At 6:30pm on Saturday, March 28th, 4,250 people, most of them below the age of 18 – the product of Chicago Public Schools and the surrounding suburban public schools, sat as the lights dimmed and Kevin Coval, cofounder of Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) took the stage. He, Jamila Woods, and Malcolm London performed a piece relating to this year’s LTAB theme of “Power to the Poet,” then, after some more words, the host of round 1 of the competition came out, explained how LTAB is the largest youth poetry competition in the world, introduced the judges, the rules, and the first performers of the night.
Before that, let’s get into some specifics. A poetry slam is when poets don’t just write poetry, but perform the pieces on a stage of sorts, sometimes in competition with other poets, and this art form is the basis of Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) focuses on youth poetry, words written by kids and teenagers who are just learning to hate logarithms and roll their eyes at Beowulf, people who otherwise are deemed “lazy” by adults, as well as “ignorant” and “brainwashed” by technology.
Over twelve hundred of these kids formed the 130 teams who participated in this year’s LTAB, and they made up the final four teams who competed Saturday night, Simeon Career Academy, Rebirth, Kuumba Lynx, and Niles West High School (who went by the name, “A Tribe Called West”).
These are just regular teens on any other day, but in the auditorium under stage lights and camera flashes, they were rockstars. And before them sat those 4,250 previously mentioned, me included, typing the words that stand out as fast as I can on my phone before I forgot them (so most of the lines from their poems will be paraphrased at best).
Teams sometimes have their own personalities, especially if they’re an LTAB stronghold. Northside College Prep’s poetry slam team has had their share of the Team Finals spotlight. So had Team Englewood and Jones College Prep. Kuumba Lynx had won LTAB for the past two years, and they’re a team that always goes for the throat. Simeon has been known to throw down as well. The judges don’t focus on personality though, they focus on the poems.
The first performer was a Niles West girl who began her poem hiding in a bathroom stall, listening to the girls applying red lipstick in the mirror, ruminating out loud about why the performer sounds funny, why she has such a strange accent. “Have you heard her say the word ‘butter’?” they say, mimicking the various ways they’ve heard her say it. The girl can’t help her accent though. She is, “from Uganda, and my voice is far from home.”
Later, a Rebirth performer laments that she knows only half her heritage, but can only go as far back as three generations on the other half because, “Ancestry.com doesn’t track bloodlines left by whips,” while a girl from Kuumba Lynx is horrified by the gang violence in Chicago and its similarities, and sometimes connections, to the cartels near her grandmother’s home in Mexico, saying, “When I wished Mexico was closer to my home, I didn’t mean to pray its plague on this city.”
As the rounds tick by, the poems grow heavier. We, the audience, are asked if we’ve ever seen flesh turn to pink mist by a Niles West performer, why the “faces of incarcerations have been the same for over 300 years,” by a Kuumba Lynx member, and a Simeon student compares gun violence in this country to a cancer, and wonders at us, “Who can afford the chemotherapy?”
By the time Chance the Rapper came out at the halfway mark, the whole room was pumped, a result of an hour and half of cheering, clapping, and screaming for the artists, yelling “listen to the poem!” at judges they thought gave too low of scores, and applauding LTAB itself for giving students all over the Chicagoland area the chance to be heard by people who will actually listen to them.
A couple rows of people slowly moved closer to the stage as Chance taught us how to clap along to the songs he was about to perform. He also talked about his own experiences with poetry, meeting Kevin Coval in 2007, and trying out for YouMedia’s poetry slam team, ultimately not getting chosen.
“They didn’t pick me!” he said, not in spite, or even disappointment, but more like a kid who just missed asking his crush to the prom. He laughed along with the crowd, and then performed “Everybody’s Something,” and “Sunday Candy” with poet and LTAB co-MC Jamila Woods.
At the beginning of the team round, they did something which had never been done before. A little while back at the semi finals, they announced Oak Park River Forest High School as one of the four finalists, not realizing this was incorrect. About ten minutes later, the actual finalists were announced. As a way to make it up to OPRF, they had the students perform their pieces on stage anyway.
“How does that make up for it?” you might ask. “Did they still have a chance to win the whole competition?” Well, no, but one thing that is constantly repeated throughout the whole five weeks of LTAB is that, “The points are not the point; the point is the poetry.”
With that said, the team round came underway after OPRF. Niles West had a poem about the shooting of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, speaking of their own personal experiences of discrimination best summed up by one of the poem’s enduring lines in my mind: “The color of my skin does not determine the length of my life.” Simeon began singing their own version of “The Hanging Tree,” calling the city streets “Chicago’s annual Hunger Games,” which play out on TV screens across all neighborhoods, saying, “Our people can’t breathe in concrete jungles.”
Rebirth spoke of sexual assault, throwing out numbers and facts from studies that have determined just how many people over the age of twelve are sexually assaulted. Ending the night was Kuumba Lynx with a poem throwing out its own numbers, such as the over-nine million dollars spent defending John Burge, a man responsible for torturing countless men into confessing things they didn’t do, sending them to prison. The poem expanded beyond Burge, going into how men all over the country are made guilty when innocent, eventually singing their own version of “The Hanging Tree.” The enduring line? “Don’t preach about terrorism when you keep it beating and breathing.”
The night ended with Kuumba Lynx winning it for a third year in a row, but that doesn’t mean the others were losers by any means. Adults who complain about the ignorance and laziness of today’s “youth” have obviously never taken the time to actually speak to them. Louder Than a Bomb doesn’t just provide students with a way to express themselves; it provides adults the chance to have conversations with the “youth” they have so many opinions about.
—Lisa Mrock is an on-staff writer for Chicago Literati. She’s been published in the anthology, Friend, Follow, Text and has been published at various other publications such as the Chicago Reader. Follow her on Twitter: @i_write_stuff.