The idea for a London poetry slam!* originated when the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, asked his advisor on equality, Lee Jasper, to think of a way to celebrate respect among young people. A sleepless night in front of MTV introduced Lee Jasper to the energy and excitement of a poetry slam! and he contacted the Poetry Society for assistance. Now in its second year, Respect Slam! took place in May. Did it achieve its aim? Ceri Worman reports.
‘Give it up for the poets!’ yells Joelle Taylor, MC and performance poet herself. There are cheers from the audience: parents, teachers and friends of the 11-18 year olds who will perform tonight. They will not be disappointed.
A poetry slam! event like this is relevant to any venue up and down the country where young people gather and would reinvigorate the classroom, library, youth or arts centre.
I stand alone but I still got the strength of my team
to back me up in those moments when times are tough.
These lyrics are from an excellent trio called ‘The Emblem’ (Crofton School) and exemplify the spirit of the evening. Slam! is the competitive art of performance poetry where the audience is integral to the judging system. Although this is a competition, with members of the audience holding up score cards, the atmosphere is supportive, with ‘competitors’ cheering for each other.
Rap, hip-hop and spoken word
Some students bravely ‘stand alone’ and perform solo, others work in pairs or groups. The entrants reflect the racial diversity of London and the style is a mixture of rap, hip-hop and spoken word performance. In contrast to the ‘bad-boy’ image and lyrics of gasta-rap this slam! has some powerful female performers. All the competitors have been asked to take the theme of ‘Respect’ and run with it. The result is a diversity of presentations about racial pride, female self-respect, friendship, family and an exploration of issues such as bullying, body image, street crime, and the situation facing young refugees. This year the event is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Lawrence.
So people you better respect each other
for a better world and a better future
rap some members of a young, dynamic, multi-racial group, The Talented Crew, from Preston Manor School. Other members provide the beat box vocals – no musical instruments are allowed, but the voice is creatively deployed.
Working with professionals
The performers for Respect Slam! were selected through intra-school slams! and had the chance to hone their skills through a Poetry Society initiative working with professional performance poets. The benefits of this are obvious in the high standard of the performances; the students are also aware that they have gained valuable life skills:
‘I always wanted to write, this competition has motivated me. I’m happy,’ says Juliet Segayi (Fulham Cross School). ‘I think about stuff I never thought of before,’ adds Natalie Leer (WAC Performing Arts and Media College). ‘I write about racism. I prefer to write it down rather than say it to someone’s face,’ explains Naz Saleh (Fulham Cross School).
A male-dominated rap scene?
At first the young women say they feel a bit intimidated taking part in what is perceived as a male-dominated rap scene and they choose not to rap but prefer a spoken word performance. However the reactions of their male peers – ‘That’s deep!’ and ‘That’s cool!’ – are very supportive. All three young women say that they feel much more confident and will use their skills with the spoken and written word in their future career plans – which include being a lawyer, a lyricist and a journalist.
Some performers from last year’s slam! have been motivated to develop their performance skills professionally and some of this year’s entrants are, surely, the performance poets of the future.
Sources of inspiration
Khayo Chingonyi (Robert Clack School) is keeping his options open: he hopes to keep rap poetry as an interest while he continues his education. His searing performance which explores bullying in a powerful and imaginative way shows a mature handling of language. As well as hip-hop/rap artists such as Dead Prez, Public Enemy and Rapstarr, he cites Ted Hughes, Maya Angelou and Benjamin Zephaniah as sources of inspiration. This eclectic mix is reflected in his lyrics:
thus proceeding steadily, picks up his feet a little
making sure he don’t fall cos’ his ego’s brittle
All the young people I speak to share an excitement about language and have become actively involved in the creative process:
‘Something takes over.’ (Natalie)
‘I can’t write at the height of emotion. When I write, it’s fast – if it doesn’t come out in ten minutes, I ditch it.’ (Juliet)
‘It doesn’t rhyme but it has to flow. I keep a pen and paper by my bed in case I have the urge to write.’ (Naz)
‘I feel the words in my head moving about. When you share words with others you have a responsibility to take care with the message.’ (Khayo)
Some of the performers are very confident and professional, others are still building their skills, which is to be expected when, for some, this is one of the few times they have performed in front of an audience.
Respect’s what you earn and not what you buy
It’s what you gain as time passes you by.
state two talented female Asian rappers, Huma Ansari and Uzma Uddin: it is clear that they are learning a great deal from this opportunity. Indeed every performance shows the amazing amount of work which has gone on behind the scenes to create, learn and perform effectively:
Listen to my lyrics and I spit them proper –
I come through sharp like a dagger
(MC Logic, Crofton School)
This is the second year of the Respect Slam! in London. Such is the slammers’ success that there are already plans for even more Respect Slams! in 2004.
If you would like to run your own poetry slam! to showcase young people’s talents, the Poetry Society can offer advice and guidelines.
Ceri Worman is Librarian for Children and Young People, Huddersfield, and the author of The Adventures of Jamie B. Schoolboy/Superspy and The Adventures of Jamie B. Schoolboy/Rapstar to be published by Orchard Books in April 2004.
Sources of Inspiration
The slammers cited both song lyrics and poetry as sources of inspiration. These are just a few of books they recommended:
The Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, Maya Angelou, Virago, 1 86049 191 X, £9.99 pbk
The Works: Every kind of poem you will ever need for the Literacy Hour, edited by Paul Cookson, Macmillan, 0 330 48104 5, £4.99 pbk
New Selected Poems 1957-1994, Ted Hughes, Faber, 0 571 17378 0, £12.99 hbk
Big Bad Raps, Tony Mitton, Orchard, 1 86039 365 9, £3.99 pbk, 1 84121 459 0, £12.99 big book
Too Black, Too Strong, Bloodaxe, 1 85224 554 9, £7.95 pbk, Wicked World!, Puffin, 0 14 130683 1, £4.99 pbk, Talking Turkeys, Puffin, 0 14 036330 0, £4.99 pbk, all by Benjamin Zephaniah
* A Slam! is a competitive performance poetry event where the audience judge the poets’ performances.