Youth Speaks Hawaii Finals: The youth can speak for itself

Jess Kroll

HONOLULU—It may be years since Hawaii’s last national championship in most competitions, but there is one local-grown team currently eyeing a possible three-peat for an international title: Youth Speaks Hawaii (YSH). After winning the Brave New Voices (BNV) International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington DC in 2008—as chronicled on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents: Brave New Voices, where Hawaii was a featured team—and repeating in 2009’s tournament in Chicago, the road to this year’s competition in Los Angeles begins this Friday with the Youth Speaks Hawaii Grand Slam Finals.

As with previous years, this week’s Grand Slam will determine the composition of the squad representing Hawaii at BNV with the top six poets, from ages 13 to 19, qualifying to compete against peers from all over the nation, as well as teams from England and Canada. With an open sign-up for all teenagers, including those who have never performed before, every poet has an equal chance to impress the panel of five expert judges. In previous years, the demand to enter was so great that some poets where locked out of competition. This year, a first-come-first-registered rule has been implemented, with a maximum of 25 competing slots. With interscholastic competitions held twice a year, featuring teams from high schools including Kalani, Waianae, UH Lab, and Farrington as well as Hakipuu Learning Center and Youth Speaks’ own weekly writing workshop, the list will fill quickly, and the competition will be fierce.

“It’s that moment you’ve spent six months preparing for,” says Jocelyn Ng, 3-time member of the YSH team, including the two championship winners. “After that first breath into the microphone everything is on the line. This is your moment. It’s three minutes for everyone to hear you.” 

While the competitive aspect of slam poetry may bring attention and accolades, it’s the community and camaraderie that keep young writers involved and inspired. Working under the mantra of “the points are not the point, the point is the poetry,” Youth Speaks Hawaii has earned recognition throughout the poetry slam world not only for success with judges, but for the quality of its writing and its character. Notably, Hawaii’s poets refused to separate themselves from other competing teams for interviews following their championship in 2008.

“At first we were like little brother,” says Youth Speaks Hawaii Outreach Director Travis Thompson, “but then people started talking. We earned a reputation for hard-hitting team pieces—well rehearsed, well written, without a lot of razzle-dazzle.” 

Ng adds, “I’ve never heard one person say one bad thing about Hawaii. So we always try to take every bit of love that has been given and return it even greater.” 

Since aging out of the youth scene, Ng has successfully transitioned into being an “adult” poet by finishing second in the First Thursday Grand Slam Finals, qualifying her to compete as a member of Team Hawaii at the National Poetry Slam in Minneapolis. Yet she remains loyal to her roots as the host of Youth Speaks Hawaii’s monthly Second Saturday Slams. 

“It’s a second family,” she says. “One where I can always be myself. It makes me feel safe. The relationship is different than that of immediate family and friends, but it’s equal.”

Within the last two years, many of Ng’s former teammates and fellow YSH poets have achieved similar success outside of youth competition. Four of the twelve poets competing in last month’s First Thursday Grand Slam came up through the YSH program, including champion Sterling Higa. Of the four, only Ng has aged out of youth contention. Jamaica Osorio, one of Ng’s former championship teammates, was one of the first slam poets to ever perform at the White House, in front of an audience which included President Barack Obama.

“Youth Speaks gave me the foundation that’s not about the competition, it’s about how you touch someone, or how you inspire them,” Ng says. “It’s about the message. Youth Speaks made me feel I was the best I could be at my age, and made me eager to grow as an adult.”

Says Thompson: “We try to focus on bringing a narrative no one else can. There are stories that everyone can tell, but no one else can tell your story. No one else can tell stories from Hawaii.” He adds that YSH stresses that all poets who participate get to tell their stories. “Everyone gets the chance to rock.”

The decision to place the competition on a Friday was not made arbitrarily, as the current practice of furloughing public schools has shortened the educational week by one-fifth. 

“We want to get the kids that have nowhere else to go,” Thompson says of scheduling the event on a furlough day. “We want to engage them and get them to creatively use their brains on a day when the school system doesn’t allow them to. You don’t need a chef to eat, you feed yourself. We want to show the students that there are alternatives. There are people who care.” He adds, “That sounded really corny, but it’s true.”

The competition begins Friday, April 23, at 6:00 p.m. in Farrington High School Auditorium. Doors and poet sign-up begins at 5:00 p.m. Pre-sale tickets are $5, $7 at the door with a valid student ID or library card, and $10 for general admission. All proceeds go toward travel expenses for this year’s team to compete in Los Angeles in July.