Wednesday Feb 10th, 2016
I arrive in Miami for my first YoungArts week jet-lagged after an all night flight from California. Still in clothes I put on early the day before, saliva caked in the corners of my mouth, hair disheveled, sweaty under three layers of outerwear: I am an actual hot mess. This is my life. As a traveling writer and long time spoken word artist, this is my usual. Late nights, early mornings, long flights, short poems and gig after gig. This time out, I’m here as a master teaching artist in YoungArts’ inaugural program in spoken word.
Though both spoken word and I are new to YoungArts, my decade and a half of work with SF’s Youth Speaks Inc. has led me to facilitate writing workshops for a growing cadre of young writers all over the world. I have seen a few thousand youth grab microphones and pens and speak their truth to power with an unrelenting abandon. This movement has captured the attention of HBO’s Def Poetry, HBO’s Brave New Voices and TV One’s Verses and Flow. I’ve seen students and mentees grow by leaps and bounds in their craft. I’ve been floored at The Apollo and also at our local coffee shop open mics.
All that to say: I know my field. I know good writing when I hear it aloud. YoungArts was packed, to the hilt, with some of the best writers I’ve ever met. There were four fellows in the spoken word track: Simbaa (Miami, FL), Rhiannon (Los Angeles, CA), Nesha (DMV Area) and Antwon (Chicago, IL). They were joined by 16 or so other students inclusive of creative nonfiction writers, traditional poets and journalists. With the illustrious writing faculty (INCLUDING ONE OF MY ALL TIME HEROES JOHN MURILLO—forgive me while I geek out), we engaged a group of twenty or so young folks in total. This group wrote unflinchingly through memories of genocide, cancer, angst, and issues of body image. They wrote with zeal and wisdom usually reserved for folks much their senior. To wit, they performed these pieces as the professional, compelling masters of craft. They were fiery, hilarious, spellbinding—YoungArts writers were anything but the usual. I cannot explain the pride I felt as Nesha, Antwon, Simbaa and Rhiannon shut down the performance space.
I must say that they were in good company all week. As a newcomer to the YoungArts family, I’d never before witnessed the majesty of a student showcase. I sat next to MacArthur Fellow Michelle Dorrance at the Cinematic Arts and Dance showcase, both of us floored by the skill, talent and release of the young folks on the floor and screen. We saw LA-based Alaman Diadhou silence the entire room with his tap performance, scored only by his internal rhythm. We saw documentarians draw cold, large tears and short film that had a room full of onlookers busted into stitches. I still can’t shake the image of a young dancer moving in sheer white pants, making visible (maybe even tangible) my inner turmoil.
The next night, design students’ efforts in intelligent fashion rivaled international couture. The visual artists created portraits that will remain forever etched into my conscious. Students in the Jazz program had what old heads such as myself might call serious chops—my favorites were a young, driven percussionist from Louisiana and an incredibly well dressed horn player from New York City.
Over the course of the week I felt less and less like the master artist YoungArts hired me to be. As the days moved on, I was more a tutee of the young folks in the program. I learned to surrender to their cadences and to bear witness to their unparalleled commitment to craft.
I left Miami less a mess and with these undeniable facts tucked under my coat: Spoken Word belongs with the celebrated arts and artists of YoungArts; YoungArts is the exclusive home for the nation’s best talent; and I truly hope to return as soon as writerly possible. Can’t wait.