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Cleveland's Young Voices Demand to Be Heard in the Annual Brave New Voices Festival 

click to enlarge From left, Raja Freeman, Taylor Benford, Nick Vitello and Sage Mack

Photo by James Irby

From left, Raja Freeman, Taylor Benford, Nick Vitello and Sage Mack

"What's the matter with kids today?"

That's a question for the ages. It is an established fact that adults never quite understand what motivates kids to do what they do. And the kids certainly prefer it that way.

But if you want a different perspective on what some kids are up to, consider the students (14 to 19 years of age) who participate in the Brave New Voices (BNV) slam poetry competitions here in Cleveland and around the country. That national organization's guiding principle is to provide arts education to youth with limited access to the arts, and to empower young people to discover and develop their own voices.

Slam poetry was started by construction worker and poet Marc Smith in 1986 in Chicago, and it has spread like wildfire since. Slam is high-intensity, often highly personal, performance poetry presented in a competitive format, with individuals and teams being scored by judges who are not connected in any way to the performers. All the poems are read without props, costumes or music, and each poem usually has to be less than three minutes long.

Cleveland and Northeast Ohio sent teams to the annual Brave New Voices Festival, under the auspices of Playhouse Square, from 2005 through 2011. Then there was a gap until 2014, when Eric Odum and his One Mic Open slams sent teams. This year, the event was held in San Francisco and the Cleveland team received enormous assistance from the Twelve Literary and Performing Arts Incubator in Collinwood, founded by local performance poet Daniel Gray-Kontar. With that help, the team was able to compete against 60 other teams at the 20th Annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in San Francisco.

One of the team coaches, Nkechi Edeh, says it was a marvelous event in several ways. "In addition to being a great bonding experience, the team members' writing and performance creativity grew by leaps and bounds." This year's team members were Raja Freeman (Brush High School), Taylor Benford (Collinwood High School), Nick Vitelo (Kenston High School) and Sage Mack (Cleveland State University).

To qualify for the team, each poet had to compete in local qualifying competitions, and those who scored highest earned a spot. Edeh and her coaching partner James Irby arranged for the team to visit the BNV team in Detroit, where the students shared poetry workshops and developed new friendships. "That visit with the team in Detroit really helped us," notes Edeh, "since the students were able to get a sense of the kind of talented people they would be competing against a month later."

In preparation, the teams develop a portfolio of poems to perform; some are individual and some are done as a group of two or more. In general, the writing is extraordinary and the imagination and synchronization demonstrated in the group pieces is often invigorating. One team member, Raja Freeman, says she was very inspired by the entire experience. "I was surprised that I really wasn't nervous, performing in San Francisco, because everyone was so accepting. All the other performers and the audiences were so engrossed and supportive, listening to our poems. It didn't feel competitive at all."

Ultimately, the Cleveland squad didn't move on to the semi-finals. While disappointing, the Festival was an eye-opening excursion. And there were some unexpected occurrences.

For instance, before each match, a "sacrificial poet," who is not a member of any team, is invited to deliver a poem and be scored by the newly appointed judges, so the judges can begin to calibrate their scoring criteria. As Freeman says, "At one of our matches, the sacrificial poet performed a poem in Dutch. The subject of the poem was suicide and, even though we didn't understand the language, thanks to the performer, the meaning of the poem came through loud and clear. It was kind of amazing."

Since Brave New Voices encourages kids to write about their own experiences in their own vernacular, the results can be powerful. As BNV says on their website Youth Speaks, "We are urgently driven by the belief that literacy is a need, not a want, and that literacy comes in various forms. As we move more deeply into the 21st Century, oral poetry is helping to define the new American Voice."

Without seeing these young poets, it's hard to imagine how much emotion and truth-telling can be crammed into three minutes or so of poetry. Fortunately, you don't have to, since there are scores of videos on the BNV website, youthspeaks.org.

This year, the team from Baton Rouge was crowned slam competition champ. But to drag out the old cliche, everyone who participated was a winner. As Edeh points out, "All the kids found their tribe, a lasting sense of community, and their own unique voices. And those are connections that will last for a long time."

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