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‘Louder than a Bomb’ poetry slam ‘creates community’

Jamila Woods | Photo by Bill Whitmire

Preliminary bout No. 48 of Louder Than a Bomb 2016 had just started rolling at Columbia College late last month, with host Keyante Aytch explaining how the competing teams of (mostly teenage) slam poets’ performances would be scored. Then he stopped.

“How do you really ‘win’ a poetry slam?” Aytch pondered aloud, his rhetorical question promptly furnished with a concrete answer as contestants merrily chorused, “You don’t!”

Vanquishing opponents, while undeniably fun, isn’t the overriding goal of Louder Than a Bomb; billed as the world’s largest youth poetry festival, it’s now in its 16th year of production by locally based nonprofit Young Chicago Authors. On the contrary, as emcee-poet Aytch would later express it (using double alliteration), “The competition is fleeting, the craft is forever.”

Louder than a Bomb Sweet 16 Benefit Party

Featuring: Chuck D. & DJ Lord of Public Enemy

When: 7-10 p.m. March 18

Where: Metro, 3730 N. Clark

Tickets: $26-$50 (all ages)

Info: www.metrochicago.com

Louder than a Bomb Team Finals

Halftime show featuring: DJ Lord of Public Enemy, Jamila Woods, Daryn Alexus

When: 6-9 p.m. March 19

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress

Tickets: $10 students, $20 adults (all ages)

Info: www.auditoriumtheatre.org

LTAB’s poetry-performance tournaments “create community, like athletic competitions do,” detailed Sean Michael Kaplan, YCA’s national director of special operations. Contestants win “respect – and artistic skills that last through their lives.”

Dozens of LTAB 2016 bouts have been staged at 10 different venues since this iteration’s Feb. 13 kickoff, involving 1,200 students from more than 120 schools across 125 Chicago-area ZIP codes. It all culminates in this year’s LTAB Team Finals, presented March 19 at the Auditorium Theatre, as the four top-scoring schools go voce-a-voce for first place.

The preceding night LTAB fetes its “Sweet 16” – simultaneously celebrating its recent MacArthur Foundation Award – with a benefit at Metro. Event headliners/co-hosts Chuck D. and DJ Lord, of hip-hop’s venerated political lions Public Enemy, appear in discrete segments that encompass performance and a “Hip-Hop History Lesson” interview, conducted by co-host Gaye Theresa Johnson, UCLA associate professor of black studies.

“It’s rare to be able to see Chuck D. play for $26 [tickets],” observed Kaplan. “But Louder Than a Bomb’ is something he truly cares about.”

DJ Lord and Chuck D | COURTESY LTAB
DJ Lord and Chuck D | COURTESY LTAB

Festival co-founder Kevin Coval, YCA’s artistic director, had actually christened Louder Than a Bomb after the Public Enemy song that burst from its landmark 1988 album, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” At the March 19 Team Finals, Chuck D. will bestow his own Radical Lyricism Award on “the artist(s) who embody the poetic activism of Public Enemy’s founder,” as Kaplan phrased it. Plus, a special halftime show will showcase not only DJ Lord’s turntable wizardry, but also a #BlackGirlsMagic-themed set, the latter inspired by an empowering hashtag that’s promulgated by and for females of color; it features rising Chicago vocalists Jamila Woods and Daryn Alexus.

Woods – a published poet who recently sang on “SNL” with former YCA member Chance the Rapper, backed up Macklemore on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and will release an album this spring on Chicago hip-hop label Closed Sessions – plans to perform her own song, “Blk Girl Soldier.” She wrote it a year ago following a pair of outrageous events, one here at home and another halfway across the globe. As etched in Woods’ stark, chilling refrain, the Chicago police’s fatal shooting of unarmed 22-year old Rekia Boyd, and the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by jihadist terror group Boko Haram, add to an ever-lengthening historical chain of violence and neglect: “Ain’t nobody checkin’ for us /Look at what they did to my sisters/Last century, last week.” And yet, Woods assures of her titular heroine: “She-she-she-she-she-she don’t give up.”

An LTAB alum herself, now YCA’s associate artistic director, Woods is hailed by student poets as invaluable. Jessica Pope, a senior at Lindblom Math & Science Academy, and a member of Lindblom’s semifinalist LTAB team, remembers Woods helping her through a traumatic freshman year. “My only girl cousin was accidentally shot,” Pope said soberly. “She was my world, and to be taken away from me at nine … I [was in denial] that she was gone till Ms. Jamila said, ‘Write about it.’”

Outward-looking poems abound as well, including teammate Garvey Gregory’s 2016 showpiece, which challenges “the school-to-prison pipeline of our education system: standardized tests, poor lunches, budget cuts, closings. LTAB [does away with] stereotypes of young people as lazy and disconnected,” he stressed. “You see layered, complex individuals.”

Alec Baldwin has “been a fan of Young Chicago Authors and Louder Than A Bomb for years,” the actor-activist wrote in an email, regretting that he’s unable to attend 2016’s festivities: “But needless to say, they’re in very good hands with Chuck D.”

Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.

Posted on March 16, 2016.