About a year ago, Azura Tyabji wrote and performed a poem in her ninth-grade class at Nova High School. It was the culmination of weeks of studying and analyzing stereotypes with her classmates. Tyabji, 15, wrote about being mixed race and the expectations she felt to identify with one side of her family, rather than embracing all facets of her life. The assignment was her first exposure to spoken word. “I ended up enjoying it and connecting with it because I got to be myself on stage,” she explained, describing her first experience. “I didn’t have to act as a character. I could take complex feelings and angst and make it into art to share with other people.”
Tyabji is one of 10 young people in Seattle who will be sharing their spoken word at the Youth Speaks Seattle Grand Slam event at Town Hall. On April 1, they will battle it out for the opportunity to join 600 youth in Washington D.C. to go head-to-head with other great young minds from across the country at the Brave New Voices festival.
Youth Speaks Seattle began in 2003 as a part of a larger youth-led art collective. In 2011, Youth Speaks merged with teen programming at Arts Corps, a local nonprofit arts education organization that brings arts education to schools, community centers and every corner of Seattle possible.
The 10 youths, ages 13 to 19, who have been selected to perform in this year’s Grand Slam have placed in the top three at three preliminary slams or have won first place at the Wild Card Slam. Additionally, the youth’s investment in the wider community plays a role in whether or not they can participate in the Slam.
The shows are lively and last about three hours, explained Youth Speaks coordinator Christina Nguyen
“There is crying, snapping, a lot of energy,” she said. “It’s a lot take in and it’s overwhelmingly joyful.” Nguyen and Shelby Handler, teen leadership manager at Arts Corps, call it one of the most transformative nights in Seattle due to the overwhelming vulnerability and bravery on stage.
The community beyond the poetry is a critical component that makes spoken word particularly powerful for young Americans who are learning and growing in a time of great political strife. “People go through life without honoring their stories, and through spoken word they can go on stage and explain who they are, embody their experiences and what they’ve been through,” Nguyen said. “Sometimes those stories they go on stage and tell people can save other people’s lives too.”
“Poetry and art is a tool for shifting culture,” Handler said. “Giving young people the space to speak their truth is a way to heal and build community and transform the world around them.”
Nguyen and Handler have seen the young people in the program dissect and analyze a wide range of issues: Black Lives Matter movements, mental health, disability justice and intersectionality.
“Hearing spoken word and watching the process that people go through with their poems has made me value people’s nuance in their ideas,” Tyabji said. “Spoken word is a very personal medium. People are very emotionally invested in their poems.”
Through this connection of difficult subjects you really learn how to listen to others, Tyabji said.
For Tyabji, spoken word is her activism. “I really like using spoken word as a way to raise people’s awareness and to hopefully teach people about what I believe without being lecture-y,” she said.
In her performance, she will explore the effect gentrification and the construction of a new youth jail, and delve into where she fits within it all.
“That’s been a pretty personal issue for me, because I used to work with Africatown in the Horace Mann building when it was there,” Tyabji said. “They got evicted and Nova moved in ... It’s been interesting and worrisome to see this historically Black, working-class area turned into a place that is becoming dominated by white hipsters.”
Tyabji uses the intersection of Martin Luther King Way and Cherry Street in her poem to examine the rapid changes happening in Seattle’s Central District. That corner used to be the former offices of The Facts, a Black newspaper founded in the 1960s, and is now home to a doggy daycare.
“That was the catalyst of the gentrification poem ... that frustration. I use poetry to articulate those feelings of frustration,” she said. “I’m looking forward to hearing other people and looking forward to calling out people in the city, honestly.”
Local artist and activist Hollis Wong-Wear, who is an alumnus of Youth Speaks, will host the program. Sassyblack of critically acclaimed group THEESatisfaction will perform alongside the young poets. No one will be turned away for lack of funds, and all proceeds will directly fund travel to Washington, D.C. to represent Seattle at the Brave New Voices Festival this summer.
WHERE: Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave.
WHEN: April 1, doors at 6 p.m., show at 7 p.m.
COST: $10 youth, $20 adults, $7 per ticket for groups of five or more youth