Spoken Word Prepares Youth for Personal and Planetary Transformation
Many worry about the future of the planet and how our children will fare when the big challenges hit hard, but from what I saw at Louder Than A Bomb, a high school spoken word competition produced by Elementz Hip Hop Urban Youth Center, young urban Millennials have already mastered—through community-supported artistic self-expression—the underlying skill essential to all Big Problem solving: the ability to bring healing, understanding and co-creation to a diverse community.
The vibe at Louder Than A Bomb didn’t so much as assault me—the common perception of Hip Hop among middle-aged whites—as welcome me with warmth. I arrived during the lunch break between the group and solo competitions. The DJ grooving on the stage played a smooth, melodic mix of Hip Hop and R&B remixes as people of all ages danced in the aisle or their seats. Everyone was chatting in mixed race/age/gender small groups, and people intermingled freely. The energized youth were animated but respectful of their surroundings. Strangers struck-up conversation easily.
In total, the event was an ideal scene for what our future could look like in America: where we use art to experience and leverage our diversity for the benefit of everyone.
Jori Cotton, event organizer, spoken word teacher, and Day Program Director at Starfire (a non-profit that builds communities of support around those with disabilities), says that the purpose of Louder is to help youth find their voice and tell their stories. This ability, she said, is the foundation of personal peace and life fulfillment. “You’ve got to know who you are if you want to achieve anything satisfying.”
Yet many fledgling poets need to find their voice and speak truth for a more fundamental reason: to heal and move on from a life of trauma. “Self-expression through art provides peace of mind no matter the circumstances,” says Jori. And indeed, many of the day’s poets had experienced tough circumstances like the death of friends and parents, poverty, hunger, rape, and sexual identity challenges. “Spoken word helps them understand and express their pain—and when they do, they aren’t bound by it.”
As a licensed social worker, Jori is well aware that childhood trauma hard-wires the brain to see more trauma. She also knows that traditional human service programs 1) usually don’t address this foundational neuro-chemical challenge, and 2) have a hard time measuring whether someone has transmuted their emotional landscape. Artistic self-expression, however, is a full-body emotional experience that enables youth to “process” past trauma so that their future is no longer bound to by it. Throughout the Louder program—which includes months of individual and team coaching by Jori—students learn the mechanics of self-expression and performance to shift the turbulent emotional rhythms of their past.
Almost all of the performers addressed a deep personal challenge through their spoken-word performance, but with wide-ranging levels of transformation. One young man rhymed about how he still struggles with abandonment issues after his mother made him move-in with a relative because she couldn’t afford to raise all her children alone (her husband died of a drug overdose). A young woman successfully purged a sex abuse incident, several youth fluidly rapped about being transgender, and one young man did an exquisite wordplay around the multiple meanings of “look” (“Look—it’s wrong to read me like the cover of a book. Open It Up—and Look…Look deeper than before, I don’t intend to impress with your…Look.”
Beyond emotional transformation, self-expression helps youth become better decision makers. “When you really know and love yourself,” Jori explains, “you won’t do things to hurt yourself.” In other words, a person with a good conscience is a good decision-maker, and a good conscience comes from self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-acceptance.
And at Louder, the youth were certainly accepted by the peers and adults in the room. Every time someone stumbled with a line, the audience snapped their fingers and shouted “You got it,” encouraging them to plow on. Unconditional support was offered by everyone to everybody, no matter what they wore (plaid shirts, biker do-rags, pastel prints and dread-locked hair), or what they said (stories of frustrated flirtations and righteous indignations).
Skill level was irrelevant to support, and despite the competition, everyone was FOR everyone else—their personal growth, their truth, and their collective experience. With every completed performance came a roar of approval from the crowd and the ever-creative-compliments of the MC.
When asked why self-expression is important to the community, Jori didn’t hesitate: “Because WE need to hear it!” Meaning we adults, whose perception is so layered with loss and cynicism we can’t really see the truth or the possibilities of the future. Youth are still connected to their hopefulness, a positive future, and an understanding about what feels Right and Wrong. “The youth voice is still pure and transparent. They are creating a collective narrative about the future that no one has heard yet. They see possibilities way beyond just marginal improvements on today.”
The narrative coming out of Louder Than a Bomb tells of a generation that:
…tackles inner demons with peer support;
…seeks diversity to heal individuals and communities;
…understands their responsibility to address challenges beyond themselves.
They want to see photos of poet stars next to sport stars on the walls of their high school. They know that learning happens best when students learn from each other. They believe empathy and creativity are the core skills for the 21st Century.
In other words, according to Jori, Louder stands for the premise that spoken word story telling is activism for a new day. Stories literally move people to action through empathy, which drives all great movements. By teaching students to discover and express themselves, Jori is building leaders who can tackle much more than race: understanding our identity and experience provides clarity of purpose for the individual; expressing that truth through story telling generates understanding and inspiration around which communities can rally. This is way beyond a Hip Hop competition. Louder Than A Bomb is changing the world, one spoken word at a time.
If you can be deeply vulnerable with your teenage peers, you will have the courage and skills to truly change the world.