”Friday nights in high school were spent with two fingers on Record and Play, waiting for 11:30. A hip hop mogul was producing a poetry showcase on cable TV, featuring a bunch of spoken word artists yelling at a captive Manhattan audience. I didn’t know then that the expensive theater was dressed to wear as the hole-in-the-wall black box art spaces from which these artists were recruited (and to which they’d return) after being filmed and paid properly for their services. At 17, in a pre-YouTube-still-DialUp-era, all I knew was when the Culture Train pulled into suburban Los Angeles station, it was mandatory to lie on the tracks and commit as much as I could to tape, and to memory.
The show had its own website and message board where likeminded writers would upload their poems and get occasionally productive feedback from their online peers. This felt incredible given the very small niche of a cultural pocket we were occupying amidst the limitless Interwebz.
These were my first writing workshops. My first literature class was a Saturday morning show called Reading Rainbow and spoken word was something introduced to me through cable television, not a Youth Speaks school visit.
Yet years later, at 19, I began to develop whatever artistic chops I have today within the trenches of Youth Speaks school visits in some of the toughest schools in the Bay Area. Be it McClymonds High in West Oakland or Skyline in the East, I spent most of my college years performing in gymnasiums and cafeterias while facilitating workshops in classrooms short on paper, all while representing the amazing 16-year-old-and counting-organization we are gathered here tonight to celebrate.
Working for Youth Speaks feels like joining the Covert Ops of Arts Education: you’re in your late teens, parachuting into any and all situation, with the sole purpose of performing poetry to whoever and whatever is in front of you. I know the feeling of performing in front of 30,000 people at Golden Gate Park and having the power go out 2 ½ minutes into a 3 minute poem. I know what the Google offices look like because we’ve performed there. I’ve run on stage, late for a call time, ready to spit profanity-laced poems, and discovered a crowd of first graders staring at me wide-eyed from the seats. Even non-violent offenders have stopped me on the street to tell me, “I saw your anti-marijuana commercial while in prison on drug charges.” I couldn’t tell you what the state of Maine looks like if it weren’t for a gig at Colby College. Same for Athens, Georgia and glorious West Chester, Pennsylvania. Cancer survivors, occasional celebrities, Veterans, Congressional Representatives, economic hit men, incarcerated juveniles, community activists: I have met the widest array of people over the years through Youth Speaks, let alone, some of my closest friends.
This August I was asked by James Kass to be the project leader for a new collaboration between Youth Speaks and the nation’s oldest nonprofit investigative reporting organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting. We have begun a collaborative project to create a new online multimedia series combining the creative force of spoken word poetry with the ethics and hard-nosed research of investigative journalism. Through documentary shorts, oral/aural narratives, and compelling live performance, this collaboration will spotlight the untold stories impacting the lives of young people nationwide while breaking ground on the next wave of 21st century digital storytelling.
It’s not surprising we are working with the independent juggernaut that is CIR. Spoken Word is an anomaly to most mainstream media, who view poets as urbanized pulpits through which Levis sells jeans or Wendy’s, a square hamburger. We’re always edgy in that energy drink kinda way, somehow always finding a decrepit vacant lot to perform in front of, always desperate for the spotlight to illuminate not just us, but our art form. Major media pushes products and not the art form itself.
If, as Youth Speaks states, LIFE IS PRIMARY TEXT, then our poets are primary embedded sources to communities few can experience first hand. The poet is an investigator, who expresses their findings through their art. Why aren’t our stories considered the news? Just as poets are deployed into an array of settings, so do journalists need to continually reengage themselves into new communities of interest. This collaboration is a chance for reporters and journalists to immerse themselves back into the field, while providing poets a broader canvass with which to tell their story.
Though this is a first for either organization, it aligns with my experience of media and spoken word being intertwined. By utilizing either of our networks and pushing our work through online platforms, I believe we can not just generate, but sustain, new and creative forms of expression into the next generation of Youth Speaks.
I am tired of our art living and dying on the stage and only being shared with those lucky enough to get a ticket to the show. Creativity does not bloom inside a vacuum. We can only preach to the BNV-converted for so long until we become a self-imploding echo chamber of artistic expression. Our programming at Youth Speaks is beyond accessible, offering free workshops and events throughout the Bay Area, but our art can be pushed further and farther, with fewer obstacles, for a longer shelf life than a 3 and a half minute poem. This is the intersection where the Center for Investigative Reporting and Youth Speaks meet: to research, produce, and promote the most important and compelling narratives of our times to as vast and diverse an audience as possible.
There are kids in this country right now who are Google’ing SPOKEN WORD, digging for new voices and new forms of expression. It’s no surprise that fellow Youth Speaks poet George Watsky and I, long after we’d met in person, realized years earlier we had both shared our work with each other through our screen names on that very message board I mentioned earlier.
Just as we depend on new youth to fill the stage at our slams, so do we need to curate and develop those poets exiting the target age of our programming. We cannot assume our youth, let alone their audience, will come to us like trout swimming upstream. As we have done for years, and as we will do with this new collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting, it is up to us to engage new communities from the ground up.
I implore all of you here to remember how hard our youth work to express themselves – to be themselves – within this organization. I began this journey in a desert, alone in my parent’s living room with two fingers on the VCR, knowing nothing other than the feeling of being excited by these amazing artists and their words. In the past eight years I have discovered not just a community, but a beautiful, sometimes dysfunctional, always expanding family of artists, activists, educators, fathers, and mothers.
So tonight, the first night of my 28th year on this earth, I am telling myself as much as I am telling you, that I am investing my all into this collaboration to see what the future will bring, and how that story is going to be presented and told. And more importantly, to find out who’s listening and hitting record and play on the other side.
Youth Speaks Alumni José Vadi at our Friendraiser announcing a new collaborative project between Youth Speaks and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Look out for new developments in 2013.