Anytime an underground art becomes commercialized it is simultaneously at risk of becoming compromised. We saw this happen in the ballroom scene, rap music and hip hop culture. The same issue surfaced in the poetry scene when Russell Sims began to take spoken word and turn it into a commercialized art. Nothing is wrong with commercialization, but it becomes a matter of how the art is presented to the world and if it keeps the honesty that it exhibited in its purest form. In 2008 Russell Sims tried to do the same thing with Brave New Voices, only this time the youth didn’t like it.
There are always positives and negatives when underground things move into the mainstream. The positives to the HBO Brave New Voices documentary was that more people would know about the movement, more young people would be able to have their voices heard and the world would now hear the phrase that BNV has been shouting for more than a decade, “because the next generation can speak for itself.” James Kass the director of Youth Speaks—the organization that puts together BNV every year–had good intentions for HBO Documentary, but many of the youth who were suppose to be “speaking for themselves” didn’t agree with HBO’s message and overall vibe that they brought to the inter-national competition back in 2008.
HBO turned a poetry festival into a competition, the points became the point and the poetry got left behind somewhere between hearing the youth voice and making money from the youth voice.
It became clear how the students felt about the whole HBO process on the final stage on Brave New Voices in 2009, which took place in Chicago. A poet from Florida began her poem with the line “HBO…fuck you.” And over 500 poets from around the world cheered in the Chicago Theater that night.
I think it became clear that the poets at the BNV poets were not just going to sit back and watch their art, their passions, and their voices be commercialized into sad stories and emotional anecdotes for primetime TV. The young people wanted honesty and authenticity. If they were going to make money off of our stories we wanted it to be our way.
In my four years at BNV from 2006-2009 I made some of the best friends I have, learned some of the most important lessons of my life, and became apart of a movement. I want to see poetry change the world, and I know every significant dent in history starts with young people. I am now coaching the Kenwood Slam High School Slam team. (They placed 1st in their bout today at Louder than a Bomb and I’m proud of them). I only hope I can teach them the lessons I have learned over the years. I hope I can show them that slamming is not about a competition, but how its about forming a community, creating a voice, and being heard.
Wish me luck this weekend, as I slam for the first time since Brave New Voices last summer. It’s going to be fun returning to the stage.