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On MLK Day, Youth Speaks Poets Raise a Voice Against Injustice

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Queen Nyabingha Zianni hosts Youth Speaks' 20th annual 'Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King' at the Nourse Theater. (Photo: Bethanie Hines)

So let’s start at the end of Youth Speaks’ 20th annual Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a raucous, civic-minded MLK Day celebration at San Francisco’s Nourse Auditorium that believes in the brilliance of the young and the absolute necessity that they speak about, to, and against injustice.


Queen Nyabingha Zianni, the evening’s host, dropped this chilling take on the present situation: “I feel I have integrated my people into a burning house.” And then a little later, the 10-year old son of poet and singer Rico Pabon took to the stage and rapped of “the destruction of the garden of Eden.” Far from ludicrous, the boy’s inclusion seemed right and appropriate. He can feel the times, too.

That mixture of the realistic and the apocalyptic made for a thrilling, tense night, and a daring inauguration into the age of Trump. And yet in true Youth Speaks fashion, the anger and despair was leavened by wit and hope. Founder and executive director James Kass kicked things off in his laid-back, messianic style, urging the crowd of 1,700 to “remain hopeful and optimistic, but maybe not for tomorrow.”

Young, Gifted, and Black grabs the future at 'Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.' at the Nourse Auditorium.
Young, Gifted, and Black grabs the future at ‘Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’ at the Nourse Auditorium. (Photo: Bethanie Hines)

And while invoking the fear of the near future, Kass asked us to embrace a different future in a different way. “Someone younger than you can be better than you,” Kass said. “We need a new narrative that speaks of justice, equity, and hope.” He wouldn’t be the last adult of the night to preach patience and cede the stage to the young.


Youth Speaks might be the only organization in the country where Moses is a job description. Yet it was clear that many of the young poets attached to the organization have never felt farther from the Promised Land, and that for them hope not only is, but also must be a political and social weapon. When performer Grace Mwambe calmly declared: “Her lungs opened like a dozen fired bullets/And amidst all that silent war/I felt joy/Black joy,” I sensed a young woman battling to hold on to something as basic as happiness. And even in the face of her affirmations, how awful it is that that should be so.

Similarly, when Shivani Narang spoke the words, “The only spiritual I know is our resilience and my friends’ hearts,” she laid down a poetics as radical as that of the first modernists. “So, tonight let this poem be grounded in love and let this poem be named dangerous,” Narang declared. And that’s a kind of brilliant encapsulation of Bringing the Noise — it strives to give an aesthetic and civic representation to King’s belief in love as a political reality.

Shivani Narang stakes out a radical poetics at 'Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.' at the Nourse Auditorium.
Shivani Narang stakes out a radical poetics at ‘Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’ at the Nourse Auditorium. (Photo: Bethanie Hines)

We know that the poets have understood this call to action from the way in which they seek out beauty even under vicious and fraught conditions. The most outrageous moment of the night came when Trey Amos lay on the expansive Nourse Theater stage and got his hair done as he languidly imagined how easy it would be to embrace violence: “With all the flames you see, they should thank you for not burning everything to the ground,” he said. “Instead you place the inferno in your thighs — TO MOVE — no backing down/And continue picking your afro crown.”

There have been hundreds of celebrations of black hair. But none I know of until now where the shaping of an Afro quells the impulse to lash back. It’s as if Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son chose his own beauty over murder. Yet throughout the evening the threat of violence was a sickening reality. Here is the future and the future is afraid of being erased. And “erased” might be too soft a word, and definitely too soft an action to describe what’s going on around us.

Youth Speaks has taught countless young people to value what they have to say, what they see and hear around them, their minds and the ability to speak uncomfortable truths with joy and care. They are the living embodiment of hundreds of caring adults (who kindly take on the role of Moses) and now they are under political and social conditions that constantly place them in peril. The Promised Land seems as elusive to this generation as the one before it.

Javon Johnson compares gentrification to cancer in 'Bringing the Noise' at the Nourse Auditorium.
Javon Johnson compares gentrification to cancer in ‘Bringing the Noise’ at the Nourse Theater. (Photo: Bathanie Hines)

There’s one more thing to say, which also points to a complicated future. Poem after poem I heard on stage caught this basic fact: In America blackness is an explosive identity. Everything it touches, it transforms — why else did the “one-drop rule” survive for so long? — and there’s not a white, queer, Latino, Asian, or any non-Black person on that stage who doesn’t understand this reality. What’s wonderful is that it’s accepted and seen as redemptive by everyone present. It’s a source of focus and hope.

There are many reasons for Trump. One of them is a whitelash, a fear of contamination of what the “real” America is and is becoming. So when these young poets talk about skin and the varieties of skin tone, there’s a realization that they are all moving towards the one color that contains them all. As performer Tova Ricardo so aptly stated in her poem: “Black is not one color/Black is not one place/It’s shifting and styling under the grins of society’s eyes.”

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