Hip-hop 101: Adam Bradley is revolutionizing education...one rap at a time
"Where's Montbello at?"
The imploring call echoes around the auditorium of Montbello High School. For the past half hour, the stage here has hosted a special performance by Idris Goodwin, a nationally recognized playwright and rapper, and students from his "Hip-hop Aesthetics" class at Colorado College, where Goodwin is a visiting professor. First Goodwin showcased his skills, belting out his rhymes — "I come from the word. And, word, I am a man of many" — with the same passion and swagger that landed him on HBO's Def Poetry, among other venues. Then one by one, Goodwin's students took the stage, turning the foibles of liberal-arts life into street poetry. A guy in a collared shirt rapped about shortening his name, Mohammad, "To M-O-E, simply to be part of the U-S-A." Trevor, aka "T-Bone," declared, "Putting P on the map, that's Portland, 503 where we at!" while another student beatboxed alongside him. A woman named Denali rhymed about growing up in the Bay Area and crooned, "It's so pretty.... North of the Golden Gate, part of the Golden State...Ooh, my heart aches for home."
But where's Montbello at? This isn't just a presentation; it's supposed to be a conversation, a hip-hop exchange. The Montbello students in the auditorium have been taking their own hip-hop class, presided over by one of the most preeminent rap scholars around: University of Colorado English professor Adam Bradley, co-editor of The Anthology of Rap and co-author of rap star Common's memoir, among other accomplishments. Bradley recently launched "Hip-hop in the Classroom," an ambitious initiative to bring hip-hop scholarship to middle-school and high-school classrooms. His first venture is working with these Montbello juniors, instructing them on the aesthetics, imagery, syntax and tone of 2Pac and Jay-Z as part of their Advanced Placement English class. And now it's time to show Goodwin and his pupils what they're made of — or, as Bradley hollers, "Where's Montbello at?"
Montbello High School
Silence. It looks like no one from Montbello is going to represent, no one is going to show these college kids what they're made of — one more knock against a school that's seen a lifetime of hard knocks.
In late 2010, the Denver school board looked at Montbello's bleak academic performance and approved a drastic turnaround plan for the school. Several new high-school programs would take root on the Montbello High School campus in far northeast Denver, while Montbello itself would be phased out entirely. Bradley's hip-hop pupils will be in the last class of Montbello students to graduate. After June 2014, the school that was Montbello will be no more, as silent as the hush that's settled over the auditorium.
But suddenly there's movement in the auditorium and the squeak of a seat being relinquished. A young man steps up to the microphone: "My name is Jalon Martin, and I'm a junior at Montbello." The sixteen-year-old is a bulldog of a kid, and looks like he belongs more on the Montbello Warriors football field — where he plays tight end and linebacker — than up here on stage. But what comes out of his mouth next is the furthest thing from gridiron muttering:
I understand who I am, but do you?
Society has labeled me as a criminal
But in reality I'm just like you
Can you see past the skin color, can you see past the clothes?
The ignorant stereotypes and the stories they have told?
Unwanted because I am bold.
On and on he goes, spelling out in vivid rhymes a young life filled with challenges and promise, frustrating limits and upended stereotypes. The other students are silent, stunned. When he's done, Jalon steps back from the mike and puts his hands in the air. The auditorium erupts in cheers.
This is where Montbello's at right now. And if Jalon Martin has anything to say about it, the school won't go down without first making some noise.
My mother told me that there was only one me and no other
No father in my life so my father is my mother
But who is there to blame
Because we play a part in this stereotypical game
Jalon Martin "is a sixteen-year-old Kevin Hart," says Marquille Jones, his best friend, referring to the goofy, irreverent standup comic and actor. Jalon's the guy who walks the school halls with a smile and swagger, the three-sport (football, basketball, baseball) athlete who was named Montbello's Homecoming Lord as a freshman. He's the kid who, on his first day at Montbello, thought nothing of trying to vault the railing on one of the school's indoor ramps just to show off. So what if he botched the jump and landed prone on the floor? Jalon just laughed it off, got up and resumed his strut.
But Jalon is also the student who surprises his Facebook friends by posting new poems on his timeline. The student who'll stop a buddy, pull up some rhymes he's been typing on his phone and say, "Listen to this real quick, bro." The student who will spend his free time with Marquille in the school's music studio, dreaming up songs like "Therapy Sessions": "I am here to clear your mind, I am here to clear your mind, all the rumors, all the lies, all the rumors, all the lies...."
