Young poets tear open festival with crackling energy, raw emotion

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | July 17, 2015

My voice is a drum ricocheting off the evening as I listen to myself be myself…

Rhythm and rhyme rocked Emory's Glenn Memorial Church Wednesday, as young poets from around the world congregated for a vibrant celebration of words during opening ceremonies for the 18th annual Brave New Voices (BNV) International Youth Poetry Slam Festival.

The high-decibel evening pulsed with youthful energy as it showcased the talents of young artists from Atlanta Word Works, Essential Youth Step Team, and the Atlanta Youth Ensemble, as well as young spoken word artists from across the nation.

During introductory remarks, LaRonda Sutton, director of the Mayor's Office of Film and Entertainment for the City of Atlanta, welcomed over 550 enthusiastic young poets to Emory and Atlanta with a reminder that "words are not just words — words are a vehicle for change."

This marks the first year that Youth Speaks has presented the long-running festival in the American South, and Sutton told the young artists that they are in a city "rich with history, struggle and great stories."

She also advised them that "being in the cultural, economic and entertainment Mecca of the Southeast, you will likely be challenged, surprised and called to action in the coming days" — a fitting invitation for a festival that strives to harness the power, insight, creativity and passion of young people to change the world.

Voices on fire

The theme for this year's festival is "The Fire This Time" — a fitting match for the raw, fiery performances that played out in the sanctuary, voices swelling with the rise and fall of an old-time revival meeting, fueled by a passionate gospel of words, and stories and ideas.

The BNV festival is designed to showcase the voices of young people, asking them to use their own lives as primary text. Opening night foreshadowed a week of workshops, open mics, poetry slams and curated events. And festivities launched with a tidal wave of emotion, with voices — raw, earnest and alive — ringing out in anger and rage, pain and puzzlement, wonder and laughter.

The capacity crowd was engaged and supportive, encouraging spoken word artists and performers with deafening applause, screams of approval, and the whisper of snapping fingers. As potent phrases struck home, listeners responded with gasps of recognition, moans of appreciation

Threads of poetry lingered in the air like the ghosts of intimate conversations:

  • Home is a thing I've outgrown, but cannot replace…
  • Yesterday I wrote away my problems with the pen of self-pity…
  • Even God cries sometimes. His tears are often mistaken for rain…
  • I showed you ID, now you want to search my car. Now I think twice when somebody says "Come along…"
  • If you ain't praying for me, then you preying on me…
  • How long have I been on fire? How long do I have left to burn?
  • It was because of Missy Elliott that I thought a fat black girl from Chicago could dance until she felt pretty…
  • They will always tell you about the boy who cried 'Wolf,' but they would never tell you about the boy who cried for help…

Even a routine announcement from Emory Housing took a creative turn, when staff member Malik Alexander cautioned participants to keep track of their room keys. "Don't lose your keys … please, they're real expensive," he told the crowd. "When you lose your keys, we get attentive…."

Young people matter

For the next four days, the poets — who are staying on the Emory campus — will engage in workshops and preliminary spoken word competitions, which culminate Saturday, July 18 with Grand Slam final at the Woodruff Arts Center, Symphony Hall, 8-10 p.m.

"At Brave New Voices, we believe in the activation of the voice," explained poet Shannon Matesky, who hosted the opening ceremony, promising participants "an action-oriented week.

As evidence, BNV Executive Producer Hodari Davis announced the launch of the "I Want To Live" campaign — a new initiative that invites youth to share stories and poems about their experiences with racial profiling and police or state violence.

"Our belief is that the voices of young people matter," Davis said. "We've been engaged in a process to figure out how we can apply youth voices as agents of social change, how to get you off the stage and into the board room, how many of your voices it takes to create true social transformation.

"We're engaged in a social justice experiment in which you young people are the army," he told the crowd.

And on a warm summer evening, with voices representing youth from over 30 states, Ireland, Bermuda and South Africa — the army rallied to the call to share their stories.

"I'm just really excited," said Cheryl Baldwin, representing POME (Product Of My Environment), a youth poetry team from Jacksonville, Fla. "We've been practicing for seven or eight months now, working really hard. I'm just happy it's finally here."

For some students, the festival marked a first-time visit to the South, where they found the Emory campus to be "beautiful" and the summer weather to be "intense."

But for many, the chance to explore a new destination — as well as delving into new issues and experiences — was what it was all about.

"I came here because I want to learn — about the culture, how they do things, to hear different stories and different styles of poetry and to meet new people," said Kirsten Johnson, representing an eight-member team of poets from Detroit.

For a full schedule of BNV activities, or to register for tickets, visit here.