UPTOWN — Today's young people are obsessed with social media and numbed by violence — according to a quartet of teenage poets trained in Uptown who won the Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam.
Kuumba Lynx's lyrical commentary on the relationship between social media, reality television and the potentially numbing effects of Chicago's violence was featured in a poem called "Someone Like You, a.k.a., I Do Be Watching Your Tweets," which they performed March 9 at the the Cadillac Palace Theatre for an audience of about 2,000 people.
The poem helped them emerge from a field of 100 teams to win Louder Than a Bomb, an annual youth poetry slam contest held in Chicago.
The winning squad is made up of 14-year-old Sejahari Villegas of Humboldt Park; Tanya Smith, 18, of Humboldt Park; Jeramiah Perry, 18, of Englewood; and Jahleigh Bullie, 16, of Uptown.
Bullie, whose mother, Jacinda, is a founding Kuumba Lynx member and one of the team's coaches, said the brainstorm that yielded the four-minute group performance began with this seemingly simple but loaded question: “What’s wrong with the world?”
“Everybody is a bunch of crackhead zombies,” was the answer, said Bullie, a junior who also stars at running back for Gordon Tech's varsity football team.
It started as a joke, but Bullie said the poets soon found some measure of truth — allegorically speaking — behind the concept.
On stage, they portrayed zombies, desensitized but damaged by epidemic violence — and visibly afflicted by a feverish lust for social media and reality television. The two addictions are both an escape from painful truths and part of the reason for the zombies' numbness and lack of engagement with real world problems, the poets explained.
"Seasons have changed," they said in the last line of the performance, "and you're still sweating how many likes you have on Instagram; Refresh!"
"Before we got on that stage we knew that what were were doing was bigger than Louder Than a Bomb, it was bigger than competition, it was bigger than any individual on our team," said team captain Smith, also a student at Uplift Community High School in Uptown and a member of the school's basketball team.
"We knew that win or lose, we got our message out. I feel like we won because we were being true to our purpose."
Kuumba Lynx is an arts education program founded in Uptown in 1996. The program "tries to reach out to those kids who are on the streets and have something to do with the violence," said team member Sejahari Villeges, an eighth-grader enrolled in the Kenwood Academy Academic Center program for gifted students. His mother, Jaquanda, is also a founding member and coach.
"A lot of kids are outside of Clarendon Park doing things that they're not supposed to be doing, or just falling into bad situations and need some way to get out," he said. "Our mission with Kuumba Lynx is to find those kids and make them into poets, make them into dancers, make them into actors or rappers or DJs. I think for those kids who are desensitized, I think that's why we write our poems so we can sort of change their point of view to look at things in a positive way."
Winning Louder Than a Bomb was was a great accomplishment, but the team has more work to do, Jacinda Bullie said.
Winning earned them the right to represent Chicago in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in August. Chicago is hosting this year.
"Brave New Voices is a whole other level, and it requires 12 to 15 three-minute pieces," Jacinda Bullie said. "They have a lot of work ahead of them."