"I got my sense of writing from my mother," says Jalon, sitting in the school library and high-fiving nearly every kid who walks by. Since his dad wasn't in the picture, and his mom, Dee Dee, had her hands full working long shifts at local hospitals, Jalon's four older siblings helped raise him — first in Park Hill, then in Montbello, the minority-heavy suburban neighborhood cut off from most of Denver by I-70, where the family moved in the early 2000s. From his twin brothers, Josh and Julian, who are now nineteen, Jalon learned how to play sports and talk to girls. From his sisters, twenty-year-old Kwanita and twenty-four-year-old Shaquea, how to look after himself and keep up on homework. But it was from his mother, who always dreamed of getting up at a poetry open mic but never mustered the courage, that he learned how to express himself — loudly. "She told me I got my mouth from her," says Jalon with a laugh. "I believe it."
In eighth grade, he began writing short rhymes, love poems and odes to school pride, emulating the style of favorite rappers like Dr. Dre, J. Cole, Eminem and Lil Wayne. "It took my mind off everything," he says. Like the assumptions people made about a black kid living in Montbello, or how his brother Julian, "one of the most important people in my life," got locked up for a year when he was a teenager. ("I'm not sure what he did," says Jalon, reluctant to talk more about it.) Painful situations became a motivation for his rhymes: "I'd just write for a long time. It wasn't an issue no more after that."
Hip-hop simply made him feel good. He didn't know that it had a long tradition in the neighborhood.
"Montbello was a mecca of hip-hop for Colorado," says John Lewis, aka Qwest, a local audio engineer and hip-hop producer. When Lewis attended Montbello High in the late '80s, hip-hop was everywhere: Morning announcements involved a student rapping the news over the intercom; Legion of Doom, a local b-boy crew, was a staple of house parties; other kids would come into the neighborhood for rap battles after school.
Later, in the '90s, a group of Montbello students calling themselves MNLD — Mob Niggaz Living Decent — sold shrink-wrapped copies of their CD, Street Stars Affiliated, at the high school. Among MNLD's members was Michael Hope, now noted Denver hip-hop star Innerstate Ike. "We had our own thing in Montbello," Ike remembers. "We were separated like an island and kind of felt like we were underdogs. We felt we had to prove we had something going on out here."
Something clearly was going on; one Montbello kid who got his start deejaying local parties and clubs went on to become "Big Jon" Platt, chief of creative at Warner/Chappell Music Inc., and the music-industry powerhouse who works with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyoncé and Sean Combs. Still, Platt remembers his roots; when he launched his own record label, he called it Montbello Records.
But most of these hip-hop achievements and other neighborhood success stories never made the local news. When Montbello is in the headlines, it's usually for violence and crime. In the late '80s, small-time Montbello gangs like M.O., short for Members Only, got pushed out to make room for the big, inner-city gangs spreading across the country. While Park Hill became Bloods territory and the East Side was taken over by Crips, Montbello became a haven for both. "This is more like Compton because of the diversity of gangs here," says Qwest. At times there's been Compton-style bloodshed: a young bystander shot and killed in 2002 during a fight at a local park, a seventeen-year-old stabbed to death in 2005 in the midst of an argument in Montbello High's cafeteria.
It didn't help that Montbello was hit hard by the recent recession. Thousands lost their homes to foreclosures, and the area began changing: The once predominantly African-American neighborhood is now more than 50 percent Hispanic. Through all the changes and challenges, Montbello hasn't been a very stable place to grow up. According to the Piton Foundation, 80 percent of the children in the area are at risk either because they were born to teen mothers or mothers without a high-school education, or because they live in a family near poverty level. That's among the highest rates anywhere in the city.
But such stats only tell half the story, insists Beverly Kingston, director of CU's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. "What I see in this community is a theme of empowerment and strength," she says. "They really have a lot of different organizations and community members working together to try to build their capacity in the community and make Montbello a really great place to be." The community resources already in place were the main reason that Kingston and her colleagues chose Montbello as the focus of a five-year, $6.2 million project funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track and reduce youth violence.
Jalon Martin also sees empowerment and strength in his community. That's why he wanted to attend Montbello High School, why he wanted to be a Warrior, despite the stories he'd heard of race riots and dead-end career opportunities. He knew better: His sister Shaquea, a writer herself, had graduated Montbello and gone on to college. "To me, it always seemed like a good school," he says. "It's just like any school: You can get a good education there."
