Three years ago, high school rapper Taiwana Shambley (also known as Samoa the Poet), now 18, was looking for open mics in the Twin Cities when she came across the one hailed as City Pages’ Best Open Mic (Spoken Word) called Re-Verb Open Mic, put on by TruArtSpeaks, a nonprofit that uses hip hop and spoken word to delve into the intersection of leadership, social justice, and the arts in today’s youth. At her first open mic back in 2015, she says, “I almost chickened out. When they called my name, I sunk lower in my seat and was like, ‘Who?’”
Through her own passion and follow through and TruArtSpeaks’ support, Shambley considers herself (at least for now) more of a poet than a rapper, and on March 31, she will take the stage at SteppingStone Theatre with 11 other poets ages 13 through 19 and compete in the final slam of TruArtSpeaks’ Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series. There, she will be judged on content, form, performance, originality, and, to a certain extent, whatever moves the audience. It’s her second year in a row as a finalist, and she is hoping to at least be one of the top six poets to represent Minnesota at Brave New Voices in Houston, Texas, this July.
Taiwana Shambley, also known as Samoa the Poet.
Photo by Ali Abdi
“For better or for worse, many adult spoken word artists sound the same,” poet and TruArtSpeaks communication director Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre says. “There are definite tropes. But with youth, the subject and style is so diverse because no one has really told them how things are ‘supposed’ to sound.”
To prepare for the Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series, a monthslong series that involves about 100 poets making it through prelims to the semifinals and then this final stage, TruArtSpeaks offers writing- and performance-based workshops and its staple, weekly Re-Verb. Unlike other open mics, Re-Verb gives each performer six minutes at the mic that can include a solicitation for feedback tailored to whatever the poet wants to focus on, and its facilitators strive to put the focus not only on the performance but the engagement and the community.
Through TruArtSpeaks’ open mics and its workshops, Shambley has been finding her style beyond rap’s couplets and stricter rhythms, and her poems talk about her reflections on herself, oppression, and more.
“It’s not that it’s become easier to share such personal things, but it’s become … more normalized, if that makes sense,” Shambley says. “I’ve become comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
And that’s what makes spoken word so different than written poetry; it’s meant to be performed. To Shambley, that means it takes out the “middleman,” whether it be another person or the very act of reading, and speaking right to the audience. They see her. They hear her.
For 2018 semi-finalist Laurel Reynolds (pictured right), 16, she looks at it as a means of expression whereas her page poetry is more of an introspective outlet. At the semi-final rounds, her poems explored the difference between being best friends and romantic girlfriends and how to know when you’re ready to share a poem.
“It makes me own up to stuff more. Telling people something about you—you can’t keep it to yourself and pretend it doesn’t exist. If people know, it’s a thing,” Reynolds says. Identifying when she has worked through her emotions and trauma enough to perform spoken word about a topic without setting her mental health back is key to not only her spoken word but to others’. When people find that balance, spoken word can be liberating.
That feeling of freedom and reclamation is something that Shambley is still striving for, and she’s hoping to find it at the hallowed halls of Brave New Voices—if she makes it.
“I’m excited and terrified for finals,” Shambley says. “I see people who are alumni of Brave New Voices, and I learn how spoken word is liberating, especially for Black liberation. … I think right now I do it more because I’m good at it, and I’m not OK with that. Tish Jones (poet and TruArtSpeaks’ executive director) was talking in a Ted talk about how spoken word gives young people an ability to reclaim language and their story. When I open a history textbook, it’s telling me, ‘you’re a slave, you’re colonized,’ and I want to reclaim my story.”
Photo of Laurel Reynolds by Awa Mally.