Brave New Voices > High School

On Friday, July 15th in DC, I had the opportunity to judge the quarterfinals of Brave New Voices and the young poets blew me away with their words, emotion and passion. I’ve taught/learned from youth for 15 years and this event made me even more aware of how much monotony and apathy exists in most of our nation’s schools. What percentage of students make it through (or don’t) high school without ever getting the opportunity to find and express their own creative voice? When history like Ferguson and Black Lives Matter happens in real time, how well-equipped are schools and teachers in creating space for students around how they feel and what they have to say?

Brave New Voices is a platform, a community, where youth can create, can bare their soul, and receive love, support and appreciation. After DJ 2-Tone from Words, Beats and Life got the crowd going and about 30 youth singing and stomping “we gon be alright,” two girls from team Miami stepped up. They delivered a heartfelt piece, combining Tagalog and song, commenting on the colonization of the Philippines, on the language being stolen and the erasure of history.

Next came the Bmore (Baltimore) team, and they were pure fire, the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter embodied, repping their city with rage and love and pain. They made me want to shout “Free Angela!” They were determined to win and win they did. One girl had tears rolling down her cheek before the poem started. “Sometimes the poem is about the poet, but sometimes it’s the poem our loved ones were never able to write.” They performed a piece, “White Squad,” which was biting commentary around privilege and death. “Call 1–800-____ and they’ll go to the corner store for you…There’s no such thing as black privilege, so heck you can borrow theirs.”

Nothing is more NOW, on the pulse of the nation, than a 16 year-old sharing her truths and language, singing and tweeting and snap-ing.

There was a team from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. They wore beautiful shirts, with an image of ancestors that read “Dances With Words.” Their realities are tragically invisible in this country. “Only we can smell the genocide burnt into our genetics.” “700 children a year are kidnapped from their land on the Pine Ridge Reservation.” “Native children are 4% of the population in South Dakota and 50% of the state’s welfare system.” Damn what this country has done and continues to do.

I loved hearing the encouragement that fellow, competing poets shared for each other (unlike Little League baseball). As teams took the stage, you’d hear:

“Come on cocoa butter”

“Deliver us”

“Make us care”

“Don’t be nice, be nasty”

“It’s not My ami, it’s our ami.”

“Ase”

“Don’t be Becky, be Yonce”

“Don’t be less, Bmore”

“Purpose”

“Take your time”

“Remember why you wrote it”

About 80% of the poetic themes were around body image, gender/sexual identity, rape culture and police brutality/white supremacy/Black Lives Matter. The team from Miami brilliantly intertwined George Zimmerman auctioning off his gun, with the auction of slaves: “Guns only communicate in clicks of African tongues.” Another piece went in on Brock Turner and his “twenty minutes of action,” while asking the question, “why must I share a dorm with my abuser?”

A young woman on team Nashville performed a piece on Army Private LaVena Johnson, a black woman whose death was ruled a suicide, despite acid being poured on her genitals. “I’m the unvisited wings of America’s dream house…I loved this country enough to fight for it. I just wish it loved me back.”

Thank you to all the poets in the Brave New Voices community for inspiring and humbling me. I love you enough to fight, by any means necessary, for an America that one day will love you back.