It’s about dedication, focus, bravery, heart and a willingness to leave it all on the stage for the audience to absorb and learn from—that is what the young poets who participated in the 15th Annual Brave New Voices Grand Slam Finals said about the competition that took place on Saturday night at the Fox Theater in Oakland.
The finals were the culmination of a series of competitions which teams began preparing for in April and included more than 500 poets from around the United States who had practiced presenting work before an audience in order for it to be judged. This competition is for people between the ages of 13 and 19. Each team, which can have up to up to six members, competes in rounds where they voice their feelings about sexism, racism, ageism, love, parents, Alzheimer’s disease, politics, social justice or anything else that inspires them. Each performance is ranked with a score of 1 to 10 by the judges.
When the quarterfinals began in Oakland on July 19 there were fifty teams, and those were narrowed down to four final teams competing in Saturday’s Grand Slam Final. The four to emerge as the semi-finalists were Team Bay Area, Team Denver, Team Philadelphia and Team Richmond, VA.
During the final round of competition audience members heard individuals, pairs and team presentations. The crowd expressed its enthusiasm for each performer with screams and standing ovations that might have been heard on Broadway.
In their performance, Team Richmond took on the issue of light versus dark skin color, and told the story of a Richmond grandfather with Alzheimer’s who will not perish because he will live on in the memory of his granddaughter.
The Bay Area team told the story of one woman mystified by her place in the ghetto of Oakland, and of another who finds no rest because of the insanity that has taken hold of her.
A Philadelphia poet demanded that listeners learn to speak her given name correctly instead of opting for a nickname and in a group performance, the team told the audience indignantly not to be fooled by the myth that if you are African American, you’re worth a little more when you’re golden, or lighter skinned.
Team Denver’s performance concluded with Amal Kassir’s impassioned performance of her poem “Syria,” about a land caught in turmoil and 41 years of war. She recited the poem with power and conviction, and poem’s final line—“There will be a time when the fences choose to sit with us instead of standing between us”—sent the room into a frenzy as the audience jumped to its feet almost as one unit. Applause and screams and stomping feet seemed to make the walls shake, and brought the fourth and final round of the competition to an electrifying conclusion.
After the numbers were tallied, Team Denver was proclaimed the Brave New Voices champions for 2012, followed by Philadelphia in second place, Richmond in third, with the Bay Area team coming in fourth.
After hugs and congratulations on stage, members of Team Denver made their way through the crowd, with members Lea Scott and Kevin Kantor walking alongside Kassir. “It hasn’t really hit me,” said Scott of her team’s win. “I’m sort of dazed at this point. We put a lot of work into all this so I feel really fulfilled. It feels good.”
Kantor said he felt blessed to have been a part of the experience. “You forget it’s a competition when there are so many incredible artists and people who really know how to give love and these people know how to give love,” he said.
Kassir, who received a perfect ten from two out of the five judges for the final poem of the night, said she didn’t know what her score was until her coach told her; she said she was caught up in giving and receiving energy from the audience. “It’s not about scores, as cliché as that sounds,” she said. “Truly it’s about the message. It’s about the masses hearing what people have to say and hearing what people can’t say.”
Throughout the weekend, the teams that had made it to the last stages of the competition had been excited about the prospect of the final bout. “I’m lost for words,” said Queen Nefertiti Shabazz, a member of the Bay Area team, on Friday only moments after finishing her performance in the semi-finals and learning that her team had made it to this year’s final competition. “It was life-changing, inspirational, emotional, and in a way, therapeutic. It healed, I would say, every spirit in that room.”
Shabazz recited what she describes as one of her Creole poems about identity and later performed a piece with team member Obasi Davis entitled “Gentrification.” The group also performed “Motherless Child,” which compares the state of black men during the time of slavery and the state of black in prison today.
The noise in the background was loud as her teammates congratulated each other on Friday’s performance. “We’ve been bawling our eyes out,” Shabazz said. “We’ve been jumping up and down. We are drinking tea and working on our voices. We are so proud of each other and of the poets who went on stage. We are giving group hugs every minute. We are very excited!”
Others spoke about the preparation that had gone into getting this far in the competition. “We had an all-rookie team this year,” said Richmond coach Matthew Hernandez. “Some teams started working as early as January. We started in July and they didn’t have anything written. Our kids at Slam Richmond have to read. They cannot pick up a pencil until they have read a certain amount of books. There are 10 books they have to get through before we start the writing and editing process.”
James Kass founded Youth Speaks, Inc. in 1996, when he was a student at San Francisco State University, because, he said, there was a total lack of diversity in the graduate creative writing program on campus. It was obvious who was being nurtured or who was being developed to have a voice, he said. “At that time in California, there were rumblings about a number of anti-youth propositions on the ballot,” Kass said. “Proposition 187, Proposition 21. A lot of the media was talking about young people, but there were very few opportunities for young people to talk in a meaningful way. I knew that there were a lot of young people out there writing but they weren’t being developed in a professional way. They weren’t taken seriously, so I wanted to sort of combat that.”
In 1998, the organization held the first Youth Speaks Team Poetry Slam and shortly afterward, Brave New Voices was born. No longer just a local event, Youth Speaks and Brave New Voices has become a national event, which draws students and competitors from varying social and economic backgrounds. A competition also previously aired on HBO.
“Poetry can be a very acceptable art form,” Kass said. “It’s a way for [young people] to critically and creatively analyze the world and present it in ways that are acceptable to lots of different audience members.”
Saturday night’s performance began with a moment of silence for the victims of the theater shooting in Colorado. Shortly afterward, Kass turned the microphone over to national program director Hodari Davis and Amy Sonnie, the teen outreach coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, to pay tribute to the finalists in the Youth Poet Laureate competition for teens ages 13 to 18 who are interested in traditional written poems and spoken word poetry. Finalists Euna Bonovich, Jose Saldona, Kerby Lynch, Robin Levy, Stephanie Yun Tele’jon Quinn and Victoria Kupu were honored earlier in the evening with a dinner and Davis presented each with a medal from the City of Oakland.
Among the group cheering for the competitors was Hannah Matsunaga of Youth Speaks Hawaii. Her team did not make it to the finals, but she said she’d had an exciting experience nonetheless. “The competition was amazing,” Matsunaga said. “The poetry was incredible. Everybody at that level was amazing to watch.”
She and her teammate had performed a humorous poem about cannibalism earlier in the evening. “I think those get downplayed in slam poetry a lot,” Matsunaga said of comic performances. “Slam gets stereotyped as angry people ranting, but it’s an art form that allows for a lot of expression whether that’s humorous or any other type.”
After the event finished, Daisy Armstrong was standing outside of the Fox waiting for a bus. Armstrong was the first Indy Slam Poetry Champion, a competition for individuals rather than teams, held earlier this year. She competed with the Stockton team on Saturday. “It was beautiful,” she said of the competition. “It was emotional. It was excellent. … Nobody cares about the score anymore. It’s all about getting your story out and letting hundreds and thousands of people hear it.”