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Youth poet mentor: keeping the stories sacred

Sun, Sep 15, 2013

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Brandon Santiago grew up around the Bay Area and stayed mostly in San Francisco. He began by moving boxes but now serves as a mentor and youth development director for Youth Speaks.

SW: How did you get involved in Youth Speaks, and how long have you been involved?

BS: My first ever exposure to spoken word as a way of education was at a continuation school called Ida B. Wells. It’s a school where folks who couldn’t cut it in regular school go. And I came out [and thought], ‘Okay, that’s kind of cool. I like what they do.’ And then I saw one of my best friends compete and win [a Youth Speaks] slam. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of tight. People are listening to him.’ I was about 19 at the time. Just a little context, I’m a high school dropout. I never graduated from high school, never got a GED or anything like that until I graduated from college. Spoken word was that kind of bridge of me figuring out, “I like talking, I like being able to educate folks. How can I do that?”

SW: How have you seen BNV and the poetry scene change throughout the years?

BS: On a personal level, it changed because I went from a participant to a staff member. I went from somebody receiving to someone really trying to facilitate the space and give. The festival itself is always evolving. It’s always the young folks who are forcing folks to redefine what it means to be a spoken word artist and what poetry means. I feel like the culture of BNV has to be reset every few years. We know why we started doing this, and we have to be reminded. And I think that’s why we started with Speak Peace.

SW: Speak Peace is the overall theme of this BNV. Do you feel like there’s something it misses that youth are still writing and talking about?

BS: It covers a lot. It covers, from the way you interact with somebody to the way we use our art as activism to stop violence and the way we use our words as weapons to stop violence. But definitely, Speak Peace can leave out the aspect of, yo, there comes a time when we have to fight. I think young people at that stage, they’re always willing and ready to rebel, and sometimes rebellion is necessary.

SW: For you, what is the most fulfilling or rewarding part of spoken word?

BS: You have to challenge yourself when you see young people who are coming to the mic and doing poems that are more honest and more vulnerable than you, and it’s challenging us as mentors to remember to model the things that we teach. Another thing is creating spaces for folks to be able to share their stories and making sure that everyone is attempting to make everyone else feel safe in that space.

SW: Is there one moment that really stood out to you, working with youth or working with slam in general?

BS: 2009 in DC, I had just finished my first year as a volunteer and spokesmember at Youth Speaks, and I was on staff for my first time. I came on staff as someone who didn’t know how to write e-mails, definitely wasn’t literate and wasn’t speaking or advocating for literacy, but I was able to really gather some mentors. I wrote a poem that year, and I was able to perform at the Kennedy Center. And for me, that was a huge moment because it was like, yo, people are listening. What I say really, really matters. I think that was one of the most influential times or moments for me regarding slam and spoken word poetry.

SW: How do you feel about the slam scene in Chicago? How is it maybe similar or distinct from slam in other cities?

BS: Most slam scenes are facilitated by young, dynamic performers. Since I’ve been out here, I’ve seen a lot of young, dynamic spoken word artists who aren’t just doing spoken word – they’re also facilitating workshops, they’re also hosting and MCing events, they’re also welcoming and hosting people into their own cities. That’s one of the similarities. One of the things I really do like about Chicago is the historical context of Chicago being the genesis of spoken word, poetry slam. When I come here, I feel like I’m part of something that’s been here for a while.

SW: Is there anything that you’d like to see in the slam scene or in the festival in general that you feel like we need to work on?

BS: Spoken word in itself is a counterculture. It’s a culture that was raised to take a stance against mainstream media, systemic violence, all that stuff. And I think that as spoken word artists, we kind of have drifted into more of a mainstream mentality. I would like us as poets and spoken word communities to realize that if we use this and harness this tool correctly, we really can save lives. It’s not just to get folks famous. And I think, with the rise of social media and YouTube, a lot of young people see spoken word sometimes as a vehicle or conduit for them to get famous as opposed to save lives. I would just love for us to continuously reset that and remind folks that this is griot, this is storytelling, this is how we’ve passed on our history for thousands of years. Let’s make sure we keep it sacred.

SW: Do you have any ideas for how we could do that?

BS: Being honest. Being unafraid of confrontation, being willing to confront that when you see it, especially as a mentor. Out of love.

Cindy Ji
StreetWise Editorial Intern


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