Spoken Word Poetry an Outlet for City Youth

By Kate Pangilinan

When Sore Agbaje was 8 years old and moved to New York from Nigeria, she did not understand why. A visa lottery her father won, a proverbial golden ticket, brought her and her family to Jamaica, Queens, with the promise of better education. Tucked in the privacy of her room, Agbaje, a shy girl, wrote poetry that would wind up being spoken on a stage at Lincoln Center.

Agbaje’s music appreciation teacher brought her class to Lincoln Center to see an opera, her first time there.

“And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, could I ever perform here? Nah, I can’t…like, what would I do?’” said Agbaje.

Though she had won a poetry slam in her senior year of high school and was awarded a 2012 Scholastic Art and Writing Silver Key, spoken word was still just a tool for self-expression.

Like many young adults, Agbaje saw spoken word poetry as a therapeutic form of self-expression and a medium to help foster self-confidence. In New York City, the art has become a method of inspiring an interest in literacy and language arts in schools.

By the last few weeks of high school, Agbaje knew that spoken word poetry could do more than just alleviate stress or her shyness. She wanted to take the art seriously after graduation.

But Agbaje’s parents, who had left a comfortable life in Nigeria to start from scratch, wanted her to balance art and education.

“I’ve grown up with very strict parents, and they have supported my art. But they haven’t made it easy,” she said.

The Urban Word

Two weeks after graduation, she found Urban Word NYC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to using spoken word poetry as a way to promote literacy to young New Yorkers.

“It was great to be embraced – immediately embraced by people, and to have people appreciate my work and help me grow,” said Agbaje, now 19.

“When you’re by yourself, you tend to think, ‘Oh my gosh, my poetry is so great,’ so when you’re in a group and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone’s poetry is so great,’ it’s no longer just about you. It’s about what you’re creating. That space. That community that’s there.”

Today, Agbaje has performed twice in the Youth Poet Laureate Poetry Slam at Lincoln Center. Through Urban Word’s internship, workshops, and mentorship program, Agbaje became empowered by her art in a very different way.

Sore Agbaje, 2015 Youth Poet Ambassador of NYC
Sore Agbaje, 2015 Youth Poet Ambassador of NYC

“My first time doing YPL, it was a great feeling,” she said, recalling the 2014 competition.

“This was my first slam outside of school. I was 18 or 17 and it was the first time I felt like, ‘Wow, I’m doing something.’ Poetry can get me into places that I never thought I could get to. It was interesting to see the full circle of life. Like, I am actually at Lincoln Center. I am actually performing.”

She placed as a finalist in both years, and is now a 2015 Youth Poet Ambassador for New York City, along with other finalists of the 2014 Youth Poet Laureate program. Ambassadors, all ages 16 to 19, travel the five boroughs with the laureates to speak to their peers about civil engagement.

Aside from Lincoln Center, Agbaje has performed for the Secretary General of the United Nations at the 2014 International Youth Day Conference in New York City and at the Cyphers for Justice and Peace Conference at Columbia University.

Aaya Perez, one of Urban Word NYC’s Youth Board members, has been a part of the nonprofit for four years.

“Urban Word is such an interesting kind of place. You don’t get a lot of places that give so much voice to the people they’re servicing,” said Perez.

A Message, a Lesson

Mason Granger, creator of poetry slam locator app SlamFind and a producer at the performance group Mayhem Poets, was on track to become a marine biologist when he began to pursue poetry and education full-time. Granger met Kyle Sutton and Scott Tarazevits at Rutgers University and together they  founded Mayhem Poets in 2000, beginning an open mike. Their mission was to reshape poetry education.

“So then we started going into our friends’ English classes when they would do their poetry section, and they went well. And then we went, ‘All right, maybe we can make a living out of this.’ And so we submitted materials to school districts, PTA’s and colleges, and we’ve been making a living doing this for the past nine years,” said Granger.

Slam Chops, a program developed under Mayhem Poets, is a New York City-based educational training program that helps aspiring poets.

“For me, the most rewarding part of this is when I have a good time, when everyone else in the crowd has a good time, yet still an actual message was conveyed,” said Granger. “And if all three of those things happen, then the show was successful.”

Matt Kilkelly, English teacher and Literary Magazine moderator at Archbishop Molloy High School

Matt Kilkelly, an English teacher at Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood, Queens, finds a different sort of inspiration for his students as school moderator and adviser of the school’s literary magazine for over a decade.

“One of the most rewarding aspects is when students tell me how they found their own individual voice through Lit Mag,” he said.

“They become more skillful in their craft, but mostly I see them become more confident in their abilities. Prior to this, they were very shy and didn’t believe they had any talent.”

Wielding Words

Emma Koosis, a high school senior and first-time slammer, performed her first competitive spoken word poem at a recent Sidewalk Café open mike night.

“It was scarier than I thought it would be and less scary than I thought it would be,” said Koosis. “I think it’s really empowering to be able to get up there and say things that are true for you, and may be true for other people too.”

Sore Agbaje shares similar sentiments.

“People, their perspective, and the way they see life, can actually change by just listening to words.”