For me, there's nothing as powerful as kids finding hope in the arts. Slam poetry embodies performance, literature, creativity, and teamwork, and no one does it better than Chicago: a low-income high school junior puts down a gun to join a family of poets who speak the truth about everyday life. A 17-year-old girl works through her difficult childhood through words in a notebook. An inner city African-American teen teaches his peers about respecting women in spoken word. This is Louder Than A Bomb.
Now in its 10th year, the annual Chicago event is the largest youth poetry slam in the world. Louder Than a Bomb - founded by Youth Chicago Authors artists, Kevin Coval and Anna West - has a simple, but powerful goal: "bring teens together across racial, gang, and social economic line" where young adults embrace "self-expression and community via poetry, oral story-telling, and hip-hop spoken word." Every year, teenagers from Forest Park to Evanston to the West Loop to 116th street come together to share their words and their stories. Each team presents four individual poems and a four-person group piece.
In 2010, directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel released their documentary Louder Than A Bomb, which followed four high school teams as they prepared for the 2008 Chicago competition: poets Nate, Adam, Nova, and a group called "the Steinmenauts." Four unique story lines from four different points of view.
For everyone in Louder Than A Bomb, Nate Marshall is a legend. He's been in the competition the longest, and leaves his audience overwhelmed by his passion and speech. In 2007, he performed a poem called "Look." Onlookers jumped to their feet, cheering the poet's lines like, "my ego is Langston huge"..."but a mic, a stage, a pen, a page helped end my rage" (see a slightly older Marshall perform the piece on the New York Times website). Marshall is a son, uncle, brother, friend, but mainly, a teacher. He offers his words to his peers, but in turn, wants them to learn how to fully express themselves. 2008 was the last year he could compete. Instead of concentrating on winning his final competition, he dedicated his time to the younger members of his team. Marshall wanted the students to learn the raw sense of slam poetry so they could continue to work, write, and teach each other long after he left the school. Slamming is about a group effort.
Even so, his most famous line speaks for itself: "like FDR's New Deal, I'm gonna be the first spoken word brotha with a shoe...deal."
On the other side of the city, the Steinmetz "Steinmenauts" team enjoyed its first place win in the first year they entered, 2007. Many of the team's poets have nothing else but poetry - not a good family life, money situation, or grade point average. But they have words and each other.
In the 2008 competition, the Steinmenauts group piece called "Counting Graves" brought a whole new meaning to spoken word. When the students took the stage (in person and through the documentary), they "wrest[ed] us into the mind of a teen grieving his mother and brother murdered in a drive-by intended for him," said Kamaria Porter of Filmspotting. "This piece, more than any other, embodies the purpose and possibilities of slam poetry." Watch the original footage of "Counting Graves" here.
Louder Than A Bomb brings students of different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and families together to share mutual words and experiences. Judges rate their poems, but most teens are there for the friendship, the passion, and the stories. As the competitors tell each other every year, "The point is not the point. The point is the poetry."
The 2012 Louder Than a Bomb finals are March 10, 2012 at The Vic.
Check out the film's website for information about upcoming screenings.