Rapping out confidence, creativity

Communication: A program linking youths with artistic resources encourages them to use poetic skills to talk about their lives.

July 23, 2004|By Malena Amusa | Malena Amusa,SUN STAFF

When it was his turn to perform, Cortez Holmes looked and sounded like an experienced and confident hip-hop artist.

Sporting a red T-shirt and blue jeans, Cortez, 12, bobbed his head to underscore the beat.

"I shine like Afro sheen, and dress in all black 'cause I don't want to be seen," he rapped as his peers cheered him on.

Cortez's performance was part of an innovative program designed to help youths gain a sense of confidence in expressing themselves through art workshops. He joined more than 15 other youngsters, most of whom are under foster care, for weekly rap and poetry lessons.

Program director Caitlin Bell said she uses rap and poetry because of their "natural" connection to youth. She and instructors Latonya Green and Nina Ball said they hope the program exposes youths to more creative ways of talking about their lives.

Learning self-expression

"I want the youth to take away an option of how they can express themselves, and self-confidence in their writing and communication skills," said Green, a poet.

Ball, a playwright and poet, said she promotes rap as a "spiritual release" for the young people.

Tomorrow, the youths' poetic abilities will be showcased in SlamFest, the program's spoken arts festival held at Mount Vernon's East Park. SlamFest is a part of a larger program, Art in Every Direction, launched this year to link more youths with cultural and artistic resources in their community. The program is funded by a $20,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

From 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., the young poets and performers will invite audience members into a world where poverty strains loving relationships, fathers don't always show up when promised, and being optimistic is an imperative.

As 12-year-old Cameron Brown, a student at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, put it, "My poem is about how black brothers should stop selling drugs and how we'll have a better community and a better world if they didn't do bad stuff."

His younger brother, Keon Brown, 11, who also attends St. Ignatius, flipped through his notebook. He pointed to his final draft of "Fathers," a short poem with a serious message. During SlamFest, he will tell fathers "to watch what they do, because it influences their kids too."

Challenging task

Creating an environment where young people could comfortably talk about the harsh realities of their lives was a challenge, the instructors said. At a recent rehearsal at the Arena Players community theater, however, it was apparent that the students had successfully fought through the initial nervousness that some said made it difficult to perform.

"Sometimes I get shy and nervous and don't want to do it," Cameron said. "I don't want someone to degrade me."

His brother agreed but said it's easier expressing himself at the workshops because "other kids might know what I'm talking about."

Throughout the rehearsal, Green and Ball made sure to shower their proteges with hugs and words of encouragement.

"If it's happy or sad feelings, just write it," Green told the group before the "rap-off" -- a weekly event in which the students form a circle around a microphone and take turns rapping their poems.

Nine-year-old Joseph Bryant was the first to grab the microphone.

"My name is Jamal, I don't like Sean Paul; my girlfriend is real tall, her lips kind of small," Joseph rapped.

While he rapped, he danced excitedly to a beat improvised by the other students, who slapped their hands together and mouthed percussive sounds.

Bell, the program director, said the shyer kids are encouraged by watching their peers.

"When you hand one kid a mike, he tends to shy up a little, but if there are two or three kids putting sound and words into it, it helps them loosen up," she said.

After the rehearsal, the students gathered their notebooks and listened to some final words of encouragement.

"That was hot," instructor Ball said. "Please keep writing."

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