Storytelling is an essential aspect of human consciousness. Without it we’d find ourselves trapped in the infinite daze of animal survival. With each new story, we evolve, often imperfectly, but sometimes with great hope.
This feeling of evolution is at the heart of Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a long-running annual event created in honor of King's birthday by the Bay Area-based, national youth slam poetry organization Youth Speaks. This year's program takes place on Monday, Jan. 18 at the Norse Auditorium in San Francisco. And though there will be the outward trappings of a party—music, dancing, and a real desire to applaud King’s work and legacy—the young people of Youth Speaks are interested in something more than homage. They are after nothing less than an accounting of the tense, fractured society around them and us. It’s the type of direct political heat you rarely feel on our professional stages, or in the dry lines of contemporary poetry.
If you go to Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- and you should -- you won’t be lectured at. The spoken word format has synthesized a strange but potent amalgamation of theater, poetry, and essay. It’s a demanding art form. When a master of it takes the stage, such as the New York rapper and poet Saul Williams, there’s a demonic energy, both in what the artist says and in his performance of it. You feel the same spirit in the Youth Speaks kids.
They aren’t being taught to be good and obedient performers, but rather to take on the complex role of the storyteller, which requires skill, commitment, and daring. This is citizenship as art, and we need citizens capable of unleashing social and political ideals that many of us would rather just keep quiet. So the evening is aptly named because these young people are taking the noise that surrounds us everyday, catching it, and shaping it into stories.
While attending a dress rehearsal for Monday’s event, I was continually taken aback by the philosophical and emotional depth of the program. The focus of the evening comes from a 1957 Ebony magazine interview with King in which he makes a political connection between love and power: “I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism.”
We often associate directness with a lack of subtlety, but here directness leads to a nerve jangling clarity, as King might approve. Tammy Vaitai, an alum of Youth Speaks' "Brave New Voices" program, will perform a piece about Kenneth Young, a boy forced into committing armed robberies by his mother’s drug dealer. At the age of 14, Young was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. Vaitai’s piece foregrounds Young’s crimes and catches how we might see him as irredeemably criminal. Then, taking on Young’s voice, she shows how that’s impossible; that Young couldn’t possibly be the danger the justice system claims him to be.
Vaitai’s writing is sharp and shifty. It takes on King’s belief that love is “a durable power” and shows what happens when there is no love present. She forces us to ask what’s worse: a 14-year-old committing a series of armed robberies to protect his mother, or a society that finds Young’s unwitting criminality so wounding that it will take three of his lives to gain its forgiveness. Youth Speaks sets free what is so clear in Vaitai’s piece—the ability to look, then look again, and then tell a story.
Throughout 20th century modernism there was a rejection of the simple story. Art became fractured, opaque, a puzzle to be deciphered. To understand it you had to develop a monkish predilection for arcane modes of interpretation. Only those with special educations truly understood what was happening and it was somehow a betrayal to speak and write in clear, concise language. What a loss to art and sense that was.
Yet here we are in the beginning of the 21st century and the 19th year Youth Speaks has produced Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You will see the organization's good work all over the stage, such as emcee and Brave New Voices alum Trey Amos’ trenchant commentary to a vibrant group of young people attempting to come to grips with King’s legacy. There will be lots of stories, sharp insights, and sizzling anger. There will also be the deep hope that if love and power can be brought together, we might one day hear a whole new set of stories.
This likely evolution will doubtless stem from one of the most inspiring and shocking aspects of the Youth Speaks philosophy -- namely, how much the organization believes in and demands of the young. There’s a tendency in liberal thought to believe that real thinking is a product of age and advanced degrees, and especially from prestigious institutions. It’s as if we have summarily decided that the young, and especially youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, have no capacity for complex political thought.
Instead, we imagine them as the objects of political concern—what is to be done with them? What’s wrong with them? And why aren’t they acquiescing to our needs? Youth Speaks short circuits that narrative and urges its students to be alert to, engage with, and judge what they see around them. Even when what the students say is harsh and disparaging, it’s clear that the program never flinches. This is what thinking is. This is the beginning of a vital politics.
Youth Speaks' Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King plays for one night at the Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016 at 7 pm.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED