Change agents: Slam poets take life by the throat

Robert Frost once declared "poetry is a way of taking life by the throat."

With apologies to Mr. Frost, Bryan Baquirian was determined to seize by the neck the 25 or so people gathered Friday at the CityArts Factory in downtown Orlando and shake them to the core:

Dream big like Adolf Hitler, but instead of hating your own kind; love your brothers and sisters!/Have respect for your misses and misters, because it seems nowadays we've left everybody else out the picture.

And on he went.

So if you're tired of just being a plant, then go reach for the sun so you can grow into a tree!/Let your spirit nourish your quench of thirst and you'll see!

Finger snaps all around.

In that moment, the 17-year-old sensed it.

The power.

To soften hearts. To challenge minds. To move the masses. To initiate change.

The power of words.

For Bryan and the other teenagers who performed Friday, the reaction only corroborated what Jolonda Blackmon has been preaching ever since she started Spoken Word Press — her crusade to help teens nurture their creative voices.

Through spoken-word poetry or slam — a style in which the passion of the performance is as vital as the verse — teens can be a force for change.

I watched her charges during a mini-tune-up/fundraiser for next week's Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in San Francisco, billed as the world's largest ongoing spoken-word event. Team Rock-it is short on funds, but long on passion, talent and social consciousness.

They come by it honestly.

Blackmon grew up in a single-parent household in west Orlando. Awakened by sirens one night, she stood at her window clenching the burglar bars, watching police handcuff a teenager. Like her.

"That hit me," says Blackmon, now 32, "as to what is going on with our generation."

Like her mother the missionary, she committed to saving souls. Just outside the church.

"Community work was my purpose and what I was meant to do."

Having performed as Blu Bailey in spoken-word competitions — she was ranked 19th in the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2008 — merging her passion and her mission into Spoken Word Press four years ago was a natural progression.

"We get the kids who don't like video games or play sports, but do like to write," she says.

Kids like Shelby Birch. An introvert, the 17-year-old had always written poetry. Blackmon introduced her to slam. And Shelby was hooked.

The piece on women's place in the hip-hop world she performed with Nia Scott on Friday showed her maturation as a social commentator:

She speaks her lyrics in melodies that crescendos into the windows of misogynic heroes we call hip hop/Spirits of many mics take the many flights of stairs that reaches my thoughts' attic/But he basements my amplifier in his Hell forcing me to spit fire every time he steps to me/So bow down to the queen that reigns rap supreme…

"We are not heard because we're so young," says Shelby, who attends Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando. "I feel like spoken word is a gear to get to people from the ear."

Indeed, Shelby channels Percy Bysshe Shelley, the great English Romantic poet, who observed, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

A power in full bloom recently during the Arab spring, when Egyptians took aim at the ruling class with rhymes, not guns. Or as Palestinian poet Tamim al-Barghouti wrote recently in the Guardian, summing up the Tunisian uprising, poetry has "widened people's imagination, changed their perception, increased their self-confidence and showed them how fragile their tyrants are."

It's a power that gives lie to the greatly exaggerated reports of poetry's waning relevance.

Or as Shelby puts it, "We kids are conscious of the world. We might seem like we're not, but we see our parents, the news and we see the world, and I feel we're brave enough to speak what we feel."

If you want to find out more about Team Rock-it, go to, or 407-420-5095

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