But a few months into his freshman year there, the Denver Board of Education decided otherwise. After considering the fact that only six in a hundred freshmen who started out at Montbello went on to college without remediation, the board voted for a major change. The five elementary and middle schools that fed into the high school would be restructured, and Montbello High's campus would be turned over to three new schools: a Denver Center for International Studies magnet middle and high school, an accelerated-curriculum Collegiate Prep Academy; and P.U.S.H. Academy, an expansion of an existing Montbello High program designed to help over-age, under-credited students. In the meantime, the original high school would be phased out — so when Jalon's class graduates in 2014, Montbello High will be no more.
The idea is to funnel new educational resources and innovative programs into an area that definitely needs help. But it was easy for the Montbello students caught in the transition to feel like they'd been written off. "Until Montbello closes, we are not going to get respect, we are always going to be underdogs, always going to be the ones they expect to fail," says Jalon. Although he feels supported by his teachers and school administrators, he's not so sure about the faceless education officials who run the show downtown. In the wake of the restructuring plan, Montbello's teachers had to re-apply for their jobs. Those who were let go were informed via e-mail during the school day, Jalon remembers, and some of them broke down in the middle of class. When Jalon was a member of the school council, he says, the school board promised Montbello new computers and other resources — but when the assets arrived, they went to the kids in the new programs that opened in 2011.
And while Jalon also says that students in the four school programs now housed at Montbello usually get along (all DPS high-school students in the area are allowed to play on Montbello's athletic teams, and the Warriors name will live on after Montbello closes), there are downsides to the shared-campus arrangement. For example, to make room for three other lunch periods, the Montbello students have to eat lunch first: at 10 a.m. "That's what happens when there are three other schools in your school," explains Jalon. "We got the short end of the stick."
But along with that, he and his classmates got something else: a responsibility to make the final Montbello class something special. "It's important for our class to leave something behind," Jalon says. "We have to leave some sort of legacy."
Man I'm sick and tired of doing the same things
My mind is a weapon
But I'm protected by this 12-gauge
I'm engraved with rage that has put my mind in an ill state
I have so much faith, but constantly I feel pain
Jalon Martin wasn't sure what to think when CU-Boulder professor Adam Bradley first walked into his Advanced Placement English class to teach the students about hip-hop. On the one hand, the kids were excited that "we were going to learn about something we actually liked," he remembers. But on the other hand, he wondered if hip-hop was really something that could be taught in a classroom. After all, he explains, "Rap is something that comes to you. And writing isn't something you learn, it's something you feel."
And even if hip-hop could be taught, was Bradley — with his nice shirt and goatee — really the guy to teach it? "All I knew was he's a brother," remembers Jalon, "and he knew a little somethin' somethin' about rap."
But that's putting it mildly. The 38-year-old Bradley has established himself as a force to be reckoned with in African-American scholarship. As a nineteen-year-old undergrad at Lewis & Clark College, he began working with professor John Callahan, combing through boxes of papers left to Callahan by his close friend, the celebrated novelist Ralph Ellison. They were looking for pieces of Ellison's legendary lost second novel, the follow-up that Ellison had long promised to his iconic 1952 work, Invisible Man. Some people believed Ellison was all talk, that there'd never been another book. But in 2010, after decades of scholarly detective work, Callahan and Bradley released Ellison's second novel, the 1,101-page tome Three Days Before the Shooting...
In the meantime, Bradley had expanded his scholarly focus to include a medium that Ellison had never cared for — but that Bradley saw as a cultural descendent of the literary innovation and audacity that the author had wielded so powerfully in his work. "Hip-hop does that all the time; whether it's a multi-layered beat by the RZA or with passing lyrical allusions in a verse from Kanye, we see that same quality of invention and inheritance," Bradley explains. So he set about deciphering rap with the same academic intensity he'd applied to Ellison's papers. In 2009, Bradley released Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop, which detailed the literary tools he'd developed to structure and analyze rap as poetry, from the apocopated rhymes of Pharoahe Monch to the onomatopoeia of KRS-One. And last year, he co-authored Common's memoir, One Day It'll All Make Sense, with the rap star and actor. "He has a certain quiet wisdom," Common says of Bradley. "With his intelligence and know-how, he can help educate and expose many more people to hip-hop culture."
But Bradley's biggest cultural contribution so far has been The Anthology of Rap, the medium's first-ever scholarly anthology. The book drew national attention, both positive (it garnered raves from the likes of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Chuck D) and negative (some reviewers and hip-hop heads complained that its song transcriptions were rife with errors). In hindsight, though, Bradley came to see even the criticisms of the work as a step forward for hip-hop: "All of a sudden, in 2010, we had a public discussion of rap as poetry. What ultimately will matter about this book isn't the skirmishes over particular words and lines, but the life it can live as part of the grand story of hip-hop as a whole."
