes, it sprawled on her bent back as she hunched over, it wrapped itself around her like a cocoon, but she emerged from it a defeated caterpillar. People gasped in the corners of the room when she finished and as she left the microphone and walked towards her seat, she collapsed onto the floor with a thud. Someone gave her water, helped her up and she left the room quietly.
“Now I have to say the numbers, which no one cares about,” said the host. She read out a 9.5 to raucous boos. She read out another 9.5. Then she read a 10, a 10 and a 10. And it became clear that here, when you perform a wrenching poem, when your body shakes with pain, when you collapse in front of strangers heavy with emotion, you must get up, dust yourself off and leave the room, like one who has been excommunicated. Then they brand your poem with a score, and when you have made yourself presentable again, you must come back quietly and accept your 4th place position.
This is the catch with slam poetry. Poets pour out their passion with an immaculate, polished, performance and though they may have raised a voice against oppression, they are themselves oppressed within the same structure that lies to them like an inept parent, “It’s alright honey. The points don’t matter.” But they do. Because this poet from Hampton Roads, Virginia never made it past the quarterfinals.
Last week, young poets between the ages of 13 and 19 came to the Bay Area from across the country (and even Leeds, England) to participate in the Brave New Voices festival. But this is hardly a strictly festive, festival. It is serious, emotional and profound. These poets are lucid critics of modern society, spitting rhymes that rip and roar across the stage, that build upon themselves with slowly mounting power and rise like tidal waves to erode hardened minds.
Youth Speaks, which created Brave New Voices, is a non-profit organization dedicated to arts education, activism, empowerment and combating illiteracy among youth. It was founded in 1998 by then San Franscicso State masters student, James Kass. At first a fledgeling organization, the national youth poetry slam then had about four teams. Now it has 50 and works with a quarter of a million youth each year across the country. Endorsed by celebrities such as Common, Rosario Dawson and Russell Simmons, by networks such as HBO — which has broadcasted Brave New Voices — by the Obamas who heard three poets from Youth Speaks in the White House, it has morphed into a giant. As the young poets chant, “BNV ain’t nothin to fuck with.”
Sharp as pencils at their young age, the poets address heavy issues. They speak of poverty in Oakland where “evictions signs are as common as graffiti”, of immigrants who are “choking on their blue collars”. They challenge racists with, “If you ain’t black, I’m not your nigger”. They ask a society that objectifies women, “Since when do dolls have insecurities?” They personify war with, “11 years ago, on the 11th of September, I grew a backbone”. They confront religious fundamentalists by saying,“You have so much to say about God, but what do you think God has to say about you?”. And ever the favorite, they excoriate dirty hipster who, “acts like their down because they say fuck the system but in the same breath are quick to gentrify the hell out of our hoods”. One team of poets from Pomona performed a poem about the slam itself. Comparing themselves to a bulimic spitting into a toilet bowl, they said, “Us colored kids pour our vomit out, you score it.” Nothing was spared in their cutting critiques — not even the festival itself. The poets are not youth, teenagers, or children. They are young adults.
At an event called “Hear the Children Left Behind,” the poets occupied Oscar Grant plaza armed with chalk, pens and paper. They invaded it with their thoughts, leaving behind carnage in the form of quotes like “The youth will never be silenced.” In a feat of artistic improvisation, they wrote poems on the spot about their educational experience. “Education is in a prison state of mind. Unlock the cage, show the world how the caged bird sings,” spat one poet. ‘What the fuck you thought America was? said another, “Paradise?” Here was spoken word at the site of revolution.
On the day of the final slam, a VIP reception took place in the den of the Fox theater. Those present were at the top of the food chain: The mostly white, male donors who sashayed around with their champagne glasses, schmoozed with their booze, in a room bedecked with sandwich platters and women in evening dresses. They dropped thousands of dollars in donations like it was chump change. Kass said what most attracted youth to poetry was that, “It doesn’t cost anything to pick up a pen, write something, and get feedback.” But it costed a lot to attend this reception and most of the poets were not invited. The poets were there to entertain the Very Important People, who made big decisions in their private dens, where children are not allowed.
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