Louder than a Bomb: World’s largest youth poetry festival empowers and enlightens

(Vanessa Bell / The DePaulia)
(Vanessa Bell / The DePaulia)

The floor seating of the Arie Crown Theater was packed with over 2,000 students cheering, dancing and laughing with their friends. In one corner of the VIP section was a camera crew adjusting their tripods and in the other were young poets pacing and reciting poems to themselves. Teen breakdancers served as entertainment on stage with a toddler named Joey showing off her skills. No adults were in the room yelling at the students or telling them to sit down. Oddly, despite all the energy in the building, no one was there for a party — they were all there to hear poets. It didn’t feel like a poetry competition, it felt like a free-spirited subculture where the bookworms were the cool kids on the block. As the lights began to flicker and dim, silence rippled through the room as everyone took their seats with anticipation to hear poems that were guaranteed to live up to the name of the festival.

This year’s 15th annual youth poetry festival, Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB), held its final slam competition at the Arie Crown Theater March 28. The event started around 5:30 p.m. with the Young Chicago Authors (YCA), or “the hype men for the hype men,” as one young poet joked, breaking in the incoming roughly 1,000-person crowd with dancing, hyped exclamations, and singing. These are a group of storytellers who act together as a creative community of writers and performers of slam poetry.

They grooved to the beat of onstage DJ Itch 13, who mixed current hip-hop and rap bangers, notably including tracks from Kendrick Lamar’s poetic new album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The competition was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., but began casually at about half past the hour, just before tee-shirt guns were shot off into the audience, which flowed into the auditorium all at once when the doors sprang open, grabbing at the free swag.

LTAB, co-founded by Kevin Coval in 2001, is the world’s largest youth poetry festival. Every year, teams of young poets come together to compete for the LTAB championships. The competition was birthed out of the YCA program, which is highly geared towards developing writers through various workshops and mentoring programs. Many, but not all, of the LTAB competitors are a part of YCA.

“This is for everyone who listens,” Jamila Woods, associate Artistic Director of YCA, said in the opening of the show. Standing next to her onstage in front of two more microphones stood Coval and Malcolm London, a recognized poet, activist and educator.

“Keep writing,” the three leaders said in unison.

Woods continued, “For the composition notebook, black books, macbooks, loose leaf sheets, all the trees martyred for our sacred first drafts.”

“Keep writing,” they said again in unison.

The motivational chant continued as both Coval and London took turns reciting lines about their experiences as writers, with every sentence followed by the refrain “keep writing.”

“Louder than a Bomb started in part because Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America, and we are trying to use the tool of hip-hop poetry to change the city,” Coval said. “If you’re proud to be a Chicagoan, if you want to see Chicago be better and fresher and more equitable, throw your C’s up and make some noise.”

Throughout the five weeks of competition, 130 teams were narrowed down to the four finalist teams: Kuumba Lynx, Niles West High School, Rebirth Poetry Ensemble and Simeon Career Academy.

There are four rounds, and each poem is rated by four judges on a scale of one to 10, “one being Iggy Azalea and 10 being Angela Bassett,” said the first round’s emcee and YCA teaching artist, Jasmine Barber.  Round one consisted of individual poet’s performances, the first to take the stage being a poet from Kuumba Lynx.

After the first two rounds, Coval came onstage to introduce a very special guest in the building. “I had the opportunity, when this young man was in high school, to see him grow,” he began. There were excited shrieks in the audience in recognition of who this guest was.

Before Chance the Rapper’s name was even out of Coval’s mouth, people began cheering. Chance’s name means a lot to YCA and the entire LTAB community. As a YCA alum, he has gone on to become a popular rap artist, as well as the front man of his new band, The Social Experiment.

The last two rounds were filled with more passionate poems that mainly drew from the experiences of each poet. A major topic reflected in many poems, particularly in the second half of the competition during the group performances, was the strife suffered by unfair treatment of black citizens in America.

The Kuumba Lynx team took home first prize, winning as a team for their group poem and in the individual category, for Vania Gutierrez’s poem.

But at the end of the night, winning the first place title wasn’t really what the festival was  about.

“Regardless of if you win or lose tonight, regardless of if you’re on this stage or not,” Coval said. “If you have the calling to be an artist … if you know that exists within you, then follow that, and no one can tell you different.”