Slam poetry to be heard at Brown

Leah Sewell

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, demonstrators sang songs in order to lift their spirits and send a message to onlookers. One of those songs, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is the inspiration behind a spoken word event to take place at the Brown v. Board National Historic Site at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18.

Lift Every Voice and Speak! Poetry Night will feature poets and slam artists from around the country as well as local talents.

The event will provide a thought-provoking evening in which to commemorate Black History Month. Spoken word performanaces have risen in popularity over the past decade, growing out of the hip-hop and rap tradition pioneered by urban African-Americans and an oral tradition combining song lyrics, poetry and storytelling.

“I can vouch for all the people on the program, and they’re good,” said Chelsey Smith, administrative and program assistant for the Brown Foundation and organizer of the event. “These people have some powerful things to say.”

The lineup of performers includes Amaris Howard from North Carolina, who has been the opening act for Kanye West, Joel Brown, a renowned artist from San Francisco and Mz T.D., a spoken word artist and a staff member at the Brown v. Board National Historic Site.

Raenaldo Torres of Kansas City, who has been featured on the Def Poetry Jam Web site and who is the founder of, will be hosting the event.

“I feel it’s an honor to be doing this at the Brown v. Board site,” said Torres.

Torres will be reading two poems that he wrote specifically for the theme of “Lift Every Voice and Speak!”

“They’re both about having a voice, and how having a voice has helped us overcome hardships and find equality,” said Torres.

Washburn’s own Jackquice Smith-Mahdi, assistant professor of criminal justice, will be presenting a piece by an anonymous author, entitled “The Death of a Black Woman.” The poem discusses women’s experiences of trying to accomplish many things and fit into many expected roles while only having 24 hours in the day.

“Either you’re really going to like it and identify with it or raise at least one eyebrow,” said Mahdi. “I really want people in the audience, whether black, white, Hispanic, Native American or men, as they listen to the words, to see women nodding their heads and saying ‘that’s me, she’s talking about me,’ and for women to know they’re not alone.”

This is Mahdi’s first time performing a poetic piece in front of a large audience, and she is excited that it will happen at Monroe School.

“I teach a cultural diversity class, and every year we take a tour of the museum. To perform there, with my colleagues there and the community that I interact with, is almost spiritual to me,” said Mahdi.

In addition to poetry, the museum will also be providing music for visitors before the performances begin.

“We will have a DJ. There will be a hip-hop/R&B feel to the night,” said Smith. “Everyone will have time to jam a little bit and snap their fingers.”

But the event, most importantly, will impact audience members by presenting themes of politics, culture and political expression.

“I think people will feel really empowered,” said Smith.