"Why do you want to win?" Victor "Slangston Hughes" Rodgers, 33, asks an eager group of five young poets at the Edward R. Murrow Park in Washington, D.C., back in July.
He has been coaching youth poetry teams for the last five years, but this team, the sixth Baltimore Citywide Youth Poetry Team to compete in the international poetry slam competition, Brave New Voices, is different: Every youth involved has competed in local poetry slam competitions—they are experienced with scoreboards, the poetic use of silence, and electrifying elocution.
There's silence after Slangston Hughes asks that question—the type of soft, serious silence people make when they are turning inward for answers.
"I want to win because I've never won anything before," says Mecca "MeccaMorphosis" Verdell, a 19-year-old Baltimore City Community College freshman.
"I want to win because it means my story touched people more than anyone else," says Kralieani Lea-Corner, a 17-year-old, Bowie State University freshman.
"I want to win because no longer will I settle for any less than the best for myself," says Diondre "Grim" Jackson, a 19-year-old Baltimore City Community College sophomore.
After this, Slangston Hughes leads the youth team—consisting of JhaNeal "Blue" Stoute, and Deniero Bell in addition to Verdell, Lea-Corner, and Jackson—into an "affirmation circle," a West African tradition. They hold hands while each person affirms another and calls in the name of an ancestor. Each person ends their affirmation with "ashe," a term derived from the Yoruba of Nigeria that means "so be it."
"Ashe, ashe, ashe!" the whole team says.
Then, all of the team members walk back toward George Washington University to sign in at the five-day, 19th annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, where over 600 youth poets from around the world, await. They are determined to bring home the prize. They will.
I. "I am who you naturally are and you are closer to flawless than you ever knew 'cause… evolution is the only form of perfection I've ever encountered." - Olu Butterfly, 'Be Natural'
Baltimore's youth and adult poetry slam teams have been competing nationally for the last two decades, but this summer, as the city focused on vigils and protests in Lor Scoota and Korryn Gaines' deaths, a Department of Justice report about police discrimination, and the Port Covington controversy, Baltimore's youth and adult poetry slam teams have been quietly crafting their own news: Baltimore teams won two national poetry slam competitions this summer, with the youth poetry slam team placing 1st out of 60 teams and the adult poetry slam team placing 1st out of 74.
The city has long had a vibrant slam poetry scene pioneered by the local arts event Slamicide, but this year's winners mark a new generation of Baltimore poets who are unapologetically black and emotionally fearless. The teams didn't just represent Baltimore, they brought the rawness of our city, from the west side to the east side, with them to national stages. They shared the sounds of our city, like Friday nights on North Avenue, and showed audiences what is audaciously and unmistakably Baltimore.
In early August, the Baltimore Adult Poetry Slam Team, Slammageddon, packs into a 2013 blue Chevy Traverse to start the 11-hour drive to Morrow, Georgia, for the week-long National Poetry Slam. Baltimore's five-person team includes Brion "Lady Brion" Gill, Jacob "Black Chakra" Mayberry, Kenneth Morrison, Slangston Hughes, and Jackson (who is on the youth and adult team).
The coach, Lamar Hill, a Baltimore-based, Jersey-born playwright and poet, has wanted to work with the team since he saw the 2015 Baltimore team perform last year at Warm Wednesdays, a long-running open mic in Baltimore City that used to take place at the Hott Spott Lounge. This is the first poetry slam team that Hill has ever coached but his 20-year poetry career, including competing in more than 150 poetry slams, has prepped him for the job.
The adult poetry slam team arrives to Georgia with more poems than suitcases. The next day, they compete in their first preliminary poetry slam at Little Shop of Stories, a colorful and modern independent bookstore. Viral poetry video stars and grand slam champions from the nation's most acclaimed poetry slam competitions begin to pour into the shop.
Morrison grew up in Park Heights and started writing at 12 after hearing a Greenspring Middle School eighth-grader perform a poem. Morrison performed his first poem, 'Questions' at a school event not long after that; it presented his struggle to understand racism. His peers loved it and this solidified poetry "as a part of his identity," he says. He started competing in high school poetry slams, founded a community poetry organization, "Projected Voices," and now leads art and activist non-profit, Dew More Baltimore (every poet on the youth and adult team is connected to Dew More).
"There's so much power in this room," Morrison says when he notices their big-time competitors: Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Colorado.
Slangston Hughes looks at Morrison. "Yeah, and it's coming from the people with the red and black shirts on," Hughes says, nodding at the Baltimore team and its red and black shirts.
