Every year, Youth Speaks gathers our communities together to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We cipher to make sense of the dream we are weaving together.  We talk story to draw from the depths of this river the truths we need to fortify ourselves on this ongoing journey.  We celebrate and sorrow together.  We comfort each other.  We rededicate ourselves to the upward climb.

This dream we are weaving together is more than slender promises.  It is more than fanciful imagery.  It is more than stentorian voices placed, picture perfect, before monuments.  It cannot be well-polished platitudes, the fine silver and good china that we bring out before polite company.  If it is, we are as good as dead already.

We need to talk about this dream we are weaving together—how it is frayed at the edges.  How it is ribbed with scarlet.  How it leaves stains on our fingers.  We must talk about this river—how it is flecked with blood.  How it keeps catching bodies.  How its mouth is full of the dead.

Brethren, sistren—it must be said.  NO GUNS.  It must be cried out in the streets that we are willing to turn our swords into ploughshares.  It must be hollered from the rooftops that we are down to fashion our nines into scythes.  It must be announced that we are willing to lay down our weapons first.  Even the OGs who keep watch over our blocks keep their guns on safety, praying that they never have to bust a shot.  

Brethren, sistren—this is not about the right to bear arms.  This is not about the 2nd amendment or the National Rifle Association.  This is not about waistbands, dresser drawers, glove compartments or the pieces that are tucked in them.  This is about our love affair with the rhetoric of bloodshed.  This is about how we have grown up waving our hands in the air in the mimicry of gunshot.  This is about how our speech and walk and tough talk are seasoned with the language of fallen bodies.  This is about dismantling a culture of violence.  This is about our survival.

We are not here to argue about the value of deterrents.  We are not here to squabble amongst ourselves about the wisdom of self-defense tactics.  We are not here to disqualify anyone.  We are here to admit guilt.  We are here to empty ourselves of mental clip and spiritual strap.  We are here to demilitarize our intellects.  We are here to wail.  The burden of the bodies on our backs smothers our potential wings.  We cannot bust a gat right now—we are carrying caskets.

This is for Sandy Hook and the South Side of Chicago.  This is for Syria and East Oakland.  This is for Sunnydale and Sudan.  This is for the body you carry in secret, the violence we hide from view.  This is for the mourning you do in private.  This is for you—the part you cannot name.  The part of you labeled madman.  The piece of you called insane; the section of your self that is a school, riddled with bullets.  

We are here together, victim and aggressor united in uneasy bodies.  We have been called criminal, madmen, insane, marked for death. And we have been called victim, mark, target, easy prey.  We have been called too brown, too woman, too other, too foreign, too much a physical reminder of a legacy of blood.  We know the grip of the handle and the whistle of the flying bullet.  We are both sides of the police tape.

There is someone, somewhere, tonight, that you have not made peace with.  There is a small space that is hidden from public view, where you must dismantle your pride.  There is an interaction that no one can name, but wherein you must divest yourself of your unfair advantage.  There is a vengeance you have sworn that you must lay down to rest.  

We will argue until the end of days about who is the worst, the most unfit, the oppressor.  But love is not the inheritance of such as these.  It is those who are willing, first, to lay down their weapons that will make the streetlamps bend and bow, make the empire crumble and weep. 

Denizen Kane

“The love in this room is real – it’s not fake, it’s not a charade. We’re not going out there to get scores…we’re out there to listen to each other. Because you have water inside of you. You have cool clean water inside of you that your brothers and sisters are thirsty for. And you’re willing to share it…So when we go out there, all I’m asking is before you speak, gather the water that your brothers and sisters are pouring out on your behalf. Hold it inside. Don’t wait simply for our moment to speak. Carry each other in there. So when it’s your turn, you have more than your own water to share. Because together we’re a river. And that’s what we’re here to represent.”

- Associate Arts Director Dennis Kim speaking to our 2013 Bringing the Noise for MLK participants just before a sold out show at Herbst Theater. 

and I won’t let the system turn us into one
there is a light inside
come find it
and the evil outside
don’t mind it
don’t touch it 
not even with your enemy’s fingers
'cause your OG's will tell you that blood stains still linger
and the hands of the righteous were made for more
than pulling triggers!”

Denizen Kane 

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Staff Spotlight: Denizen Kane

 “A little nonsense now and then / is cherished by the wisest men.”  

- Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka

I had a homeboy back in Chicago, Scott Bradley, who used to jump in the air manically, repeatedly, in solidarity with mid-ollie skaters all over the world.  

“Scott…why you jumping, joe?” (We called each other joe back then.)

Scott rested, hands on knees, and asked,  “If you add up every second I’m in the air, for my whole life, do you think it’ll make a whole day?”  I don’t know where Scott is now, but I hope he still wars against gravity’s pull.  I think if he hasn’t quit, he’ll have enough seconds with his feet off the ground to add up to a day in the air.  Isn’t that what we all want—a day in the air?  To flirt with flight.  

The journey towards self-realization always begins in nonsense.  It begins, in the often-tragic conditions in which we live, with the affirmation of invisible quantities—the insistence that things that never measure on standard scales are divine.  The sanctity of childhood, the genius of youth, the necessity of leadership roles for women, the self-determination of communities of color.  The poem that comes climbing out of your brain, its tendrils sticking to the brick walls behind you, the grey windows around you, the fire escapes of the Dearborn Homes and the beards of saints above the clouds.  Against all odds, we believe, that the unquantifiable thing inside—this life—is real and can change the world around us.

“…what it look like / how it sound.  Life is round / that’s what we found.”  

- Sekou Sundiata

I’m at the table where we have our staff meetings.  Emiliano Bourgeois-Chacon, Youth Speaks veteran, front-running candidate for greatest youth poet of all time (ask Hodari Davis), and future legal advocate, has brought his younger cousin to the office on some grown man alumnus stuff.  “I’m Nur,” his cousin says, and begins drawing cartoons with a pencil. “I’m Nur, his little cousin.”  Children like to repeat things.  “Did you meet him in college?”  Emiliano laughs, says he was in high school when we met, and Nur shows the comic he’s drawn to Brandon and Isa, who take a break from the multiverses on their laptops to smile and encourage him.  Isa points out where Nur has written her name into a bubble.  “I’m floating.  I’m winning at life right now,” she says.

In about an hour, kids will start filing into the office for the Queeriosity workshop.  There will be chatter, and banter, and wheeling of chairs, fall-down funny laughter, and poems.  There will be the ones who come weary after grappling with life, its many heads and limbs unfair in how they snipe and grasp.  There will be ones who lay their heads on the faux wooden table and close their eyes while water is poured around them—fragile oasis.  There will be combat, and arguments, and insistence on language and line breaks.  There will be the hush that comes when someone is telling the truth about something, for the very first time, and we are all here to watch these words be born.   

“I’ll play your favorite song—darling.”  

- Bob

Peace, fellow traveler.  This is for you.  It’s been a minute since we’ve chopped.  I don’t know where you are—how you pronounce your name today—but I know you.  You’re halfway across the earth, seeing Ghana from a glass-bottom plane.  You’re in the grip of fever-dream, your own mind prophesying greatness.  You’re in a vestibule to adulthood, wondering if this next job application, or school loan, or piece of inscrutable administrivia is really the wisest step to realizing the promise of that luminous wisp of spirit that rattles your chest, insisting on overgrowing your childhood.

It may not make sense—how we’re all connected in this work, how we are always catching each other, but we are.  This is for my boy Dave Kelly (aka Cap D), who went from underground Chicago super-emcee to general counsel of the Golden State Warriors.  I just got a call from homie—he told me how he’s bringing his family out and how things have changed since he was signed to Wild Pitch in the mid-90s.  For Emiliano Bourgeois-Chacon, who brought his cousin to the office today.  

For all the Youth Speaks folks past and present—Healey, who is planning an insurrection from Lake Merritt, and Senator Whitehead, who sends congratulations and well-wishes from New York.  For Chinaka, and Rafael, and Adriel, and Nico, and Dahlak, and Katri, and Biko, and Tongo, and José, and Jason and their comrades—the children of our first golden age—who travel the world and come back home and draw mustaches on the Mona Lisas along the way.  For Watsky, who is fast becoming a monomial underground rap fixture.  For Brandon and Erika.  For Nick and Isa and Kat.  For Mush.  You are brilliant in your genius, in your lashing out, in your insistence on the way the floating feather would land with the austerity of lead.

But love, there are children coming after us
whose mics we are not worthy to carry.  
Help me set a place at the table for them.
And the great cloud of witnesses say,