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When the Youth Speak, Mush Lee Listens

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Woman in black clothing poses for a photo in front of a multi-colored background.
Michelle "Mush" Lee, executive director of Youth Speaks. (Lara Kur)

View the full episode transcript.

As young people across the nation lead protests addressing war, climate change, reproductive rights and other major issues of our time, it’s important that adults in positions of power give them a platform and step back so the next generation of leaders can shine.

Young people have something to say, and they need allies. They need people like poet and educator Michelle “Mush” Lee.

Woman faces camera with a smile, while wearing a gold necklace over a white top in front of a white background.
‘Once you put your pen to paper, don’t stop’ — Michelle ‘Mush’ Lee

Lee is the executive director of the renowned poetry organization Youth Speaks. The organization boasts a long list of alums who’ve become playwrights and poets, actors and activists. Just two years after its founding in 1996, Youth Speaks launched the annual youth poetry slam, Brave New Voices. This year, the three-day conference that pulls young poets from all corners of the country will be held in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., just months before the presidential election.

As an organizer, Lee is looking ahead to this year’s conference with a clear understanding of why young people’s voices are so important right now.

Raised between San Francisco and Hercules, Lee didn’t get into spoken word and poetry until her college years, but the seeds had been planted through her family lineage. Her grandfather was a pastor who she saw rigorously working on his craft when she was a kid. Years later, when Lee stumbled across a book her mother wrote and had published in Korea, she truly saw the connection.

This week on Rightnowish we take a little dive into family history and explore the big concerns of the next generation with published poet, educator and youth advocate, Michelle “Mush” Lee.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Pendarvis Harshaw, Host: Today we’re in conversation with poet and educator Michelle Lee, better known as Mush. Growing up between San Francisco and Hercules, Mush didn’t identify as a poet or spoken word artist until her college days, which is funny because her family has a pretty deep and profound connection to words.

Michelle “Mush” Lee, Guest: I was helping my dad clear out the garage. There was a bunch of  boxes with, you know, we open ‘em, it’s the same book.  And it’s in Korean, and, you know, so we’re like, man, they’re like 200 copies of this book, what is it? 

I go to the back, you know, where the artist bio and and picture is, and there’s my mom. It’s a whole book of poems that she secretly, somehow published in Korea. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Now, Mush is at the helm of Youth Speaks, a nationally recognized organization that created a platform for young emerging poets. And it all started right here in Frisco!

As we continue to read news headlines about young people being on the forefront of combating climate change, pushing for reproductive rights, and organizing anti-war protests across our country, we’re going to hear how adults like Mush Lee are helping young poets raise their voices. 

 I’m Rightnowish host, Pendarvis Harshaw, stick around for our conversation right after this.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Before poetry, spoken word, you were attracted to the oral tradition through the church. How did that play a role in who you are?

Michelle “Mush” Lee: Thank you for asking it because it’s a straight, it’s a direct line to my grandparents. You know, I’m a first generation born in San Francisco, California. Like a lot of children of immigrant parents or parents that are just working hella hard, you know, you get bounced around from family to family. You know what I mean? The cousin, the uncle.

 My grandfather was a Presbyterian pastor.  You know, Presbyterians get a rap of being like the boring square and nerdy theological super textbook.

 But still, even in my grandfather’s church, you know, I would always hear him behind the pew practicing. He would always be rehearsing. I’d always see him at his dinner table just writing and writing, reading scripture. So the act of going from the pen to the page to the book to the oral, mouth to the ear That was something I think, that I was just exposed to at a really, really young age. And despite being super like Presbyterian Christians, like, there was still some version of call and response, like the Korean grandmother’s in the, you know, in the pews. They were they were, you know, doing their call and responsing. And so there’s certain elements of, I think, hip hop cultural spaces and hip hop ethos and spoken word that resonated very quickly for me, even though where I was first exposed to those kind of expressions was not necessarily through poetry at all.

Pendarvis Harshaw: But the seed was planted and then you stepped into poetry full on, all ten toes as a young adult. Bring me into that experience.

Michelle “Mush” Lee: I was in the West Indies in undergrad. I was 19, maybe, studying abroad. The war breaks out. It was Bush’s first term, I think, Bush son, junior. And I just was alone. You know, there’s something about being lonely and alone and kind of physically apart and disconnected.

I got really reflective. I got really angry and I got scared, but mostly angry. So I started reading about what’s happening in the war. I started,I don’t know where, I just started watching YouTube.