Even before The Anthology of Rap was released, Bradley was thinking about the next chapter in his grand hip-hop story: teaching about rap in middle- and high-school classrooms alongside his college students. He'd always expected Anthology to be a tool at the college level, but the more he worked with the material, the more he saw its potential for younger students.
"Hip-hop is an incredibly scalable art form," he explains. "It can reach a host of audiences at different levels at different ways. This was a music created by kids. The culture in its fullest forms — the dance elements, the visual-arts aspects, the rhythm and words — were created by young people. So already there is a natural avenue of connection that exists. Add to that the fact that as a commodity rap music has been packaged for a host of different ears. Rap music has always been rhythm-driven, to appeal to the pop-music crowd, but it has a complex and tangled wordplay that appeals to a more literary mindset."
Although there have been other attempts around the country to inject hip-hop into grade-school classrooms, Bradley says these tend to use rap as a way to make the topics covered by the lyrics seem cool and hip, instead of focusing on the academic value of the medium itself. "What I've tried to do is suggest something different," he says, "that rap is a repository for artistic forms and beauty that is freestanding."
Early last year, he scored a $9,000 Enhancing Diversity through Action and Outreach Fellowship from CU-Boulder's Arts and Sciences Council to put his plan into action. "We were particularly excited about Adam's project because it targets students at a time when they can be or are already considering attending college," says Theresa Hernández, who chaired the fellowship committee. "By his and his students teaching about hip-hop in the classroom, he models the possibility, excitement and scholarship of a college education. Capturing these young minds and hearts is exactly what we were hoping to see."
That's far from the only value of Bradley's "Hip-hop in the Classroom," says William Kuskin, chairman of CU-Boulder's English department; he sees the initiative as potentially benefiting the field of English literature, which has been plagued for years by dwindling college enrollment. "In the '70s, the literary academy really immersed themselves in theoretical abstraction," explains Kuskin. "We lost the reading public, our ability to sit down and talk with the people that we teach. But one thing Bradley is doing with these classes is reconnecting with the public, telling them, 'It's great to love poetry.' I really believe in this vision. It's a wonderful thing."
So Bradley had his plan and his funding, but he still needed a class in which to launch his project. He was told some schools would never buy into it, that hip-hop carried too much baggage. But last spring a mutual friend connected him with Alison Corbett, an English teacher at Montbello High School. And when the two sat down, they realized that Bradley's program would be perfect for Corbett's Advanced Placement English class. "AP English is all about rhetorical analyses, making an argument and synthesizing many arguments into an argument in your own voice," says 27-year-old Corbett, who was hired by Montbello last year as a member of Teach for America-Colorado. That's exactly the kind of lessons Bradley aimed to teach — using the rhetoric and arguments of Dead Prez and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth.
But planning such a program is one thing, and getting it rolling is quite another, as Bradley realized when he first stepped into Montbello last fall. Just as the nameless protagonist in Invisible Man struggled with his own identity, Bradley had grown up in Salt Lake City torn painfully between two worlds, the son of a white mother and an AWOL African-American father. "Walking onto the school campus brought up these anxieties that were long buried," he says. "I've spoken in front of a thousand people in Australia and stepped on stage with Common and Kurtis Blow, but I actually felt more anxiety and trepidation stepping in front of those 35 students at Montbello — particularly when you are trying to traffic in cool, in something that is theirs."
As soon as he entered Corbett's classroom, he recognized the kids he'd have to bring around if he were going to win over the class. "Jalon and Marquille had the most energy," he says. "I knew I had to convince them as much as anyone else that this was worth their time and energy." So, at the end of the first class, when Jalon asked to perform some of his lyrics, Bradley told him, "Show us what you got."
Martin stood up and delivered a couple of lines, then celebrated with Jones in an extensive dap, a showy series of hand slaps and fist bumps.
"That was good," said Bradley with a smile. "But your dap was longer than your rap."
My body is filled with rage
And my heart is nothing but cold hate
All that warm love left my body
The day my brother became an inmate
"Welcome to our Christmas party, guys!"
Corbett welcomes her AP English students with her typical peppy energy as the kids file into class, shooed out of the hallways by a Montbello security guard, and take their seats for their last session before holiday break. "I am really proud of all the work you guys have done this semester," says Corbett with a bright smile as she hustles about the room, returning graded papers.
