Your NPR news source
Sky Sims

Sky Sims is one of the teenage poets that participated in the Rooted and Radical festival, which unfolds March Madness style across several rounds of performances, leading up to a big finale at the Ramova Theatre.

At Chicago's longest-running slam poetry contest, teenagers get brutally honest

Inside the Den Theater in Wicker Park, nearly two dozen teens nervously wait to step on the stage as a DJ plays uptempo pump-up music. They talk to each other, laugh and tap on their phones as the clock clicks nearer to showtime.

An MC named C. Lofty Bolling encourages the group to not take the performance too seriously.

This is “slam poetry without judgment,” Bolling says.

Audience at Rooted and Radical Festival

Teen writers, their family members and coaches listen to slam poetry in rapt attention during the Rooted and Radical semi-finals last Saturday at Wicker Park’s Den Theater.

A teenage boy with short cropped hair and a varsity jacket climbs onto the stage, and everyone falls silent, all eyes stuck to the spotlight glow. Teens snap their fingers after lines they liked. They cheer enthusiastically, clap and stomp their feet when someone finishes.

If you’re a high schooler interested in writing or hip-hop, this warm-up round is a crucial stepping stone to one of Chicago’s premier events for young artists: an onstage slot in the city’s largest and longest-running youth poetry festival. Over the past several weeks, more than 200 students from 36 schools across the city and suburbs have taken part in the Rooted and Radical festival, which unfolds March Madness style across several rounds of performances, leading up to a big finale on Friday at the Ramova Theatre.

Formerly called Louder than a Bomb and put on by a nonprofit called Young Chicago Authors, the fest helped nurture the stylings of some of Chicago’s biggest hip-hop artists, from Chance the Rapper’s gospel-inspired rhymes to Saba of Pivot Gang — a West Side group many have called the next Wu Tang Clan — to Noname’s fast, wordy, lo-fi, earnest flow.

On Friday a handful of finalists go forward to deliver their hard-worked lines. But for coaches, event organizers and most of the kids who have participated in the earlier bouts, the point isn’t getting an award.

“The festival is the spectacle,” says Demetrius Amparan, the director of Young Chicago Authors.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Young Chicago Authors (@youngchicagoauthors)

But it’s the routine, day-in-day-out meetups at high school poetry clubs or YCA workshops that really matter, Amparan said, himself a former participant in the group’s writing events as a high schooler. These are places for kids to express themselves, share their stories and support each other as writers.

The festival has undergone a reinvention of its own. Just a few years ago, a top executive for Young Chicago Authors resigned and its artistic director was ousted in the aftermath of sexual assault allegations against an adult mentor who had ties to the nonprofit. Since then, Amparan said, the nonprofit fest sponsor has reimagined how it can create a safe space for youth.

Audience at the Rooted and Radical Festival

The Rooted and Radical Festival, run by the nonprofit Young Chicago Authors, saw more than 200 students participate in the March Madness-style event.

Apart from changing the name of the festival, its metamorphosis includes a new voting system of awards that encourages young writers to nominate their peers for recognition. Young Chicago Authors also has added a “chill space” at events for teens who get overwhelmed and a psychologist who can help connect youth with mental health resources in a pinch.

“The transition came after a lot of reflection and change to match how young people are feeling,” Amparan said. “The organization could have very well not existed anymore.”

“I just tried to pour my heart out”

Sky Sims

Sky Sims, 15, a freshman at Carver Military Academy, started writing in 8th grade and has no intention to stop.

All year, the poetry club at Carver Military Academy on the South Side has been eagerly preparing for this year’s festival, meeting during lunch break and once a week after school, too. The group even invited a resident poet from the Chicago Poetry Center to dole out writing prompts and model poems.

Though they’re only teenagers, these writers often explore tremendously difficult experiences, from gun violence and suicide to sexual assault and family trauma.

“It becomes a cathartic process, but it also sometimes is a painful process,” said Christina Litton, an English teacher at Carver Military Academy who started the school’s poetry team a decade ago.

Carver Military Academy was built after World War II to cater to descendents of returning veterans who lived in the nearby Altgeld Gardens housing project. Today, roughly 40% of the school’s students are Black and still live near Altgeld Gardens, Roseland and the surrounding neighborhoods. About 60% of the student body is Latino, Litton said.

“I get to know my poets better than any of the students I have because we do share such personal things,” she said. “They definitely have seen me cry over their poems. I have a lot of conversations about self-worth and confidence and do as much as I can to build them up.”

She tells her students that even if they never share anything they write, that’s perfectly OK. But for those who do, such as Carver freshman Sky Sims, the decision to perform onstage requires additional preparation, such as practicing pace, voice variance and enunciation again and again until the poem sounds right.

Sims was first turned onto poetry by an eighth grade English teacher who showed her a poem by Maya Angelou. The poem moved the teen to start trying to put her own thoughts to paper.

Sky Sims

For Sims, writing is a way to get her emotions out.

