The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore once said of youth, “Age considers; youth ventures.” No wiser words could be used to describe the scene at The Point CDC on a Thursday in March as Urban Word NYC held prelims for the 19th Annual Poetry Slam. The teens ventured into topics that were fierce, unabashed and daring. Nothing, it seemed, was held off-limits. The 16 lyricists, ages 14 to 17, touched upon sanity, sexuality, spirituality, and especially rhymes about race.
“My skin is the color of my eyes and if your eyes match the color of your skin, you will never be within / Their blue eyes don’t match the color of their skin, but it matches their privileged win,” slammed poet Leslie Lopez.
The teenaged wordsmiths from this evening’s preliminary round were looking to gain traction and become one of six competitors who would move onto the semi-finals of the slam next month. The finals will be held at Harlem’s famous The Apollo Theater on April 22. From there, four will be selected to represent New York City in a national competition called “Brave New Voices.” Bronx native Crystal Valentine made it on the national team in 2014; she just graduated from New York University and was featured in Glamour Magazine’s 10 Top Ten College Women of 2016.
Accolades aside, many of the contestants say they find rewards in slam poetry, whether they move on to the next round or not.
“Even if I don’t win or make it to the next few rounds I will be happy that someone is able to hear my work,” said Destiny Cacho, 17. She has been taking classes at Urban Word NYC for the last few months. She and other teens at the competition said the process and the performance are cathartic.
“For me it’s like I’m an artist and I do everything, but I can’t cope with my life and my reality without expressing myself in any other way,” said Lopez, 17 and a student at the NYC Charter School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction on Brook Avenue. “You can show emotion and you can show character through narratives and just words.”
In addition to the slam competitions, Urban Word offers educational classes to youth and educators of the English language. The workshops and weekly open mic nights are meant to enhance writing and rhyming skills, as well as help teens “find their voice.”
Gabriel Ramirez, a former slam contestant and current Urban Word NYC instructor, hosted the event. Ramirez teaches after-school classes and mentors students on the finer points of slam.
“I don’t ever think of slam as a competition as much as it is a competition of the self,” said Ramirez. “Slam is a great tool and vehicle for building of a community, so as long as people aren’t slamming against each other but slamming with each other. Whether it’s writing or performance or just being on stage in the first place, that is what slam should be.”
Still, at the end of the two-hour event, only six of the 16 poets could move on. Those were Destiny Cacho, Alondra Uribe, Jordon Comrie, Odelia Fried, Duly Rosenberg and Joey Yudelson. They will meet each other and slammers from the other boroughs in the semi-finals April 5 at Harlem Stage on Convent Avenue.