Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival

The UrbArts Organization’s youth poetry slam team won first place at the 2019 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival on July 20 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The UrbArts Organization’s youth poetry slam team won first place at the 2019 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival last month in Las Vegas. The win marks the first time that a youth poetry slam team representing St. Louis has been crowned champion of the international poetry competition throughout its more than two decades of existence.

“So much of writing is about the process and this win affirms our process of finding the youth poets who are ready to grow and share their truth,” said M. K. Stallings, UrbArts founder and executive director.

Founded in August 2001 as Urban Artists Alliance for Child Development, UrbArts is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to create platforms for youth and community development.

UrbArts operates annual, local poetry slams for adults and teen spoken-word artists, entitled UrbSlam Saint Louis and VerbQuake Youth Poetry Slam, respectively. Since 2012, VerbQuake has partnered with high schools throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area. In 2015, UrbArts sponsored its first team of VerbQuake champions to represent St. Louis at the Brave New Voices International Festival.

The Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, powered by Youth Speaks, is a unique festival that annually brings together more than 500 young poets, their mentors, and the nation’s leading artists and cultural workers. They convene in a different U.S. city for four to five days of arts education, artistic expression, and civic engagement. The festival has taken place for 22 years.

Commonly referred to as BNV, Brave New Voices hosted 45 teams from throughout the country as well as cities from around the world in one of the longest-running celebrations of competitive spoken word poetry in the United States for teens. Teams from Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and New Zealand were represented in this year’s contest. Notable Youth Speaks alumni include actor Daveed Diggs, who came back to emcee BNV in 2016 after starring in roles in the Broadway pop culture phenomenon “Hamilton” and ABC network’s hit sitcom “black-ish.” BNV received national attention in 2008 when HBO produced a series that aired on the cable network.

During the Grand Slam Finals, the St. Louis team faced off against teams from Seattle, Chicago, and Newark. In a close finish, St. Louis won by the slimmest margin in a poetry slam, a tenth of a point, edging out the Chicago team in a dramatic finish.

The 2019 champion St. Louis team is comprised of teen poets Sarah Abbas of Marquette High School, Camryn Howe, a recent graduate from Kirkwood High School, Keana Fox of Collinsville High School, Caleb Broeker, a recent graduate of Northwest High School (in Cedar Hill, Missouri), former St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate and Emerson College freshman Zack Lesmeister and current St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate Kalyn McKoy of Parkway North.

This year’s coach for the UrbArts team was Paul Tran, who was a fixture of the New York poetry slam scene before enrolling at Washington University for graduate school. Her experience as a champion and coaching one of the top teams in youth poetry helped St. Louis advance to the final round.

Tran, a poet, teaching artist, and experienced poetry slam champion, served as the lead coach and mentored two assistant coaches, Bisa Adero, inaugural Youth Poet Laureate, and Mojovah, former VerbQuake poetry slam champion. Sahara Sista S.O.L.S. also coached and offered support for the youth team as an UrbArts representative.

“This win lets them know that being a champion starts with expressing yourself without apology,” said Stallings.

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