Youth Speaks Seattle finalists serve up identity, politics and anti-racism

Nikkita Oliver hosts Youth Speaks Seattle 2017 Grand Slam at Town Hall Friday night. (Photo by Meiling Du)

“We rise. We rise. We rise.”

My heart beat started racing when I heard these powerful words echoing at Town Hall Seattle, as I was sitting among the audience of the 2017 Youth Speaks Seattle Grand Slam Friday night. It opened with Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” performed by the 10 slam finalists and the host, Nikkita Oliver, a Seattle mayoral candidate, anti-racist organizer and longtime slam poet.

“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave. I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.”

Oliver asked everyone to join in and we chanted, “We rise. We rise. We rise.”

Since 2003, Youth Speaks Seattle has held an annual poetry slam to showcase the original work of Seattle’s next generation of poetic change makers. A panel of judges at the slam score performances and determine the top five poets to represent Seattle at Brave New Voices (BNV), the International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. This July, the finalists will head  to San Francisco, Calif. for BNV 2017.

The first poem receiving a standing ovation was by poet Carlynn Newhouse.

“Just because you don’t acknowledge your privilege doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

Carlynn Newhouse, champ of this year’s Grand Slam. (Photo by Meiling Du)

Her poem criticizes the Internet trolls that deny the existence of racism. She expressed the determination to fight against it in spite of frustration and anger:

“Dear Internet trolls, I’ve seen your kind of ugly before. Instead of white hoods, you hide behind computer screens. Maybe if you shut up and listen, you’ll learn something. And before you comment on this poem, I’m not ever gonna stop spinning. Don’t come for me unless I send for you,” she ended the poem powerfully. Right as the last word was finished, many of the audience members — me included — jumped up from our seats to cheer. I had never seen such energy and enthusiasm at any gathering before.

By the end of the night, Newhouse’s performances won her the champion title for Seattle’s Youth Speaks slam.

Competing poets Azura Tyabji, Ana Walker, Ezra Conklin, and Mercury Sunderland also made quite an impression on their audience and judges, rising to the list of top six finalists.

Tyabji’s anthem fighting back against white supremacy inspired many in the audience to raise their fists and shout in agreement:

“Learn that fascism did not arrive with a name tag. It arrives as your friend. It arrives as Richard Spencer, well-manicured and well-behaved, speaking poison into cameras, spinning it unacceptable. We cannot allow this by any means necessary.”

In one poem, Ana Walker offered us some visceral imagery of the violence that people have been suffering worldwide as a result of American policy:

“I’m sorry you didn’t smell the smoke but the smoke has been drifting over from all the countries this government has bombed.”

Sunderland’s poem focused on youth identity, choice and self-determination:

“Why do you respect their ideas of what is like to be us, but not our own ideas of what is like to be us?”

Conklin also touched on these themes in their coming-of-age poem:

“How to turn a doorknob? Instructions: First, you must be sure your fingertips are strong enough and well-practiced. Second, you must be sure who you are before and how you may become who you need to be. Three, you must be sure why you are turning the doorknob and what you are leaving behind.”

Top six finalists, from left to right: Ezra Conklin, Carlynn Newhouse, Ana Walker, Azura Tyabji, Deqa Mumin, and Mercury Sunderland. (Photo by Meiling Du)

Overall, the finalists challenged stereotypes, redefining what it means to be themselves, be it transgender, gay, autistic and more.

After the featured musical performance by Otieno Terry, the six finalists were announced.

But the words didn’t stop after the show was over. As people were leaving Town Hall,  they could be heard chanting “Youth speaks is truth speaks.”

In this post-election time, when hopelessness and devastation seem so prevalent and normal, Youth Speaks Seattle 2017 Grand Slam reflects hope for the future.

Or as Maya Angelou captured it best: “We rise. We rise. We rise.”

This story has been updated since its original publication to clarify someone’s identity.