Baton Rouge youth dominate, claim World Championship
Baton Rouge youth poetry slam team, the Forward Arts All Stars, are now world poetry slam champions after having won the 2017 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in San Francisco.
The team of teens, ages 16-19, emerged victorious after two days of competition consisting of 60 youth teams from around the world. A poetry slam is a spoken word competition in which poets are scored by five randomly-selected judges on a scale of 0-10 based on the written and performative quality of their work. Baton Rouge edged out teams from Boston, Atlanta and Philadelphia at the BNV finals.
This victory comes on the one year anniversary of the death of former All Star slam team member, Kaiya Smith, who competed last year when the team ranked fifth at the 2016 BNV. Smith passed away one week after the 2016 festival. The 2017 team opened their final stage performance with a tribute to Smith, followed by witty and funny poems that showed range and creativity.
This is the 11th year Baton Rouge has sent a team to BNV, and its first final stage appearance. The winning team members are Imani Sundiata, Chazzi Hayes, Jazmyne Smith, Kalvin Morris, Olivia Williams and Imani McCullam. They were coached by Forward Arts program director, Desireé Dallagiacomo.
Forward Arts fosters personal and social transformation by providing arts instruction, literary education and youth development in southeastern Louisiana. This year’s 20th anniversary festival took place July 19-22 and hosted more than 600 teenage poets from around the world at events held across the Bay Area.
The Drum asked the Forward Arts All Stars about their experience:
“Brave New Voices was a fantastic experience. I got the opportunity to speak my mind and be supported every step of the way, not only when I was on stage but when I was in town halls and workshops also. It’s always great to be surrounded by artists and people who have similar interests, but at Brave New Voices the other poets are actually interested in your work. It’s not about the competition, it’s about sharing stories. The highlight of Brave New Voices was having other teams tell us how much our poems meant to them personally. Brave New Voices was a beautiful experience.”
Jazmyne Smith, 19
“Going to Brave New Voices was the most invaluable experience of my life so far. I had always been exposed to a number of things thanks to my parents, but BNV brought so many different cultures I had only seen on television screens together. We were all so different but we were also under the same sun, the one that burns over quirky teen artists. You don’t meet many people like that in Baton Rouge simply because being an artist isn’t really encouraged here or incentivized for youth. It meant a lot to me to meet people who were so brave and willing to share their stories on a world showcase. A distinctive moment was when someone asked where I was from. I told them I was from Baton Rouge, and they asked if that was a city in New Orleans. I felt a little shame, but in the end, winning and putting our small city on the map was the greatest reward. I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.”
Olivia Williams, 16
“Going to Brave New Voices is an experience that I will never forget! Meeting hundreds of beautiful and inspiring poets and people who respect the art of poetry is something that I have never experienced and I thank BNV for that. Being there with my team bettered me as a poet and as a person; alongside of bringing back a bunch of inside jokes and wild, but hilarious memories. The support and love that we had from everyone at home and from poets at BNV made me forget that it was even a competition and I truly respected that. I loved knowing that my truth made someone feel good about themselves and I also loved being moved by other poets’ truth. The best part about being at BNV was connecting closer with my teammates and connecting with other poets across the world who made me see the ultimate power behind words and how words can truly bring people together.”
Imani McCullam, 16
“BNV was so magical. It was the one place I could be myself and not have to worry about the backlash… I didn’t have to worry if I was being weird or anything because I have found that everyone is and poets just happen to be extra weird. There was so much love and support coming from competing team. I have found that BNV is the only competition where you support the people you are competing against. There are no words in which can explain the extraordinary time I have and no words to explain how grateful I am to Forward Arts for giving me this opportunity.”
Imani Sundiata, 18
“By attending Brave New Voices, I stepped into a world filled with love and support I did not know existed. Being around other youth who care so much about growing as poets and performers inspired me to grow as an artist. Engaging in dialogues with other poets and hearing how my team and I have inspired them is so humbling and makes me want to continue to improve my craft to be worthy of their respect and present them with my best art and best self. The community and family I’ve found due to Brave New Voices is something I will always cherish. The support and love I experienced at the festival is something I will always value and work hard to preserve.”
Kalvin Morris, 17
“Brave New Voices was like coming home for me. Meeting so many poets from all over that had so much in common with me was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. You could feel the love and acceptance in every room you entered as well as when you went on stage to perform. A great part of Brave New Voices was knowing that our voices were being heard by both our peers and the adults there. It felt like we were all coming together to listen, learn, and make change. At final stage it didn’t even feel like we were there to compete it just felt like a gigantic open mic where everyone could share their truths. The best part was when the last poem was said on final stage and all the poets went backstage and hugged each other and told each other which poems they really liked.”
Chazzi Hayes, 17