Eight youth from around the Bay Area competed for a chance to win a $500 educational award. Poets were judged on their ability to creatively write and invoke the theme of free speech within the constitutional context. Each poet brought their own unique style that made them stand out and speak to the theme in a heartfelt way.
Oakland Poet laureate finalist and Youth Speaks 2019 Slam team winner Zouhair Mussa began the evening with a performance to set the stage.
2019 also marks the twentieth year of JDC’s School-To-College Program and poets from The Academy – San Francisco @ McAteer High School were also invited to participate in the slam, to commemorate the program’s anniversary. High school senior Tyler Moore represented the Academy and spoke to the importance of exercising free speech regardless of the risk of being silenced. Hanif Brandy, singer and artist of YR Media opened his piece with lines from the US national anthem, followed by the sentiment that freedom is “a figment of our imagination,” expressing the dissonance felt around the concept of free speech in America.
Ne’Jahra Imani Soriano and Jessica Carter, youth from the Bay Area Debate Urban League (BAUDL), performed powerful poems. Soriano’s piece revolved around a refrain of “I can’t breathe,” to emphasize the numerous unjust killings of black and brown youth and how speaking up for them and exercising speech only seems to exacerbate the issue. Similarly, Carter’s poem referenced people like Colin Kaepernick who experience backlash while exercising their right to free speech. Victor Hill Comier from YR Media also reiterated this notion when stated, “It’s like walking on the edge, when I’m on the line.”
Other poets like Narobi Williese Barnes, also from the BAUDL and Anatesia King, from YR Media, took different approaches to their pieces and guided the audience to consider free speech in a new way. Barnes spoke about free speech within a heavenly realm and how it’s important not to be controlled by human, governmental forces.
King, on the other hand, began her piece with Beyonce’s song Freedom and sang parts of its chorus, “Freedom, Freedom where are you.” She used these lines as a hook throughout her piece to keep the audience engaged and pondered where freedom may be found stating: “Well, maybe that day is today and maybe, it’s not really too late”. King’s powerful performance, combining song and spoken word, led to her winning the slam. Congratulations, Anatesia!
JDC’s Jay Lee, who attended the slam, found that “the Poetry Slam was a powerful and moving experience” as “listening to young people speak their truth without fear or self-censorship was incredible and deeply inspiring.”
Special thanks to BASF board member Steven Hirsch, Keker, Van Nest & Peters, who helped prepare poets for the slam. On multiple occasions, Hirsch met with the poets and talked to them about the history of free speech, coaching them on how to make their pieces come alive.