The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Young rappers, singers and poets gear up for the world’s largest youth poetry festival

(Photo by Connor O'Keefe | The DePaulia)
(Photo by Connor O’Keefe | The DePaulia)

The energy at Young Chicago Authors (YCA) headquarters is contagious. It’s Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) season, the largest youth poetry festival in the world, which makes the spirit higher than usual.

Students and mentors filled the inviting space overlooking Milwaukee Avenue Tuesday night for YCA’s WordPlay workshop. WordPlay is Chicago’s longest running youth open mic night. Each week begins with a writing workshop open to the public, followed by musical and spoken word performances, and finishes with a feature spot from a prominent local artist. The feature artist at Tuesday’s workshop was local rapper Rich Jones.

More than a dozen young poets took the stage to share their art and practice their craft through singing, rapping and slam poetry. The friendly crowd was quick to snap, cheer and yell words of encouragement at newcomers and veterans alike. “Pimped into poetry,” as one poet eloquently put it, seems an appropriate description of the talented crew.

YCA has safe space rules that forbid any “racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, ableist or otherwise derogatory language.” LTAB encourages political activism and creating respectful art. The subject matter Tuesday night ranged anywhere from fatherhood to virginity to the dead.

Patricia Franzin, a junior at Brooks College Prep on 11th Street, exuded confidence during her performance. “(After) sharing personal stories with each other so often through poetry, it becomes very easy to become a family,” she said.

WordPlay is just one of YCA’s many scheduled programs leading up to the LTAB finals on March 19. Its 16th year running, LTAB provides a platform for young artists to work together in a supportive environment and showcase their talents. While LTAB started in Chicago, it now has a presence in seven other cities, with more on the way.

“Many young people feel that they aren’t heard, that their stories aren’t represented in the dominant culture or popular media. And if they are, they are marginalized, trivialized. We want to change that,” co-founder of LTAB Kevin Coval told the Chicago Tribune.

Participants can enter the competition as teams or individually as an “indy” poet. Team performances include individual poems as well as a group project. The festival  takes place in several venues over the span of a month, from preliminary bouts to the finals. LTAB hosts over 1,200 students from over 120 Chicago area high schools. This year’s festival will include appearances from Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Chicago’s own Vic Mensa.

Preparations often begin months before the main event. Franzin had her poem written by November. She said the challenge now is to choreograph the group piece.

“It is stressful, but it’s also really fun,” Franzin said. “We start in October and my team practices once every week on Sunday. I have friends on teams who say they practice four or five times a week from 1 to 6 p.m. It’s pretty extreme for some people.”

This will be Franzin’s third year performing at LTAB, and last year her team made it to the finals. She also interned with YCA over the summer and is on the LTAB Captain’s Committee.     “A lot of kids write poetry because they don’t really have anyone to talk to or they don’t have any friends,” Franzin said. “Everyone is so friendly here and so talkative, and it fosters introverts and helps us make it easier to communicate with people.”

Kendall Roberts attends Simeon Career Academy, another high school on Chicago’s South Side. Roberts describes her training process as looking over her best work, adding to it, editing it, working with her coach and then practicing the performance of her poem.

Roberts was nervous last year, but this year she couldn’t be more excited. “It’s like no one is really paying attention to points or that it’s a competition,” Roberts said. “It’s not about that. It’s about us, seeing a group of friends every day. And the nervousness of it just goes away because you’re so focused on what they have to say, and how good it is, and you’re ready for it.”

Part of a poetry team called Writers Never Die, Roberts discussed the difficulties of writing a collective poem as a group. “It’s kind of hard because you all have different views coming together when you’re writing, and you have to find a middle ground and that string that connects all your parts together,” she said. “We usually get a topic and write individually, and then we come together with the best lines and that starts forming the poem.”

Another junior, Sam Ortega, attends Phoenix Military Academy on the West Side. He has performed in Wisconsin at the DuSable Museum and most recently at the Nation of Islam mosque.

“It all started the end of my freshman year,” Ortega said. “That’s when I started doing poetry because there was a whole bunch of events that kept knocking me down in society.”

Ortega said LTAB has helped him open up and experience new settings. “It’s beneficial for the kids of Chicago because not many of us, the youth here, ever have the chance to have this type of exposure. Growing up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, all I knew was McDonalds and the park.” Ortega said.

Like many other competitors, Ortega has been training for months. “We basically have our individual pieces ready and our group piece ready,” he said. “[For] the individual piece, you first have to develop a first draft and from there it goes through a very complex series of edits. For example, one of my poems that I still haven’t finished editing has gone through a total of 14 edits. So it’s a very long process.”

YCA hosts a constant stream of events throughout the year, including a variety of workshops, regional poetry slams and The Come Up, a monthly new music showcase for local acts. Chance The Rapper and Malcolm London, two notable WordPlay alumni, now host their own open mic night for Chicago high school students.

Other YCA workshops include “Chicago Beat,” which teaches the mechanics and importance of journalism. “Emcee Wreckshop” is another workshop and open mic that takes place on Saturdays during the school year, tailored more specifically to aspiring rappers. “Check The Method” is another educational program for young writers.

The fourth annual LTAB mixtape was released in January with the help of “Fake Shore Drive,” Chicago’s premier hip-hop blog. The free project is available online and includes 18 songs, featuring local artists involved with LTAB. The festival also inspired a documentary in 2008 that won awards at several film festivals.

Roberts hopes to continue working with YCA after she graduates.

“I love Louder Than A Bomb,” she said. “It is one of the biggest poetry festivals ever and the culture is amazing. We have so many new groups this year, so it’s cool that the vets get to see what’s happening in the upcoming generations of this and then we get to take over the wider span of it.”

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