Ladies and gentleman, the Bay's youth spoken word team (and where you can see them spit)

Salesian High School's Nyabingha McDowell takes the mic en route to becoming the Bay's youth spoken word champ.

Hey you, over-20 person. Do you ever wonder what what on the minds of today's teens? The answers are heavy, and they soar from the mouths of spoken word poets -- especially those of the recently-announced team that will be representing the Bay Area at this year's Brave New Voices international slam on July 21. Care to meet them?


Bay Area grand slam champion: Nyabingha McDowell, Richmond, Salesian High School, age 15

Obasi Davis Oakland, Berkeley High School, 16

Colleen Hamilton-Lecky Berkeley, Berkeley High School, 15

Allison Kephart Pacifica, Oceana High School, 17

Marje Kilpatrick Richmond, Holy Names High School, 15

Queen Nefertiti Shabazz Berkeley, Lick-Wilmerding High School, 17


Take note of the names above. These young people deserve our support. Consider them your Baybies. 

This year, the BNV International Youth Poetry Slam Festival will bring more than 500 poets and their mentors from around the globe for five days of open mics, preliminary poetry slams, and writing workshops beginning July 19. 

For the kids, the competition is an opportunity to spit the most difficult, strange, or meaningful aspects of their lives into a mic. For the listeners, the slam is just that — a shock to the senses in a society that rarely lets its kids go unedited. 

In preparation for the festival, teams of four to six poets aged 13 to 18, have been selected by way of city and region-wide poetry slams throughout the year. Locally, the SF nonprofit Youth Speaks organizes and coordinates BNV representatives. Youth Speaks is also the progenitor of the festival, which has now spread to include participants from Guam, South Africa, Taiwan, and New Zealand among other countries. 

After rehearsing, rewriting, and reinventing their poetry for months, the poets step into the final spotlight for three rounds of onstage recitation, both in tandem and solo.  Meanwhile, the kids offstage get to meet and spit words with poetic peers that hail from places like New York, Chicago, South Africa and Taiwan. 

James Kass, founder and executive director of Youth Speaks, says it is important that participants come from varied backgrounds. 

“The kids get to know each other and hear from each other, and see their similarities and differences,” he says. “They really represent the changing demographics in the country. They really represent the future of the country.”

15-year old  Nyabingha McDowell at the Bay Area grand slam finals. Photo by Ashleigh Reddy

He adds that it is just as important to bring in a diverse audience. 

 “A lot of adults, their main interaction with teenagers — if they don’t have kids — is through the mass media. We want to dispel those myths and stereotypes that are created. Adults need to hear directly from teenagers what they’re talking about and who they are.”

Now a decade and a half old, BNV began in San Francisco in 1998 following an inaugural Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam the previous year. 

“I look back to the very first [BNV] we did when there were only four teams and we had hardly any crowd,” Kass says. “But the kids that came from these four different cities immediately started connecting and started feeling that they were part of a larger movement.”

The BNV Festival takes place in a different US city each year, but this year's competition brings the beatniks back home to the Bay. Says Kass: “If you think you don’t like poetry, if you think you don’t know what’s going on in the youth world, come check it out because it’s a whole different experience. It’s an incredible place to be.”

Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam finals

July 21, 7pm, $20

Fox Theatre 

1807 Telegraph, Oakl.