II. "Ya'll mistaking these words for poems. These ain't poems — these are prayers. This is how I talk to God and ya'll just happen to be here." - Lamar Hill, 'Evangelist'
"The way I think about our team is how I think about our city," says Lady Brion, 27, a member of the adult team. "How people describe our city, the demeanor, the attitude of the people in Baltimore, that is very much so reminiscent of how our writing style is as poets."
At the preliminary slam in Little Shop of Stories she performs her poem, 'Daddy Daughter Date' which documents the death of her father (it begins, "I have spent my weekends having daddy daughter dates in the emergency room") and emanates fearlessness ("I wear my visitor wristband like a corsage/ Like a princess at her prom/ And then I file it in the back of my mind because I know he probably won't make it...").
Chilling, rhythmic, yet full of moments of silence, Lady Brion pulls up her grief and pain and captivates the audience with her rooted performance–it's not a spectacle for the audience, it invites them to be a partner in healing. She shares her pain like it is possible to heal along with her just by listening.
During the finals, youth team poet "Blue" Stoute's performance of her poem 'Dead Babies,' about her molestation, is similarly cathartic. She anchors every word with meaning and passion. Her voice is firm yet trembling.
"I was so caught in my emotion that sometimes I lost my words," Blue says later on.
As the crowd roars with applause, Blue walks off stage and faints. She's caught by her teammates. Even though she has been performing poetry since middle school, this was the first time she had this kind of experience.
"Doing the poem took so much out of me. It came out angry. It came out scary. Doing the poem took my breath away."
III. "The body is not a failed class. You are not failing. The body is not an apology." -Sonya Renee, 'The Body Is Not An Apology'
Earlier this year, the poets participated in a series of packed and competitive citywide grand slams. The youth poetry slam team that would go on to nationals was chosen to perform in March at Red Emma's Bookstore and the adult poetry slam team in April at the Soulful Emergence Gallery on Carey Street. Following those slams, the teams met at least twice a week for three hours or more for poetry training. While Hill was coaching the adult team, members of the adult team, Slangston Hughes and Black Chakra, coached the youth team.
By summer, the team was well-practiced. After the heat dwindled, the adult team would arrive at Hill's house in the Ashburton neighborhood of West Baltimore for poetry practice every Wednesday. If someone arrived late, there were consequences: 10 pushups for every five minutes they were tardy.
Hill knew the team was talented, but recognized the members needed discipline: "Once we established discipline then it was more about writing, doing poems, and choreography," he says.
The team worked hard. Some days, poetry practice lasted until 1 a.m. And then team members would go home, work, and write more.
Black Chakra, of the adult team, owns dozens of comic books, stacks his plentiful DVD collection by genre, and often writes at least three poems a night. It wasn't always this way, the ceaseless writing, anyway. He got involved with poetry at Woodlawn High School with the poetry club, R.A.P (Real Authentic Poets), where he learned about local poets such as Olu Butterfly, The 5th L, Lovethepoet, Archie The Messenger, and others. Baltimore poets inspired his poetry career of writing, performing, teaching, and delivering his hilarious impersonations of Baltimore poets' performance styles. (He can impersonate his coach, Hill, by the way.) The Baltimore poets that he grew to love in his high school poetry group, R.A.P. later fueled his return to R.A.P.—this time as the team's coach.
During training, a normal weekday for Chakra goes like this: Black Chakra wakes up around 11 a.m. to take the bus from Edmondson Village to Coppin State University. From the afternoon into the evening, he teaches a group of students at the Maya-Baraka Writer's Institute, a social justice writing program organized by Dew More Baltimore. At 5 p.m., the young people stack their journals, say their goodbyes, and sign-out. Minutes later, members from the youth poetry slam team pile in for practice, which lasts long into the night.
Some days, Black Chakra starts by leading the team into practicing memorized poems. "Memorization is key," explains Black Chakra. "Memorization is the part when you stop seeing the words and you just feel them."
His signature poem is 'Black Superman': "My self-hate is stronger than a speeding locomotive/ I've seen souls leap from project buildings in a single drop/ Because who fears suicide when your home is a lot like hell...Gonna have to be some type of Black Superman/Someone to reshape the Statue of Liberty into Coretta Scott..."
