From page to the stage: Spoken word poetry gives youth a potent platform to express individuality

Guante reading his poem
Guante, a nationally recognized slam poet, also spends time educating Twin Cities youth about the importance of spoken word and rap.
Isha Camara reading her poem
Isha Camara, a 15-year-old spoken word poet from Minneapolis, has performed as part of Minnesota's prestigious Brave New Voices.
Poetry—written to be performed in front of people—is often deeply personal, revealing an even more difficult journey.

Each Thursday night, performers shuffle into the Golden Thyme Coffee Cafe around 6 p.m. They chat with the baristas, the small cafe in Saint Paul a second home. They buy a drink, notebooks in hand. They’ve been waiting all week for this.

This is a chance for their voices to be heard.

At six, Tish Jones, the Soul Sounds Open Mic emcee, posts the sign-up sheet in the small back room where the open mic is held each week. She plays music on the speakers as teenagers congregate, slowly filling in the rows of folding chairs. While Soul Sounds is mostly young adults, it’s multicultural and multigenerational. It’s not uncommon for middle-aged men to offer advice after a teenager performs a heartfelt piece about the struggles he’s been going through.

Jones introduces each writer to the stage with enthusiasm, smatterings of applause multiplying as the night goes on. Each performer has the opportunity to get feedback from the audience, and most do. Everyone who chooses to get feedback gets a thoughtful critique from Jones herself.

Standing in the back of the small room, Jones raises her hand.

“Hey, here’s your goal for next week. I saw that you revised the poem from last week, which is good. Don’t touch that. Instead, practice and come back next week focusing on your performance.”

The teenage boy nods and heads back to his seat as Jones walks to the front, introducing the next performer of the night.

In between performances, she asks the crowd about events in their lives, what they’ve been thinking about. The audience starts a discussion about the events in Ferguson and street harassment. Over the course of the evening, nearly everyone present has participated—whether in discussion, feedback, performing their work, or all of the above.

A CHANCE TO BE HEARD

Soul Sounds is an incredibly strong, warm community. While the chocolate muffins are good, that’s not what keeps everyone coming back.

Jones is a spoken word artist who emcees Soul Sounds with another well-known Minnesota poet, Desdamona. Jones is also the founder of TruArtSpeaks, a local nonprofit based on supporting youth and creating safe spaces for community voices to be heard through hip hop and spoken word.

“The people at Soul Sounds Open Mic care. They care about the space, about one another and about the issues that surface. They’re invested. It is not a selfish space. They respect one another. Those things are rare,” said Jones, who created TruArtSpeaks in 2007 after she was a nationally commended spoken word poet and felt the need to give back to local communities.

Isha Camara, a 15-year-old spoken word poet from Minneapolis, was selected for Minnesota’s Brave New Voices team last year. That allowed the sophomore at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School to compete nationally with the best teenage poets across the country.

She’s no stranger to speaking her mind, though as a young, black, Muslim woman, there are plenty of people who don’t want to listen.

“Once I was told that what I do wasn’t poetry but ranting. And because I’m Muslim, I’ve gotten called slurs and what not, mostly when I speak out about topics revolving things like ISIS, terrorism, etc.,” Camara said.

“Not everyone can like my poetry and I know that.”

Guante, a slam poet who’s been recognized nationally, also works as an educator and activist in Minneapolis. With TruArtSpeaks, he also goes into local public schools to teach poetry workshops and promote the importance of spoken word and rap.

The Twin Cities, in particular, has a reputation for fostering a strong spoken word scene—dating back to local Beat poets influencing the area and the concentration of talented, vibrant young artists sharing their work today. Local spoken word venues of prominence, in addition to Golden Thyme, include Soap Boxing Poetry Slam, Slam MN Poetry Slam, Voices Merging and SteppingStone Theatre Youth Open Mic.

“One of the best things about spoken word as both a practice and as a community is that it’s democratic. If you have something to say, you have a platform, whether that be an open mic, or YouTube, or something else. There aren’t a lot of spaces in U.S. culture where people—especially young people and people who hold misrepresented identities—can have a big platform to say whatever they want to say,” Guante said.

“I think of spoken word, in a very real sense, as new media, as independent media, as popular media, as alternative media. We’re having conversations about real issues, and that’s filtering into the larger culture.”

Added Jones: “Youth are the architects of the future. The words, images, values and ideas that shape their consciousness will impact everyone. They, too, are witnesses. And they, too, deserve a platform to be heard.”

EMBRACING ACTIVISM

Performance poetry is vulnerable in a way that written word isn’t, Guante said. Poetry—written to be performed in front of people—is often deeply personal, revealing an even more difficult journey. Those who step on stage and take the mic into their own hands find it rewarding, both for the finality it can provide while overcoming issues, and for the audience members whom it can impact.

“One woman came to me and said I gave her closure. Just thinking that everyone who came and heard me speak left with something they didn’t come in with … that’s what’s good,” Camara said.

“I think there aren’t a lot of spaces where people can have deeper conversations about issues and ideas that we all struggle with. With spoken word, you can talk about whatever you want to talk about, however you want to talk about it, and then you can have a platform to express those thoughts and actually be validated for them. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s increasingly rare,” Guante added.

“We have to build with one another, sharing thoughts, ideas, techniques … Also, because the platform lends itself so well to discussing social justice issues, there’s a community activism element that often (though not always) accompanies the poetry itself.”

Among the heavy topics Camara has already written about: Racism, harassment, war, education and religion. Spoken word provides a platform to go deeper with issues—and present them in a powerful way—that teens can’t so easily ignore.

“I just like writing about what’s important. I’ve educated so many people with my poetry,” Camara said. “By using this with the youth and our communities, it’s so much easier to relate and understand each other.”

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