Bradley hurries in. "Sorry I'm late," he tells the class; he got waylaid signing in at the front office. "But I'm not a visitor at this point," he cracks, pulling the school-visitor sticker off his shirt with a dramatic flourish. "I am a Warrior."
Today the students will be presenting photos they've taken around school, as well as sixteen-bar rap verses they've written inspired by the images. While the assignment was made possible by the ten new Nikon digital cameras that Corbett obtained from a school donor, Bradley tells the students that exercises like this date from ancient literary history. "Ekphrasis," he writes on the whiteboard: one work of art motivated by another. The tradition stretches back centuries, he says, ranging from John Keats's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to Jay-Z songs inspired by the work of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Bradley, along with a team of CU-Boulder students, has been visiting this classroom once a month through the semester and will do so next semester, too: weaving the disparate strands of hip-hop into the existing literary canon, using rappers' rhymes to teach critical thinking, composition and close reading. How do the social-justice issues tackled by 2Pac connect with what Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail"? How best should you parse the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar to analyze diction, syntax and tone? How have the rhetorical devices used by the Roman orator Cicero been adopted by Weezy to get the ladies on the dance floor?
"It's gone better than I could have imagined, and I've learned more here than in my conversations with Chuck D or Common or what have you," says Bradley. Since he started at Montbello, he's launched a second hip-hop program, a shorter course for middle schoolers at Horizons K-8 School in Boulder. "It's been a pretty stark contrast," he says of the two classrooms — and he's not just referring to age differences. On his first day teaching in Boulder, Bradley brought up hip-hop's roots in the South Bronx, then asked how many kids had visited New York City. He figured maybe five or six would raise their hands — but all but a couple did.
While the Montbello students might not have all the opportunities and resources available to their Boulder counterparts, Corbett believes they've learned just as much — maybe more — from the hip-hop program. They've had Bradley autograph their class copies of The Anthology of Rap, they've spotted his name on the shelves of local bookstores. One day Marquille Jones proudly brought in a CU-Boulder admissions pamphlet he received in the mail, since it featured a photo of their hip-hop professor. "It makes them feel that what they are doing is immensely important," says Corbett. "It makes them feel they are engaging with this culture of thinkers and doers. It's empowering them to recognize that even messaging on social media and television commercials and music, that all of that is text that can be read and parsed and analyzed."
Jalon thinks Bradley's course has been empowering. "It felt like he wasn't teaching you how to rap," he says. "It was like he was teaching you to be a lyricist, how to be a strongly worded person through writing." It's helped him improve his own words: tightening his structure, adding more description and drama, telling stories not just about himself but also the people around him.
That's exactly what Corbett hoped the program would do for Jalon. "He is an extremely talented young man," she says. "Of all of our students, this has the most potential to impact Jalon, because he already came to us creating his own spoken word."
But Jalon's not the only Montbello student to benefit. His classmates have taken to the project, too. "Kids who don't vibe on Mark Twain or Tim O'Brien are really excited to talk about '99 Problems' or a Lauryn Hill poem," says Corbett. "Even students who didn't express interest in hip-hop at the beginning, this has helped them get up in front of class and express their voice."
That's exactly what the students do this morning after Bradley finishes his discussion of ekphrasis: One by one, they stand in front of the class and celebrate their memories of Montbello, in digital imagery and sixteen-bar rhymes scrawled on crinkled sheets of lined paper. Neftali Bardales and Seung Baang remember moments, painful and pleasurable, in the school pool; Demarcus Weaver reminisces about a game-winning three-point shot; Cody Jackson, Donald Skalecke and Paulina Munoz rhapsodize about backbreaking early morning Junior ROTC drills. Paola Correa-Nava describes crowded hallways filled with gangsters and wannabes, pot smoke and pregnant bellies, hipsters and "white kids looking intimidated." Ashley Jackson sings an emotional ode to her favorite teacher: "She's just like a loving mom, taking care of her students." And Juan Garcia raps about how when he leaves Montbello, "I know one thing for sure: There will be Warrior within my heart."
