SLAMbassadors: teenagers say poetry keeps them out of prison

Jamal-Mseble Photo: Rosemary Slay

I am blasted with bass-heavy “…out in the street they call it murrrda”, followed by excited shrieks from what sounds like a delighted child. It isn’t. It is the incomparably energetic and animated Joelle Taylor.

Taylor is an internationally celebrated spoken word artist, published poet and mentor to generations of young poets from east and southeast London. Tonight, with her short blonde crop, black dinner jacket with sequinned lapels and trademark DMs, she resembles a kind of punk pixie.

Gathered into the Drill Hall in central London are the 10 winners out of the 800 young people who took part in the Poetry Society’s SLAMbassadors championship. They are here to perform a showcase of their best performances to an audience of excited friends, family and poetry fans after a weekend together at a poetry workshop led by Joelle.

Looking at the line of teenagers nervously waiting to perform it would be easy to imagine there could be hostility in the group; what does Jamal from East London have in common with Buckinghamshire grammar school girl Lily? But it is obvious from their encouragement and playful banter with one another that this is irrelevant. As one girl puts it, they are a “SLAMily” now.

This sentiment is echoed by Hackney-born winner of the 2006 Slam Competition, Chris Preddie, 23, aka Cashman. He now works closely with Joelle and other youth support groups, as well as being a distinguished poet, MC and actor in his own right.

“For most of us involved in SLAMbassadors, it is all about Joelle Taylor,” he says. “If it wasn’t for her right now we’d be on the streets, or in prison, or just wasting our lives. I honour her in every sort of way.”

Like this year’s winners, Preddie is most inspired by where he is from, and is constantly moving around south, east and north London. “Hackney is just one those places where so much talent comes from,” he says. “And the kids look up to artists from their area, like Wiley or Tinchy Stryder.”

A rap artist initially, Preddie was drawn to poetry for the freedom it gave him. “It is the freest style of writing, there is no right or wrong,” he explains. “There is no genre, or sex, or colour you need to be to do it. You just go there, write your piece, free up and be you.”

The theme of this year’s competition was ‘Identity’, and each act’s winning piece reflects just how varied the lives of the ten finalists are.

At 14, Remi Jackson from Lambeth is the youngest performer of the night. His competition poem analyses why people constantly feel the need to define him – he has both Irish and Nigerian heritage – while he is happier to just be seen as “me”.

Like many of the young poets, Remi’s strongest influence is hip-hop and he is a talented MC. Joelle instructs any music producers in the audience to “sit up and take note” as he walks onstage.

“My poetry is inspired by rap and London hip-hop – people like Low Key and Akala. There are a lot of negative things coming out of the London music scene at the moment, so the positive isn’t getting the proper recognition it should be,” says Remi.

“I like writing about what I see,” he says. “What I see on the news and what I see in my area, how people act. Its observational poetry.” One moment the images in his poems are hyper-focussed snapshots of everyday events of his own life, the next they expand to explore much larger, global human issues.

The SLAMbassador judges toured schools across the country looking for talent and introducing poetry to many children for the first time. “It has been a long journey to get to this West End stage”, Taylor says. “It has taken us through all the boroughs of London, across Buckinghamshire, North Somerset, up to Much Wenlock, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and beyond.”

Some of the finalists had never considered verse as a means of expression until recently. “Most young people think poetry is all flowery and silly and nothing like rap, but Joelle changes that,” says Preddie.

However, for one performer this is not true; Jamal Msebele has poetry in his blood. He is the son of respected performance poet Sifundo Msebele, and his sophistication as a lyricist earns him Joelle’s comparison to Gil Scott Heron.

“I was really bad at reading and writing, so that’s why my mum introduced me to poetry,” the 17-year-old from Newham explains. “I started with page poetry, and then performed for the first time when I was ten. I still get really nervous, but I know how to use that energy now.”

Jamal had his first collection published when he was 13. The book’s title, Kaleidescope, is a tribute to the exhilarating diversity of where he lives in east London. “Where I’m from is everything to my poetry. I can get so much material from just walking down the road.”

Like several of the other finalists, Jamal has at times been home-schooled, giving him more time to focus on his art and assist his mother in young people’s poetry workshops.

“If I could make a living out of poetry and live in a nice penthouse with lots of money, then I definitely wouldn’t want to do anything else as a career,” he says, grinning.

15-year-old Tiana from Streatham has something that makes her stand out onstage and her electrifying performance is saved until last. She is the only beat-boxer in the group.

Her performance seamlessly weaves together instantly recognisable jungle bass lines with soulful vocals and straight-talking verse. Joelle dedicates Tiana’s performance to Scorpio, from the legendary east London group Asian Dub Foundation, saying “the whole night would have inspired him.”

Dressed in a purple and green checked shirt, loose jeans, trainers, oversized glasses and a thick gold chain it is obvious that Tiana’s music is not the only thing inspired by the original hip-hop artists she admires like Common and Mos Def.

“From the age of six I was really into music,” she says. “When I was I young I was always dancing, or writing down little lyrics. Poetry has really got to me now, and I am writing all the time, everywhere I go. If I’m out I’ll use my phone or at home a pad, but I just have to write everything down!”

Her face breaks into a shy smile when asked what it felt like to win. “I couldn’t believe it, I was completely overwhelmed. I cried actually,” she laughs, showing her dimples.

The evening closes with an eagerly anticipated reading by Linton Kwesi Johnson. His controlled, understated stage presence is a complete contrast to the boundless energy coming from the front row of young poets. Speaking afterward he says: “There has been a nice variety of voices from some extremely talented people. I am very impressed.”

As the performers say their goodbyes, a beaming Joelle Taylor says: “The new SLAMbassadors were on fire this evening, and their flames brought a little more light to the world – enough light perhaps to read poems by.

“Having them meet Linton Kwesi Johnson, the dub-Father, live on stage was a beautiful moment – the symbolic handing of the microphone as baton to the younger generation. Amazing.”

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