[1 September 2011]
American youth are often dismissed as a Novocain generation. There’s no agency in their ethics or morality, they are hushed on “the issues”, and (seemingly) show little interest in the world around them. What a copout.
Adults are jaded. Jaded adults often look at youth as aloof because of their incessant need to be jaded adults. But then there are the performers of Brave New Voices, young spoken word artists whose words provide a riveting response to the accusation that today’s youth have nothing productive to say.
A recording of the Brave New Voices national poetry slam finals at Saban Theatre in Los Angeles, Brave New Voices showcases meticulous performances of four spoken word teams from around the United States: New York City, Denver, Albuquerque, and the California Bay Area. Hosted by rapper Common and Rosario Dawson, performers compete in four rounds and are judged by a celebrity panel including rapper Talib Kweli and spoken word artists Mayda del Valle and Beau Sia.
Although the judges were tough, the audience proved tougher. A nod to the tradition of Apollo amateur night, these young artists performed for the audience’s approval moreso than the judges, a raucous and at times brutal group of fellow young slam poets. No sandman or tree stump required. To borrow from the kids, “shit got real”.
Very real. Topics ranged from the nostalgia for childhood innocence to the evils of capitalism to sexual subjection of women, immigration, educational policy, and warfare on the environment. Each team brilliantly pulled from their respective cities and experiences, providing an exceptionally diverse breath of performances and perspectives. One of the poems from the Bay Area team, for example, paid tribute to Oscar Grant, a young black man shot in the back by police in Oakland in 2010, and spoke on the police brutality that has influenced much of the West Coast’s minority culture and expression.
“Foster Bears,” performed by the New York City team, spoke from the perspective of children in foster care who are never adopted, using the metaphor of unwanted toys in a toy store. I cried after the first 30 seconds. “Favorite Color,” the final performance from the New York team (okay, I have a favorite) is about a young girl whose mother refuses to love her because of her dark skin. The girl’s very real tears and struggle to perform because of its obvious impact on her made me break down and grab the entire box of Kleenex.
Although at times difficult to clearly hear their words during group performance pieces, these kids were anything but numb to the world. Conscious, angry, and urgent in their delivery and tone, I anxiously waited for each new performance. I boo’ed along with the crowd if the judges didn’t reward the performance’s brilliance like I thought they should, I cheered, and I applauded. I was left breathless. Repeatedly.
Americans often talk about postracialism in the United States. The talent seen in Brave New Voices is a solid testament to moving forward in that direction. Youth of multi-ethnic backgrounds and races talked and confronted a gamut of issues – both racial and social – without attempting to sweep them under the rug and ignore their significance in American society. Bravo.
In many ways, Brave New Voices acted like a secret window for outsiders (read: jaded adults) to peer into how youth vocalize their frustrations. Unlike written prose, spoken word blurs formality with poetic license, allowing for the performer to experimentally combine polarized ideas, language, and mediums to create ways to explore and interpret life in innovative ways. Perhaps it’s that freedom to innovate that is most attractive to young spoken word artists. In the mini-interviews with much of the talent, they described spoken word as an avenue to reflect upon topics important to them.
The DVD’s extras, “Sacrificial Poems” and “Reflections on the Finals” rounds out the recorded performances by walking the viewer through the creative process of each team and the Brave New Voices competition. “Sacrifical Poems”, performances by teams that did not make the finals, are no less brilliant. With performances by teams from Ft. Lauderdale, Stockton, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, the “Sacrificial Poems” extra is a treat.
The “Reflections on the Finals” extra gives more detailed commentary from the panel of judges about the finals’ performances and displays their awe at the talent and power of the stories each performer brings forth. The team coaches also weigh in on the talent, giving the viewer the background story to the development of many of the pieces performed.
Brave New Voices is a stirring and powerful testament to today’s youth and their capabilities. Although Team Denver challenged judges and their critics to give them a “7”, I can’t help but give them a “10”.