by Camisha L. Jones
They are storytellers, weaving words into wisdom. They stand, bare and vulnerable, behind microphones where their hurts, humor and life lessons are amplified each Saturday night. They shatter the silence around the “N” word, stalking, homophobia, abusive relationships and racism. Their words heal wounds, spark the medicine of laughter, and help the isolated not to feel so alone.
They are Richmond’s poets. And this summer, they are headed to one of the largest national competitions in the country.
A group of five Richmond youth will compete at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in San Francisco, California from July 20th to July 23rd. The festival boasts being “the largest ongoing spoken word event in the world.” It has been featured on HBO and has the backing of Russell Simmons.
Chanice Cruz (18), Aja Hull (19), Lauren G. Parker (16), Jorrell Watkins (18), and D.J. Williams (19) will compete on behalf of Slam Richmond at Brave New Voices this year. A program of Artspace Art Gallery, Slam Richmond hosts free events each Saturday to promote literary awareness at The Shop located in the parking lot of Zero East 4th Street. These events include writing workshops at 5pm that are often led by nationally known poets and open mic nights at 8pm which include poetry slam competitions. In a slam, writers perform 3 minute poems that are scored by a panel of judges. Those who do well in the slams qualify to be on Slam Richmond’s youth and adult teams and compete nationally.
Slam Richmond team members tell me repeatedly that the competitions are not about winning. Make no mistake, they like to win but more than that they want to help someone. The team’s coach, Roscoe Burnems says, “There are poems that win slams and there are poems that change lives. I’m more concerned with the latter. I would love to win but I don’t see a reason why we can’t accomplish both.”
Writing has been life-changing for many of the members of Slam Richmond.
For Burnems, writing interrupted a string of unsuccessful adolescent suicide attempts. At age 16, he began writing in a journal and his life changed for the better. He identifies with many of the young people who attend Slam Richmond events and feel they have no outlet for their inner turmoil. A part of Slam Richmond since 2008, Burnems knows what it is like to step behind a microphone and finally, for the first time, feel heard and important.
He is not the only one who has been saved by their written words. A graduate of Highland Springs High School, Chanice Cruz says writing helps her control her anger. She believes the path of her life would have led to drugs and gang involvement without her connection to Slam Richmond. Known for fiery performances, Cruz now uses writing to help her mourn the recent death of her mother. She encourages her 11-year-old sister to do the same.
Poetry has also helped DJ Williams process the loss of loved ones. A graduate of Open High School, Williams says his connection to Slam Richmond has matured him and been a support through periods of loneliness. He uses poetry to speak about what others are afraid to say. His coach says performance poetry makes Williams who stands at a height of 5’5’’seem at least 6’ 4’’. Williams describes every opportunity he has to share his poetry as “three divine minutes.”
A Hermitage High School student, Lauren Parker is often described as “revolutionary” – perhaps because at 16, she reads Toni Morrison, Angela Davis and Cornel West for fun. She first came to Slam Richmond in September 2010 and considers it “a place where the things considered too much to deal with…[can be said] and it’s art.” She believes her poetry is meant to free people.
There are poems that win slams and there are poems that change lives.
A graduate of Open High School, Jorrell Watkins has been part of Slam Richmond since 2008 and is known as the “veteran.” Before joining the group, he was timid and shy. Through poetry, he has found his voice – and his particular voice has a lot of bass in it. He uses his deep voice dramatically to bring to life poems that often make you laugh and always make you think.
Once nicknamed “Whisper” because of her low raspy voice, people now compare Aja Hull to an earthquake. A graduate of Midlothian High School, Hull’s poetry shifts and shakes her audience’s perspectives. She remembers the exact date of her first visit to Slam Richmond: January 2, 2010. It was cold outside but inside, at the workshop, it was warm. Being there, warmed not only her body but also her soul.
Today, Hull describes Slam Richmond as “home” and all her teammates as “family.” She is not alone in her feelings of connection — which is good since the teams will be traveling cross-country by van to Brave New Voices. Their hope, whether they win or lose, is to change lives through their poetry. What is clear, listening to their stories, is that they have already accomplished that worthwhile goal.
Later this summer, Slam Richmond’s adult team will travel to the National Poetry Slam Competition(August 9-13) in Cambridge, Massachusetts to compete with 71 other teams from all over North America and Europe. The adult team is also coached by Roscoe Burnems and includes Aja Hull, Narrator (Lee Jones), Chanice Cruz and Brianna Lee.
Visit Slam Richmond on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/slamrichmond. Sponsor the teams’ trips to nationals by sending funds via Paypal to firstname.lastname@example.org.