Poetry practice and teaching consumed most of Grim Jackson's summer time too. For the past few years, Grim has been competing in local, regional and national poetry slam competitions. This year, he won spots on both the youth and adult poetry slam teams. He practiced with both teams, nearly every day at different times, while also teaching poetry at the Maya-Baraka Writer's Institute alongside Black Chakra and Slangston Hughes.
"I learned that spoken word is all I have. It's my identity," Grim says. "If I put my pen down today, who exactly would I be?"
IV. "Your mother was a traveler—before diaper bags and neatly folded onesies punctured her weekend getaways, she held castles in her eyes." - Chris August, 'Your Mother's Favorite Country'
All in all, the youth and adult teams each went through three-levels of competition—preliminaries, semi-finals and finals—competing with over 30 teams. It was their style, not their subject matter, that set them apart. Baltimore didn't just memorize poems about international issues such as police brutality and black resistance — they metamorphosed them into poetic calls for rebellion and truth-telling.
A few weeks after their national win, Slangston Hughes reflected on both teams' victories. He says many of their competitors approached heavy social topics gently "with honey," but Baltimore's teams were different, he said.
"But we are like 'fuck honey' and 'fuck your white privilege' and that's not a metaphor," Hughes says. "Our stanzas are not gentrified. It's black…on purpose."
V. "You came from Maryland rain, nights of shag-carpet loving and days…just two dollars short of the rent."- Gayle Danley, 'The Talk'
"Yo, do y'all know who we going against in semifinals?" Grim says, entering the Baltimore youth team room at George Washington University on that July day, after two preliminary slams at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
"No," the team says, "Who?"
"D.C, New York, Philadelphia..."
The team breaks out in an uproar, then organizes with their fellow competitors from other cities. They holds a group meeting in their room to discuss how and why they are going to protest this final round. They were upset because a month prior, the Baltimore youth team competed and won against the same poetry teams at a poetry slam regional in Philadelphia and the poets want to compete against people from other parts of the country with different identities, backgrounds, and stories.
Youth poet competitors had fought against this happening in the past—a petition was drafted and signed in 2010 but the issue came up again this year. Also at issue was what the students said was a lack of disability access, on-site counseling, and the need for trigger warnings during the competition.
After four preliminaries and one semifinal at the Washington, D.C. competition, Baltimore's youth team prepares for the final stage. As the audience arrives to watch Chicago, Atlanta, Hampton Roads, and Baltimore compete the room's seven chandeliers paint a golden light over the Concert Hall, the largest performing arts center in the John F. Kennedy Center. Inside ruby carpet runs underneath a collection of over two-thousand onstage boxes, chorister seats, and parterre seats.
The energy is high when host and Tony Award winner, Daveed Diggs of "Hamilton," welcomes them to Washington, D.C, to kick off the lively night — but instead the poets stop it.
"Before we start this poem, and before we start this round, it would be hypocritical of me, and my morals, and what my team stands for, and what my city stands for, if I did not talk about how we have been wronged," says a D.C. poet, Bobbi Johnson. Then Johnson and two other performers line up on the stage as if they are about to begin their poem. Instead they explain that the performance was not going to go forward until some grievances were aired. Some of the poets wore Brave New Voices' Langston Hughes-themed shirts that read "I too am America" and crossed out Hughes' quote.
"[Hughes] talked about struggle and the struggle of the black person, and then you try to cancel out all the black teams?" explained "Blue" Stoute of the youth team later on.
During the protest, the Baltimore youth team sits in the audience in solidarity. The Baltimore team didn't participate in the protest because although all three groups were working together on it (Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore), the teams couldn't all come to a consensus that the protest was the right thing to do, which left it up to D.C. to formally protest. At the same time as the youth finals, #AFROMATION, an affirmation of black life in the face of black death is happening in Baltimore, with protesters entering Artscape and then marching onto I-83, resulting in 65 arrests. During the youth team's four-person group poem, 'Firing Squad' "When the martyrs fire back/ We will waterboard you with dead presidents," it begins), Verdell thinks about her friends that were arrested, she says. Another youth poet, Deniero Bell, says later on that he "thought about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling" during the performance.
VI. "What would Jesus do in the absence of God?"- E The Poet Emcee, 'Child of God'
Around 6 p.m., when Baltimore team member Lea-Corner arrived at the Reagan Trade Center Atrium in D.C. for semifinals, she was angry about the semi-final line-up, had lost her voice from the slams earlier that day yet remained focused on bringing her all to the stage. Before Baltimore's second round, four-person group poem, 'Sweet Jesus,' a somber reflective poem about their experiences with religion, Lea-Corner looks toward Verdell, known as "the heart of the team," and tries to cast out her anger so she can concentrate on delivering the poem.
