At the at the 20th Annual Brave New Voices International Poetry Slam Festival in San Francisco earlier this month, there were three-minute poetry performances by 600 young poets from around the world that were all at once heart-breaking, angry, angst-ful, joyful, and hopeful. There was loud music, dancing, high fives and other expressions of love and support across the room before the bouts began. There were chants of “You fly,” “Art not ego,” “Don’t be nice, be nasty,” and “Go poet,” along with finger snaps, “mmmmm’s” of approval and lots more loud music before, during and after the bouts.
Poems were performed individually and as a team of three or four. Lines of poetry were fierce, funny and fearless such as, “This woke ain’t free. Is it OK to break free from the revolution?” from the Atlanta team; “This tongue, it sings the song of our ancestors,” from the Los Angeles team; and, “To Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. We are all here because the arts have provided an escape,” from the Stockton team.
“It’s was an amazing experience, hearing people who come from different backgrounds and places in the world, hearing how other people navigate their lives,” said Marcus Red Shirt, (Oglala Lakota from Allen, South Dakota), one of five exceptional young Native poets and three devoted coaches who traveled from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to San Francisco to represent First Peoples Fund’s Dances with Words team at Brave New Voices.
“I always look for similarities between my experience and the people on stage. I don’t want to be ignorant of other people’s experiences in this politically charged environment. We need to listen to each other,” said Marcus. They are a senior at Red Cloud Indian School who was at their fourth Brave New Voices festival with the Dances with Words team and will be attending Oglala Lakota College in the fall.
Other Dances with Words poets who made the Brave New Voices team and traveled from the Pine Ridge Reservation to San Francisco include: Senri Primak (Oglala Lakota, from No Flesh), Ohitika Locke (Hunkpapa Lakota, from Standing Rock), Rose Little Whiteman (Oglala Lakota, from Kyle), Cetan Ducheneaux (Cheyenne River Lakota, from Kyle), and alternate Hannah Reddest (Cheyenne River Lakota, from Crow Creek).
The week-long event featured workshops, open mics and spontaneous performances in addition to the competition schedule, and culminated in a 3,000-strong sold-out crowd at the San Francisco Opera House for the Final Slam. The Dances with Words team stayed on the campus of San Francisco State University along with the other teams during the week, traveling into Berkeley and Oakland for early rounds of competition.
The Dances with Words poets focused several of their poems on the water protectors at Standing Rock and Dakota Access Pipeline. Their poems include lines like, “I see people use my problems for their pleasure. I am from Standing Rock. I represent my people. My people’s problems are not a romantic tragedy,” from Ohitika Lock (Standing Rock Sioux), and “We are the hope our ancestors dreamed of,” from Marcus Red Shirt.
The bouts are scored by a panel of judges, and Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota), First Peoples Fund’s president and CEO, served as a judge during the Final Slam. The team from Baton Rouge, Louisiana won the competition, but the festival, a project of the San Francisco-based Youth Speaks, de-emphasizes the scores. The rules, read before each competition, state, “It’s about speaking truth to power, sharing our stories and supporting each other along the way. It’s about honesty.”
The Dances with Words team was the only Native, rural-based team at the festival, and their coaches said they saw a lot of growth among their team this year.
“Being a Native artist, a Native writer, there is often a pressure to tell the tragic side of things or a pressure to educate non-Natives constantly,” said Santianna Yellow Horse (Oglala Lakota, Diné and Hopi), a coach and former Dances with Words poet who traveled with the team to San Francisco. “One of the main things I brought with me was wanting the poets to stay true to their own narratives. Native youth are forced to grow up so fast. It’s important to balance the heavy poems with the happy ones.”
Santianna, who goes by Santi and is a student at Oglala Lakota College, was joined by three other coaches who have been working with the young poets since January to prepare for the festival, including Josh Del Colle, teacher at Red Cloud High School and a Tȟéča Wówapi Káǧa Okȟólakičhiye mentor, and Golnessa Asheghali, a language arts teacher at Rapid City High School.
Youth Speaks, the organizing body behind the festival, has partnered with First Peoples Fund for the past three years to support the Dances with Words program through funding and technical support. Youth Speaks’ funding for the program ends this year, and First Peoples Fund is looking for partners to match a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of Dances with Words.
If you would like to support this valuable program, please follow this link.
As Marc Bamuthi Joseph, one of the founders of Youth Speaks who is a poet, playwright and MacArthur genius grant recipient, said as he emceed the Final Slam, “Change does not happen quietly. Bring the noise.”
Cover image courtesy of Youth Speaks.