Volume 75, Number 48 | April 19 - 25 2006

Courtesy Brave New Voices

Teens at last year’s Brave New Voices slam in San Francisco.

Teens wax poetic in Downtown slam

By Sara G. Levin

For the first time in nine years, Brave New Voices, the annual youth poetry slam festival organized by Youth Speaks in San Francisco, will take place in New York City on April 25-29. Teens from across the U.S. will compete at venues Downtown, including the Bowery Poetry Club, CBGB Gallery, the Nuyorican Poets Café, The Culture Project and NYU.

Although some of the poems focus on “normal teen stuff like love and ‘I’m mad at my parents’ type stuff,” many of the kids use the stage to talk about hard-hitting issues, from politics to education and even the prison-industrial complex, said Youth Speaks Founder James Kass.

“There’s been some really smart pieces about No Child Left Behind,” said K-Swift, program coordinator at Urban Word, New York City’s co-sponsor of the slam. “Kids are looking at the ways they’re being miseducated and speaking out about it.”

In 1998, Kass began the event with around twenty kids in California; since then it has been hosted in six states and now encompasses an average of 400 teens from ages 13-19. In New York City alone, kids had to compete in a pool of about 500 just to get onto one of the City’s two teams, Urban Word’s “Guerilla Party Army” and “The Smash Poets.”

“I’m happy to be on the team, ‘cause I’ve been tryin’ to do this for four years,” said Tyrone “Grizz” West. West, a big 19 year-old from Bushwick, Brooklyn, joined Urban Word in 2002. This year, he won the chance to compete nationally by performing one poem called “280 poundses”—“about me bein’ big,” he said, and another called “These are some things that really piss me off.”

While waiting for practice, teammate Jamila Lyiscott, 19, recalled important advice she received about poetry: “When something bothers you, it probably tells you what your gift is,” she said. “Because if you care about it, then you’re probably gonna be driven to adjust it.”

Lyiscott, whose family is from Trinidad, studies at Hunter College and lives in Bedford Stuyvesant. She said that her poetry is inspired greatly by her religion and by black empowerment.

“I want to reach people and those are the issues that affect me in my community,” Lyiscott said.

The teens have been training in workshops and rehearsals for two months in preparation for the event. Peer mentors help participants write material and work on performance skills.

Tahani Salah, a freshman at Columbia University, is a surprisingly soft-spoken peer mentor who will also be competing.

“I think everyone has a writer inside themselves already,” Salah said. “It’s just to pull it out… let something spark inside them.” Sometimes, discussing ones surroundings and community is the best dialogue for comprising poems, she added.

To become part of the New York team, Salah performed a piece called “Hate.” It was inspired, she said, by one of her professors who commented that all Palestinian children have hate instilled in them at a young age.

Salah was born in Brooklyn, but her family is Palestinian and the theory about children and hate is something she has struggled with for a long time, she said. Although her words come out almost in a whisper, they are powerful.

“In the beginning [“Hate”] is my idea of what Palestine would be,” Salah described. “The air would be sweet and the ground would be soft. Then [the poem] goes into the metaphor of a Holy Land and the mothers of a Holy Land. It continues on and starts to speak about the hate that’s ‘instilled’ in these children.”

Kass said he has noticed a progression over the past couple years in how teens talk about topics, like the war in Iraq.

“Two years ago all the kids were really mad, because we’d recently gone to war,” Kass described. “Then last year they were a little bit more confused like ‘why is it happening, what’s going on?’ And then this year, there’s a larger sense of young people trying to take control, looking for solutions, not just saying there’s a problem.”

New York’s teams are the defending champions this year. Still, when West traveled with the Urban Word team to San Francisco last year, he was impressed by the competition.

“It was a cool feelin’ ‘cause you think that New York has lots of poets and writers, and that’s about it,” West said. “But then you see all these kids from Texas and Tennessee, Miami and California come out and do the same thing you’re doing and it’s a beautiful feelin’.”

Brave New Voices 2006 opens this Tuesday evening at Thompkins Square Park. The finals will be held April 29, 7pm at the Apollo theater. A detailed schedule can be found at www.bravenewvoices.org

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