After anger, Lea-Corner said, is hurt and sadness, which is the emotion 'Sweet Jesus' needed.
The poem's synchronized group lines, booming and dynamic, break into the heart of the audience while Lea-Corner begins singing Whitney Houston's 'Jesus Loves Me' offstage, backdropping the poem in a sort of religious nostalgia. The poem scores a 29.1 out of 30 and later, Baltimore wins the semifinals by .4 points.
VII. "Funk's cousin, the Blues, came before to prophesize that there ain't but one way to get free: to free your mind—and your ass will follow." - Twain Dooley, 'Dearly Beloved'
Back in Georgia, the adult poetry slam team has made the semifinals. It is the last round at Decatur High School's auditorium and tensions are running high. Baltimore is competing against Decatur, Seattle, St. Louis, and Buffalo, NY, and is down by two points. There is only one poem left in Baltimore's chamber: Grim's 'No More Heroes,' in which he channels a police officer that is rationalizing his murders of black people. As Grim makes his way to the stage, his mother texts Slangston Hughes and asks if they made it to finals. Slangston Hughes does not respond.
For the next three minutes, Grim takes the stage, bellowing and becoming his character: "Do you know how hard it is to go home to your child/ with a smile on your face you took from someone else?/ Do you know how hard it is/ to white wash genocide out of a uniform?/ He was a soldier just like me/ He had a family just like me/ He was protecting his home just like me/ It was either my life or his."
The crowd responds with a mix of boisterous applause and meditative silence.
Grim's poem scores a 29.4 out of 30.
Hughes finally texts Grim's mother back with two words: "FINAL STAGE."
VIII. "Nobody knows this is your honor and life is your battlefield everyday you breathe." - Jaki Terry, 'Leo Sun, Scorpio Moon, Cancer Rising'
Bell, from the youth team, is uncertain and wildly nervous when Daveed Diggs calls all the competing youth poetry slam teams back on the stage for the announcements. The team lockw hands and Bell holdw onto Verdell's. She is bursting with suspense as Diggs calls out the teams from fourth to first. When he announces that Baltimore was the winner, the realization sets in and it erupts through the entire team.
"I cried because I never won anything before," Verdell says. "I didn't want to let Baltimore down because it has been such a great home for me."
The youth poetry slam team, robust with emotion, steps forward to the front of the stage falling over, crying, and celebrating while the crowd chants: "Bmore! Bmore! Bmore! Bmore!"
IX. "Two ears and one mouth means we can all see and do twice as much listening and maybe long-term peace is worth the temporary grief of giving in." - Taalam Acey, 'I am every man in here'
On a Sunday, in August, the adult poetry slam team arrives at the Georgia World Congress Center for its finals against Austin, Boston, and San Diego. This looming building, the first state-owned convention center in the United States, which opened in 1976, takes up at least two city blocks. When the Baltimore poets walk into the Sidney Marcus Auditorium for a sound check, they are dazed, looking at over 1,700 seats, bright lights, and five microphones spread out on stage, waiting for their voices.
After the opening ceremony, Morrison and Black Chakra walk on stage to perform the first poem of the night. The electric two-person group poem criticizes the white literary canon and proposes that the stereotypical caricature of "angry black poems" are just as beautiful as poems observing serenity, nature, life, and love. Synchronized in emotion, body, and voice, their first words are: "Fuck Robert Frost!"
When the entire team later makes its way to the final stage, the poets bring the Baltimore Uprising with them in the form of a poem called 'Earthquake'—that will ultimately win them first place among the 74 cities competing. It takes the poets a few seconds to find their place in front of the microphones. Some scuffling and static run through the auditorium. Then silence falls and they are in position, a semi-staggered line across the stage. Taking a deep breath, they summon Baltimore's rebellion: "And now the death of Freddie has turned our Baltimorean skies ash Gray/ Did you think our tears would not turn tectonic?/ How long did you think it would take/ for these waves of violence to turn seismic?"
As the poem concludes there is a heavy silence, and then mounting, seismic applause.
The competition's ornate trophy—a heavy sculpture of books pierced with a sword—is all but in their hands. Lady Brion meanwhile pumps scores into her iPhone calculator. She meets with Black Chakra in the foyer and gives him the totals.
Then she says, "We just took the nation."