On Sunday, March 27, Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse hosted the annual Baltimore Citywide Youth Poetry Team Grand Slam along with Dew More Baltimore, an organization that strives to increase community engagement in the Baltimore area through youth programming, art and community organizing. The organization currently has programs in 46 schools in the Baltimore area.
In the first round, 12 poets performed. In the second round, eight poets performed. After that, the top six poets received the opportunity to represent Baltimore in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C. in July.
These young poets were judged by five esteemed judges: Linda Joy Burke, Bashi Rose, Alain Ginsberg, Anthony Moll and Olufunmike Woods. Burke received the 2002 Distinguished Black Marylander Award for Art from Towson University’s Office of Diversity, was a 2004 Coca Cola Company/NFAA Distinguished Teacher in the Arts nominee and received the 2004 Poetry for the People Baltimore Legacy Award. Since 2007, Rose has facilitated Direct Responses Alleviate Misdirected Aggression (D.R.A.M.A.), a prison theatre program, at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, Md. He received an Open Society Institute fellowship to expand D.R.A.M.A in 2012. In addition, Rose works with Dancing Many Drums (DMD), a cultural art youth program that explores the African Diaspora.
The community atmosphere in Red Emma’s was evident. The room was packed with clusters of people mingling and catching up.
One audience member at the event, Benjamin Jancewicz, the founder of a design agency in Baltimore called Zerflin.com, commented on the nature of the Baltimore arts and poetry scene.
“Everybody knows each other. We were all hanging out last night because there was another event,” Jancewicz said. “There is great intersectionality between the poetry and protest movements. A lot of young people have individual thoughts that they express through poetry, and when different people in the community hear that, they connect the young poets with others in the poetry world. This Baltimore poetry community is much less cutthroat. It’s more about people helping each other.”
Due to this vibrant community, the audience was lively in their involvement and responses to performers. Before poets began performing, the audience would yell “go in, poet,” or “don’t be nice,” and someone would respond with a resounding “be nasty.”
Victor Rodgers of Dew More Baltimore, aka Slangston Hughes, was the MC for the night and urged people to respond to a line that moved their soul the way chocolate does with a satisfied “mmm.” He also advised the judges to judge the poets based on whether they could “meditate in the air”.
Rodgers also commented on the specificity of Baltimore, noting that while Baltimore happens to be in Maryland, the two are on different planets entirely. This comment seemed to inform the tone of the poems spoken that night as poets touched on themes of racial injustice, religion, Baltimore’s protest movements, love and parents.
The winners of the Grand Slam were Mohamed Tall (the Grand Slam Champion), Mecca Verdell, Blue Bird, Grim Jackson, Deniero Bell and Krae L.C.
During Tall’s performances, people in the audience rapped right along with him, further deepening the sense of community and support for one another. Some of the lines that stood out from his first poem were: “the future of the city ain’t cherry blossom pretty,” and “Bill’s bills built prisons.”
Tall, a member of the Baltimore Citywide Youth Poetry Team, gave a powerful performance that received a great deal of support from the crowd. For his second poem, Tall put his hands up and repeated, “I got a target on my body, somebody, please protect me.” This gesture received a standing ovation each time he did it.
It seemed as though Tall was able to leverage either a personal connection or a sense of empathy and anger in each audience member. With his poems, Tall invoked the sentiments of the protests in Baltimore and the injustice they are fighting against.
Mecca Verdell, another winner of the night, also sparked rousing responses from the audience with her words. Some of her most powerful lines included: “He burns the silver spoons he wasn’t born with” and
“I want to be an architect, building poems with stones from hitting rock bottom.”
Sadia Bashir wrote a poem to a Princeton student who made a comment about African Americans contributing nothing to society, with lines like “Obama as the leader of the free world isn’t affirmative action, it’s bringing the world back to its satisfaction.”
Hannah Sawyerr, the 2016 Baltimore Youth Poet Laureate and an alum of the Baltimore Citywide Youth Poetry Team, was the featured guest performer. The first poem she performed was about being a first generation American while maintaining her heritage. Another poem talked about revenge on her abuser.