School administrators say the transformation of Montbello's Warriors is going well: Suspensions at the school are down and attendance rates are up, and for the first time in years, the campus is filled to capacity. While these stats include all four school programs sharing the campus — not to mention a new High Tech Early College innovation school that opened nearby — the 700 remaining old-school Montbello students boast improvement all their own: Last year, Montbello High's on-time graduation rate improved 4.6 points to 64.7 percent, the best in nearly a decade. Allen Smith, executive director of the Montbello turnaround program and all the other new and restructured schools in far northeast Denver (together called the Denver Summit Schools Network), says that's because he and his colleagues heard loud and clear the Montbello students' concerns about getting lost in the shuffle. "There are some very unique things we are doing for the Montbello students, and all of it is to ensure they are as successful as possible in high school and have the opportunity to go off to college," he says. That includes a special Kaplan ACT test-prep program, a financial-literacy program supported by the White House's Domestic Policy Council and, of course, the hip-hop project.
"I came from a radio station, and I have a major in radio and TV communications," says Smith. "I love music and the power of it, and how it engages with these students is an awesome way to help them learn. I think the engagement piece has really been effective. You can see it in the work they are doing in this program."
Bradley agrees that Jalon and the other students he's worked with at Montbello seem to be taking the school transition in stride. "These are young people focused more on the future than the receding past," he says.
Still, after listening to their poems this day, he admits, "There is definitely a deep well of emotion when it comes to their school — what it's meant to them and what their future will look like without it there."
For maybe the first time in his life, Jalon Martin looks apprehensive. He's sitting in the lobby of Crossroads Theater in Five Points, fifteen minutes to go until the start of Slam Nuba's bi-monthly open mic and poetry slam event. The Denver-based Slam Nuba poetry organization is known far and wide: In 2011, the Slam Nuba team won the National Poetry Slam Championship. And on this night in late January, Jalon is going to get up on this stage for the first time and show Slam Nuba what he's got.
His mother sits next to him, along with his buddy Marquille, as well as Corbett and several other Montbello teachers. They're all here to cheer him on; Jalon's once again the only student in the "Hip-hop in the Classroom" program willing to raise his voice.
Soon, though, there may be more like him across the country, all schooled and inspired by Bradley's curriculum of rhymes. Next fall, Bradley will launch the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture, or Rap Lab, at CU-Boulder. Designed like a typical math or science lab, Rap Lab will involve students, post-grads and professors engaging in project-driven research, such as tracking and analyzing hip-hop's lyrical and cultural differences around the world. Then Rap Lab members will put their findings into practice through community-outreach initiatives and classroom programs like the one Bradley launched in Montbello. "It's going to be a humanities hothouse," Bradley says excitedly. "Working in the classroom has been a really inspiring influence in my intellectual life, to see it is not just as something that's external to the other work I do, but the motivating influence of creation for me."
Bradley's Montbello alums could become poster children for this ambitious initiative. "I have a sense I will hear of them in the future," says Corbett, "that they will go off and really make waves."
Maybe Jalon will be one of them — that is, if he makes it through this poetry slam in one piece. "Are you nervous?" asks Corbett.
"I'm gonna say two words and run," he cracks. Jalon's joking. Maybe.
"You could fall off the stage!" predicts Marquille.
Finally the night's MC, Slam Nuba member Jovan Mays, starts the show. "Here at this venue, we go by a chant: 'We cut heads,'" he tells the crowd. "Somewhere tonight, you are going to hear some metaphor or literary device that is going to sever you from your senses, thus making you lose your mind."
One by one, the night's poets try to cut heads with powerful works about the objectification of women and race politics and gender identity. After the rest have gone, a kid half the age of many of the performers takes the stage. "This is called 'Make It,'" Jalon says into the mike, then starts reciting lines he's learned by heart:
I just want to make it.
All of this drama surrounding me
I don't know if I can take it
He's quieter than usual, his voice quivering with emotion. It's a newer poem, one he's been polishing with the tools he's learned from Bradley. The audience hums and snaps appreciatively as he delivers a tale of lowlifes and superficial girls and cops' bullets. He rhymes about pain and anger, as he's done in his other poems:
I am a great man, society fails to notice,
And I don't have a bad temper; I was just born to be ferocious.
Mind of a killer, actions of a lover,
No thought of having no father, all I need is my mother.
Raised by my brothers, the pain that I have suffered.
But there's something else in these words, too — a new sense of confidence and hope:
The world, I understand now.
I'm a man now.
I don't need no handouts.
Sixteen and having visions of the victory.
My future is a mystery.
Then he comes to the end, smiling triumphantly as he raises his free hand above his head, a Warrior's proud salute as he spits out his final, victorious rhymes.
My pride fits my needs.
I will strive till I bleed.
My position at the top is almost guaranteed.
I'ma make it.
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