I found some poets, some def poets, Def Poetry Jam poets and you know. There was an invitation from a professor in my women’s studies class there at University of West Indies who, that come and do open mic, all the women in the class. So I wrote my first poem about like, f*ck Bush, you know, f*ck the war. A lot of f*cks in there

And also like, I’m the sh*t because I’m an Asian woman, you know, hear me that, you know, it’s like the first sound.  We call it first sound, at Youth Speaks when it’s like the first time a poet really has to say something serious and meaningful and like it’s urgent, and then it just comes out like that. So it was my little first sound moment.

And then as soon as I got back home that December, I hit every single open mic that I could. So my best friend, Merv drove me around. And that’s where I found Youth Speaks. And I was 19. Just turning 20.

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw:  You are the executive director of Youth Speaks. It’s a nationally renowned organization that promotes young folks using their voice to speak about what’s really going on. I need the origin story. Where did it all start?

 Michelle “Mush” Lee: Legend is, is that it started in the back of somebody’s trunk, with a bunch of loose paper, pencils and books, like books of poetry. And it was like a roving mobile poetry workshop space before that became a thing.  

So shout out to our, our founders, James Kass, our founding artistic director, Mark Bamuthi Joseph. Of course, the legendary Paul Flores.

The story is James Paul, they were MFA writers over at a university. They’re like, man, what’s up with all these white writers? And  like 78% of them are dead,  and they said, you know, this can’t be right. You know, there’s got to be other ways of learning and engaging poetry and creative writing. And so they said ‘Look, why don’t we just hit up, schools and see if any teacher wants to, you know, give us 30 minutes of writing time?’ 

And that was it. And we had the first youth poetry slam in the world that following year. Had no idea what was going to happen. Opened the doors in San Francisco, California and there was a line out the door, packed.

Pendarvis Harshaw: What year we talking about?

Michelle “Mush” Lee: The organization started formally, formed in 1996. So it was around the early 90s, you know, hip hop was taking kind of a global commercial stance, and it was becoming more relevant. You know, and hip hop theater was something that was starting to bubble up. You remember Carmen.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Oh yeah, with Beyonce and Mos Def, how can I forget?

[2001 movie trailer for “Carmen: A Hip Hopera”]

Mekhi Phifer, Beyonce Knowles, Mos Def, Rah Digga, Da Brat, Carmen, the original Hip Hopera

 Michelle “Mush” Lee: As I was going back during that time and figuring out what were the kind of the cultural moments that catalyzed some of, you know, the spoken word movement, the hip hop theater, hip hop education spaces? My memory brought me back to Carmen.

 I remember watching it, and I love Beyonce then and now, but I remember watching it thinking, I don’t understand what’s happening! You know what I mean?! and i love beyonce and i love Mos and Mos def went on host 6 seasons of Def Poetry on HBO  so that’s around the cultural moment and zeitgeist when Youth Speaks was being formed.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Got it okay, okay. And then put it in context, how does the event, the annual event, Brave New Voices play a part in spreading the idea behind Youth Speaks?

Michelle “Mush” Lee: In 1997, we started the first, you know, hosted the first Youth Poetry Slam in Frisco in San Francisco. And, we realized quickly that there were other cities, you know, poets were teaching other young folks. And so four cities got together a couple of years later, in New Mexico and said, you know, let’s convene every year. Let’s just get us together to create a space, 3 or 4 days, for young folks to just share their stories but also engage in this, like, oral poetic that was, again, from the hip hop culture, born of a very specific social context, from Black oral tradition. And, you know, it’s like when you meet your people, you find your people. And it’s like, by all means, any means and all means, like, let’s stay together.

[Music]

Michelle “Mush” Lee:That became kind of the pathway to connecting with eventually what became a network of 60 different youth voice organizations in the country: every corner, including, some First Nations reservations. 

It was a way for young people to see and experience other poets who don’t look like them, who who might not even sound like them, definitely did not come from the same type of walk of life. But what, what bound everybody together was their love for the word and we thought that was the best type of exchange.

 Pendarvis Harshaw: So Brave New Voices, toeing the line of three decades of being in existence and bringing young folks together to platform their voices and talk about issues that matter right now. Why is this July’s event so special and what’s the focus of it?

 Michelle “Mush” Lee: There’s this kind of collective, disposition that and spirit energy, whatever you want to call it, that says that things feel particularly difficult. You know, so language like collective grief, collective punishment, collective fatigue, collective exhaustion,it’s weighing on us.  And let’s the, you know, the obvious this November is the presidential election.

