We at Eternal Graffiti are very proud to present the following post from Rachel R. Carroll about her two years attending Brave New Voices. BNV is the largest youth poetry festival in the world and has found a strong following after appearing on HBO.
This has been the first normal week I’ve had in a while. The two weeks before this one I spent moping around, missing some long distance friends who I only see once or twice a year, and getting about nine hours of sleep a night. It took me about six days to finish unpacking a carry-on size suitcase with less than a week’s worth of clothing in it, even though the initial packing job only took half an hour. In short, I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from 2015’s Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival.
For the first time since the festival’s beginning, BNV was held in the South this year, with Atlanta, Georgia’s Emory University playing host to hundreds of poets, coaches, and supporters. For almost a full week, poets between the ages of 13 and 19 came from all over the country (and the world, including teams from Ireland and Ghana) to participate in a series of workshops, discussions on controversial issues, and a poetry slam that spanned from 9 AM on Friday morning to 11 the following evening. With opportunities to meet poets my own age as well as older writers who I have idolized throughout the years – Theresa Davis, Alysia Harris, Rachel McKibbons – as well as chances to discuss issues such as economic warfare, police brutality, and the harmful repercussions of a gender binary, attending BNV really is a life changing event.
Both this year and last, I was lucky enough to have earned a spot on Charlotte, North Carolina’s team. I’ve spent two summers in a row working with my coaches-turned-friends, Terry Creech, Jessicah Kean, and Jay Ward. There is so much I love about all the hard work that goes into three month’s worth of practices, but my absolute favorite thing about Brave New Voices is the fact that it is completely uncensored. In a society that so strongly feels the need to monitor and oversee the content to which youth are subjected as well as what they have to say about it, having a space where hundreds of teenagers are speaking their minds about things that are impacting their lives and communities on a daily basis is invaluable.
That being said, there’s a word that gets thrown around a lot at BNV which has a tendency to worry me: “activism.” Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself an activist. I consider many of my BNV peers activists. I believe activism is important and powerful. My fear is that Youth Speaks – the organization in charge of BNV – has the tendency to water it down from time to time.
From a very young age, I have been a firm believer that writing, words, literature, and the like are forces for effecting change. BNV can be extremely validating in that everyone there seems to be of the same mind. However, from my point of view, it is also important to remember that writing does not exist in a vacuum. While I do not believe it is a stretch to say that art – particularly slam poetry – and activism can go hand in hand, is it taking it a step too far to say they are the same thing? A fellow poet once told me, “We can’t take ourselves too seriously. We share shit we wrote in front of strangers, and they give us numbers back.” If we can’t even take our craft seriously (and sometimes it’s important we don’t), then how can we equate it with activism?
This isn’t just about BNV anymore. This is about poetry slams as their own entity. One of my favorite quotes reads, “If it is inaccessible to the poor, than it is neither radical nor revolutionary.” While I am not implying that slam poetry is restricted to the wealthy, we as a community cannot ignore that more often than not, our events are kept in auditoriums, away from the average person on the street. Can we truly consider this activism? And if so, what’s the end game?
For instance: at the very beginning of the festival, James Kass – the founder and executive director of Youth Speaks – asks for a moment of silence for the children around the world who cannot share their voices the way that we can at BNV due to poverty, hunger, and other oppressive structures. When the moment passes, however, it is met with thunderous applause and cheering rather than a solemn, respectful transition from one topic to the next. For me, this is a dangerous blurring of the line between activism that fights to dismantle systematic oppression, and activism for the sake of looking as progressive as possible.
All week, I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that activism was being used as a buzzword, as an accessory. Of course, the mere premise of BNV – “youth sharing their truth” – can be considered activism in the sense that it is giving voices to a demographic who often doesn’t get one. But all too often, these voices end up preaching to the choir. BNV poets, in my experience, have a tendency to focus on a very particular set of topics, namely feminism and racism (anti-Blackness, more specifically). Many of these poems are delivered in heart-wrenching, beautiful ways, such as Asheville poet Emma Lenderman’s poem about sexual assault written in the style of a college tour guide, or Team Forth Worth’s piece about forgiveness for internalized racism. However, many others become formulaic, pounding home points of view that the entire audience typically shares. The pitfall of treating activism as if it is a badge to be earned is that it can sometimes result in hundreds of poets wanting simply to sound more radical than the others rather than focusing on nuanced aspects of their respective causes, finding solutions, and bringing them to as wide of an audience as possible.
Youth Speaks and Brave New Voices have taken an essential first step in using the power of spoken word poetry to create a generation of writers who are conscious of the inadequacies of the world around them, and determined to address them. However, even with their incredible focus on diversion and inclusivity, two Muslim girls from Detroit who featured on Final Stage showed that sometimes, things can still slip through the cracks. They performed their piece on Saturday, July 18th: Eid, one of the largest holidays on the Islamic calendar marking the end of Ramadan. These poets ended a poem about facing Islamophobia by posing the question (and I’m paraphrasing here), “How can an organization like Youth Speaks have us up here on stage defending our families instead of spending time with them? Would they ever organize an INTERNATIONAL POETRY FESTIVAL on Christmas? On Hanukkah?”
All in all, when it comes to lighting a spark for a new generation of activists, Brave New Voices has done an incredible job. I spent a week surrounded by passionate, bold, educated teenagers with a hunger for justice. But, as with most everything, there is still work to be done. No system is perfect, not even one which prides itself on battling “The System.”
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