When the then-17 year old Erica McMath-Sheppard became one of our Best of the Bay Local Heroes last year, she hadn't just earned the distinction – she had taken it as her own. What else could we have done when we heard about her winning presence onstage at the Youth Speaks grand slam spoken word finals?
And from her firey performance sprang something greater – Erica, a foster child, was able to cast a light on a system that is royally messed-up but largely unseen, since the main people who have to deal with its fall-out are young, voiceless.
All this is to say that the Youth Speaks grand slam is taking place once again this Fri/30, and that you should be there if you really want to hear what's up with today's youth. Screw the evening news, turn off your MTV, get real.
“To me, it's the voice of 21st century America. Unadulterated, uncensored kids.” Youth Speaks executive director James Kass was a Jewish kid from New York who was a little discouraged with the lack of diversity in his MFA program at SF State. And “I was sick of boring poetry readings.”
So he started a slam himself, featuring people who are many things, but never boring: high school kids. The first month, the slam attracted 70 people. With the help of spoken word artist Justin Chin, traditional competition rules were subverted to make them more kid-friendly – judges' ratings of each contestant were done in private, rather than putting developing artists on blast in front of a crowd. It's its second month of existence, the slam sold out. Kass realized that a place for kids to nuture their poetry skills just didn't exist in San Francisco -- and (roughly)that is the Youth Speaks school program was born.
Now, the non-profit works with 30,000-40,000 Bay Area kids a year, by Kass' count. Yep. Many of those kids are attendees of the group's assembly programs, but narrow that down to the students who participate in the slams (including Queeriousity, YS' popular queer slam series), afterschool programs, one-on-one partnerships with adult working artists, and in-house youth publishing label, First Word Press, and that number is still a solid 3,000-4,000.
Who are these kids? Kass says they come from the suburbs, the city, all socioeconomic levels, races, and represent the gamut of teenage sexualities. “It really is representative of the demographics of the Bay Area.”
Poetry slams reward the innate literacy in all of us, our fervent desire to be heard and share thoughts. You don't need to be a Spellbound letter savant to spit a pentameter that'll make people shift in their seats, or leave that night beaming. But performing can inspire those who have found success onstage to hone their craft off of it. “As a first step into literacy, spoken word removes barriers,” says Kass, who also points out that most world cultures have strong oral poetry traditions.
Plus, stand-up poetry fits the dramatic arch of the life of an adolescent today, their ability to believe two completely different things – passionately – from one day to the next. “The kids can, and literally do, write a poem on the bus on the way to [a slam.]. It's super-fresh and they can get feedback on it right away. Sometimes that urgency translates to something a lot of people will relate to.”
Should you need more proof of the way kids take to spoken word, one need only look at the brief history of Brave New Voices, the national championship that Kass organized back in 1998, he says, “with one other teacher from Connecticut,” the only other place he found organized youth spoken word programs at the time.
It's thrived. Recently, Brave New Voices was the subject of an HBO-Russell Simmons reality series (Kass comments: “we struggled with HBO at first about how they wanted to define the kids,” but that the finished product turned out pretty good).
This year, Brave New Voices will feature 550 kid champions from 53 parts of the world – including the brave new voices that win this weekend's Bay Area slam. Those kids, incidentally, will be your home team. On July 20-23, the competition will be held in the Bay for the first time ever. Check them out this weekend at the YS grand slam to witness one step in their rise to glory – or just to hear what the young adults of the Bay Area have to say these days.
Youth Speaks 15th annual Grand Slam Finals
Fri/20 7 p.m., $6-50
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness, SF
After-party featuring guest DJ will.i.am
Fri/20 10 p.m.-1 a.m., free with grand slam ticket purchase
Brick and Mortar Music Hall
1710 Mission, SF