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Slam poets envision a brave new world

Youth Speaks

What do you get when you gather young spoken word artists from around the world to compete at a Youth Speaks slam, bring in the production of HBO and Russell Simmons, and add the narration of Queen Latifah? You get part documentary, part revolution, and 100 percent Brave New Voices.

The seven-part HBO series, “Brave New Voices,” follows 14 young artists who journeyed to the nation’s capital to participate in the 11th annual Youth Poetry Slam Festival and Competition, which is also called Brave New Voices, and is sponsored by Youth Speaks, Inc. From local slam contests to finals in their respective cities, each participant, a member of a citywide team, practiced and prepared for a year.

“The competition is three-tiered with preliminaries, semi-finals and finals. [Poets] had to come with at least one poem to the prelims and then semis,” said Meg Day, a Youth Speaks poet-in-residence and graduate student at Mills. “And finals both require two poems in case [the poet gets] pushed on to the next level.”

Slam competitions like the ones described by Day are held in cites throughout the country. The winners of the various slams advance to their city’s final and the winner earns the title of slam champion in their city.

“The six poets with the highest scores in round two of the finals become the new Brave New Voices team and are sent to the finals with a bunch of Youth Speaks coaches to prep,” said Day.

Forty-five U.S. city teams and five international teams gathered at the International Youth Poetry Slam Festival and Competition, where for six days in July of 2008, more than 500 teens engaged in workshops and performances by well-known poets, musicians and writers. The topics ranged from civic engagement to arts education and literacy development.

Participants represented areas of our global community that range from cities to rural towns and developing countries. Their common connection was their love for poetry and spoken word.

Rap icon Queen Latifah provides the voice-over for the HBO series that follows seven teams of six poets, hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Honolulu, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Santa Fe. Washington, D.C. hosted the conference-style festival and the culminating event, the 2008 Grand Slam Finals, which took place at the historic Lincoln Theater. In front of an audience of 10,000, the competitors battled for the title of Grand Slam Champion.

The HBO documentary followed each team’s progress and tells the story of the slam poetry movement through the eyes of the poets. Viewers can tune in to HBO on Sundays at 11 p.m. to watch the teams compete and ultimately claim the 2008 title as the nation’s best slam poet. The show premiered April 5.

Youth Speaks, Inc., founded in 1996, is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that cultivates spoken word performance, education, and youth development programs around the country. They offer free workshops and in-school intensives that serve more than 45,000 Bay Area youth.

With partnerships in 47 cities across the country, Youth Speaks gives young people a safe place to critically analyze, write and voice their own experiences. The organization employs poets-in-residence and places them in schools, museums, community centers and libraries.

The poet-teachers conduct on-going poetry workshops that help the youth tap into their feelings and thoughts around global issues, local concerns, and personal politics.

The San Francisco team, coached by Lauren Whitehead, consisted of Brian Yoo, the San Francisco Champion, and Sojari Bradley, Ebony Donnley, Devin Murphy, Mike Taylor and Ben Turner.

The 12th Annual Brave New Voices Festival will take place in Chicago, Illinois from Jul. 14-19. Poets between the ages of 13 and 19 can enter slam competitions in their area. Four to six of the top winners will be selected to represent their city at the 2009 Brave New Voices.

The event will include a National Youth Spoken Word summit with the goal of building local organizations to further promote the spoken word movement. Over 500 young writers from across the country are again expected to participate.