A year after he graduated from the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, Unique Hughley returned in March to compete with his high school slam poetry team one last time.
In front of a crowd of about 500 at the Gem Theater, he spoke his poem “Shoes” in rhythm, never breaking eye contact with the crowd.
“Before you condemn my generation to a shoeless, soul-less Earth,” he said, “just try taking a walk in our shoes.”
By the end of the night, Hughley’s team had won Kansas City’s second Louder Than a Bomb KC slam poetry competition. The prize: An expenses-paid trip to Brave New Voices, one of the largest slam poetry competitions in the world.
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That same night, the local competition’s lead organizer, Paul Richardson, told the crowd a story of his own: He was quitting his job as an English teacher at Washington High School in Kansas City, Kan., to build the local LTAB community full time.
“If you put people in places where they communicate better, this generation will be better,” Richardson said at the time.
Five months after his announcement, Richardson, along with area poets Nicole Higgins and Glenn North, are hoping to build on the success of LTAB. In the competition’s second year the festival drew 17 high school teams from across the Kansas City area, up from 13 teams in 2014. And coaches and participants alike say the competition already is changing the city for the better.
The next step for the organizers is a new space at 2010 Baltimore Ave. in the Crossroads Arts District, which is shared by the Beggar’s Table gallery. KC Wordshop will open in September. It will allow young people to harness the power of language year-round.
“Whether it’s film, or a poem, or a published piece or a skit, I want it to be revolutionary in nature,” Richardson said. “I want it to move people to alter the way people see you, the artist, and to really redefine you, because behind you is the stereotype that you represent. When you’re altering people’s occurrence of you, you’re also slowly redefining what a stereotype looks like.” He is Wordshop executive director/generator.
Named after a Public Enemy song, Louder Than a Bomb was founded in 2001 by the nonprofit Young Chicago Authors as an outlet for urban youth.
“The idea being that the collective voices of our youth can be more powerful than the violence that they were encountering,” said North, LTAB KC organizer and director of education and public programs at the Black Archives of Mid-America.
“Whether it was through global terrorism and living in a post-9/11 world, or whether it was the violence that they were confronting in their communities.”
In Kansas City, participants such as Hughley say the event has created a place for young people to have a voice. If you ask him how he overcame a violent neighborhood and an apathetic attitude toward school, he’ll tell you he owes it all to Louder Than a Bomb.
“Going to school, I always felt as if people judged me on stuff that I never thought mattered,” Hughley said. “I never was failing, but I just never had passion for the school system. I always felt like there was something wrong there, and it really just turned me away from it. Nobody really had faith in me.”
Since he joined Paseo Academy’s LTAB team in 2014, his work has been published internationally and he has won numerous competitions. Last June, he was flown to California to film his poem “Unique” with Rainn Wilson’s media company SoulPancake. The poem was selected as one of seven international winners for the competition.
LTAB coaches are seeing the effect of the festival on other students as well. When John Garofalo, an English teacher and LTAB coach at Raytown High School, noticed Will Adams’ creative writing talent, Garofalo encouraged his former student to audition for LTAB. Adams, often a troublemaker in the classroom, showed another side with his poetry.
The team went on to place in the semifinals in 2014 and placed third overall in March.
Adams said he saw friendships form across cliques when students, including the school’s basketball star, showed up to poetry open mic nights at the school.
Adams, who has a 2-year-old son, graduated from Raytown in 2014 and hopes to become an English teacher. The competition made it safe to be good at something such as writing, he said.
“It was a recognition outside of being able to jump high or throw something far,” Adams said. “It gave me a reason to want to go to school. I was able to be like, ‘OK. Even if I don’t have any other friends in this school, I know that when I go to Louder Than a Bomb, I have a family.’”
Throughout the month of March, Raytown provided a bus to take students to watch the school’s team compete at LTAB. Marlee Stempleman, one of the school’s four LTAB coaches, said there was enough student interest to fill two buses.
“For me that’s the best part, is to watch kids who would never come together normally, come together and form these really authentic relationships,” Stempleman said.
Connecting young people is a central part of the LTAB mission.
To further educate students about Kansas City’s history, LTAB organizers arranged an optional bus tour of the city’s urban core. For the first tour, Richardson rented a yellow school bus with $150 of his own money for the students to travel to parts of the city some of them had never seen.
“There’s value in first understanding that you can connect to people that come from a different part of the city than you do,” North said. “That helps you realize that, ultimately, you can connect with people who come from a different country than you, or a different ethnic background or a different level of income.”
Lawrence Free State High School students went on the tour this spring before competing in LTAB for the first year. Coach Brandon Wolak said his students were blown away on the tour, as they learned about the ongoing race issues of Kansas City.
“I don’t think our kids really even had stereotypes or misconceptions,” Wolak said. “I just think they didn’t know.”
Free State’s team took fourth place overall, and had more than 30 students rotating in and out of practices by the time of competition. At the end of the finals, the team went to a Winstead’s to eat with students that they might have never met without LTAB.
Higgins, one of the LTAB organizers and a lecturer in English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said camaraderie is high at the competition. Throughout March, four teams compete in front of three judges. Only the top two scorers advance another round, and only the overall winning team gets a trip to Brave New Voices.
But it’s not about the points. Cheering is common at the competition. It can be hard to hear judges’ scores being read as students shout “Listen to the poem!” to protest low scores. Students can also be heard screaming, “It’s not about the points, it’s about the poetry,” and “I love you, poet” between performances.
Higgins said through art, students learn the importance of listening to another person’s narrative and become empowered by using their own voice.
“If they recognize that their art has a power to it, and they’re excited about it and they are encouraged, then I think that they will be less willing to disengage,” said Higgins, program director at Wordshop. “It’s important that they know that they wield a certain kind of power in their art and that they use it for good.”
Beggar's Table Church & Gallery, where Richardson and his wife attend Sunday services, are allowing KC Wordshop to use the space for free but the organizers need money for coming workshops, festivals and anthologies. In the meantime organizers remain unpaid, and Richardson has been working odd jobs in preparation for the birth of his first child next month. So far the Wordshop has raised $1,200 of its $40,000 GoFundMe campaign goal.
As for Hughley, he still experiences violence in his neighborhood. Two of his neighborhood friends recently were killed by gunfire.
“They started looking up to me after I started writing poetry,” Hughley said of the friends who died. “Like, ‘We’ve seen that you’re positive. We do want to be positive,’ and that really touched me. It ended so young. I feel like I could’ve done something. I always feel like I had a little effect on that. If only I could have done more.”
Hughley hopes his art can help him give back to the community. He is currently raising money to attend Columbia College Chicago this fall. He plans to study poetry, and he wants to be like Richardson when he grows up, he said.
“I read a quote that says when you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, that fish would be stupid — until you put it in the water,” Hughley said. “I feel like I was that fish at first in Louder Than a Bomb. Paul (Richardson) made that pond for me. He made the pond, like he showed me, ‘This fish is not supposed to be judged on climbing a tree. Put me in a pond.’ That’s when I started excelling because I wasn’t always this person that people see me as now, before poetry.”