There’s a lot at stake, I think, and there’s a lot of legitimate resistance and frustration and rage amongst young people at the ways that our generation and our parents and grandparents generations um voluntary or involuntary have created like, the conditions.

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah.  What are some of the key issues that you folks are looking to talk about?

 Michelle “Mush” Lee: The stuff that comes up is social media and mental health,

 [Clip of Youth Speaks poet reciting poem on healing]

You believe that you are the definition of opaque.
You don’t even realize that you are the centerpiece in a room of double-sided mirrors and if only you cupped your hands around the glass, you would realize this is what healing looks like,
allowing yourself to become some sort of transparency.
And yes, they say healing is not linear, but healing is a revolving door..


Michelle “Mush” Lee: …climate justice… 

[Clip of Youth Speaks poets talking about climate justice]

Abuelos and Abuelas
Kids scattered on playgrounds
Farmers toiling the fields
Boiling under blistering heat

Michelle “Mush” Lee: …kind of an interrogation of colonialism, rematriation movements. What does that mean? What does it mean to be indigenous and sovereign? Also, you know, American Samoa, and other kind of nations that are, have been struggling in movement and movement work to be able to take back their ancestral land.

Michelle “Mush” Lee: Censorship,

[Clip of Youth Speaks poet reciting poem about banned books]

We are not perfect but our nation is based on hope.
We are always striving for a more perfect union
That hope is crushed when books are banned,
ripping away stories that need to be told. [audience hmm]
If voices can be so easily muzzled in America,
what hope do people yearning for freedom have in
Russia, China, Ukraine, Gaza?
Silencing books by banning them only leads to
silencing people by bombing them. [audience cheering]

 Michelle “Mush” Lee: Last thing I’ll say is, underneath it all, one of the greatest powers that every poet I know has is the power to time travel. And by that, I mean somebody says or shares something that you know is authentic, you know, is real and you know, took some type of risk to, to to share. And suddenly, you know them in a new way,

 I don’t know how to describe that. I always just describe it as time travel. We don’t give it enough due credit. You know, funders are always trying to measure that stuff. I’m like, ‘you can’t measure it man You can’t. You just got to trust. Just come into this space and feel it. I promise you, you’re just gonna want to write checks to the shorties.’ But, yeah, I think that is one of the most magical things that a poet and most artists I know are able to do.

The ability to connect people across, you know, imagined or real dividing lines is something that we’re trying to preserve through Brave New voices.

Pendarvis Harshaw: i love that.  I love that you said that it’s there are so many different issues to address. Underneath that is the human connection and the ability to create empathy, situations where people can be open to other people’s lived experiences. 

With that said, do you have any advice to a young poet, someone in their teens, 20s, or even an older person who’s looking to make their first sound, as you said?

 Michelle “Mush” Lee: Look, I’m 41 years old. I was born in 1982. This is a different moment. You know, I have a child that’s 11 years old, so it’s a different moment. I recognize that. It’s really hard. I feel like it’s even harder for our young people today to feel like they can truly make mistakes and fail publicly.

 Shame based culture, there’s all kinds of stuff that existed even when we were children but it’s, it’s a different scale and scope. And so I would say, look, you’re going to suck. And it’s going to be fine. But if it feels right when you’re up there, no matter how much your paper is shaking, you got to keep doing it and that’s it.

 Once you put your pen to paper, don’t stop and seek out mentors. And then finally, come find Youth Speaks. Even if you’ve never written a poem, and we will walk with you.

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: Mush, thank you for your time, for your personal story and for assisting the next generation in telling their story. 

Again, Mush is the Executive Director of Youth Speaks, you can learn more about that organization by checking out their website, youthspeaks.org.

This summer Youth Speaks will be one of the many poetry orgs participating in Brave New Voices in Washington D.C., for more info on that check youthspeaks.org/bravenewvoices

And for more on Mush, she’s on Instagram. You can find her @ Mush510_ 

This episode was hosted by me, Pendarvis Harshaw. Marisol Medina-Cadena produced this episode. Chris Hambrick held it down for edits on this one. Christopher Beale engineered this joint.   

The Rightnowish team is also supported by Jen Chien, Ugur Dursun, Holly Kernan, Cesar Saldaña, and Katie Sprenger. 

Rightnowish is a KQED production. Until next time, peace!

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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