The 15-year-old Bronzeville resident writes about real, raw life experiences. She had planned to perform a poem about the struggles she faces as a young Black woman and the female friends who help her through it. But she ended up choosing a poem about her father, “how i didn’t want to be like him, and basically when he was absent — how it affected me. I just tried to pour my heart out. The older I get, the more I forget about him.”

Described as energetic, bubbly and talkative by Litton and “the brightest star in my sky” by her mother, Shaneal Durr-Bello, the assistant principal at Lionel Hampton Fine & Performing Arts School on the Southwest Side, Sims has only been writing poetry for a year. She has 13 siblings and lives with her mother, her stepfather and an older sister.

“Writing to me, it’s therapeutic. I feel like I’m getting out everything I need to say, everything I want to say, everything I didn’t even think I was feeling,” she said. “If someone asks me how I’m feeling, I can’t tell them. But I can tell them in a poem.”

“As if God got lost in translation somewhere”

Eighteen-year-old Bisola Ajijola, who goes by “Bee,” has been writing poetry since eighth grade, too. Through verse, she grapples with her feelings about Blackness, love, an absent father and growing up.

“The glass tells me my brown skin is beautiful and Unbreakable But the world tells me my brown skin is dangerous and hideous The glass tells me my hair is rich of life and love But the world tells me my hair is rich of death Nappy headed As if God got lost in translation somewhere As if his hands slipped on every black head he touched”

Ajijola, a senior at Lincoln Park High School and a Rogers Park resident, said she plans to go to college for business or interior design. Her mother is a Nigerian immigrant who drives for Uber customers.

Bisola Ajijola

Bisola Ajijola, 18, explores questions of racial identity and coming of age through her poetry.

“Most of my poetry is Black-inspired,” she said. “One of the issues I’m trying to write about is gun violence. There’s always a story, a friend of a friend who has experienced gun violence. Writing is definitely an outlet for what happens in my life.”

The writers at Lincoln Park High, young as they may be — “they don’t really shy away from a whole lot,” English teacher and poetry coach Salwa Sadiq said.

Her students, she said, are so accustomed to writing about pain — depression, anxiety, trauma and grief — that at first they struggled with the theme of this year’s YCA poetry festival: joy.

But expressing themselves creatively and even making an argument through their poetry comes naturally, Sadiq said.

“Such a mess. I’m making such a mess”

For poets like Peter Piper Huizenga, writing is just a part of life — regardless of awards.

With green-tipped hair and bull-ring septum piercing, Huizenga, 17, sleeps in the basement of their Old Irving Park family home of 10 years. Huizenga identifies as nonbinary.

Peter Piper Huizenga

Peter Piper Huizenga, 17, shows off a secret hidey-hole they sometimes escape to in their home.

Their parents, two sisters and brother sleep in the basement, too, their beds nearly pressed up against each other. The proximity doesn’t usually get on their nerves, though. The Huizenga home is overflowing with piles of clothes, books, knickknacks, secret hide-a-holes and every imaginable odd and end filling each conceivable crevice. Their parents are very literary; reading was ingrained at a young age.

Before high school, Huizenga was home schooled. But the pandemic lockdown brought with it a social isolation that rattled them. During that time, they made a commitment to write in a journal every day and did so for a year.

“I think that kind of scared me out of this fakeness I had with writing,” Huizenga said. “When you think all writing has to be beautiful, you don’t let the actual part of you that wants to be on the page — exit.”

Peter Piper Huizenga

Huizenga on stage at the Rooted and Radical Festival. The evening of the semi-finals there was an electric energy of true words spoken with feeling.

At the Rooted and Radical festival semi-finals last weekend, Huizenga hopped onstage and was a bit guarded at first. With growing confidence, the teen delivered a poem about pain, mental illness, depression, attempted suicide or suicidal thoughts and young love. The performance was a whole roiling, raw mass of taut, heightened emotion.

“Such a mess. I’m making such a mess And you keep leaving letters everywhere you go. And no one will bother to read them I’m writing from underground, but I’m really writing from the bus. Mars isn’t really so far away My tongue has been bleeding a lot lately. I have this bad habit, where I tear up the skin of my lips with my fingernails. I have very few things to tell you. I do not regret much.”

The whole evening of the semi-finals there was an electric energy of true words spoken with feeling. Everyone was glad to be there. At the end of the night, Huizenga didn’t get selected to move forward to the finals showcase. Neither did Sims. But Lincoln Park senior Ajijola, or Bee, walked away with an award and a guaranteed spot in Friday’s performance.

Bee Ajijola

Ajijola, who goes by “Bee,” was one of 14 other youth poets to advance to the finals showcase.

“I’ve always really aspired to just share my poetry,” Ajijola said.

Despite the awards, Young Chicago Authors tries hard to emphasize the noncompetitive element of Rooted and Radical, and the teens to who take part seem to feel similarly, not seeing to mind all that much when they missed the final cut.

Next year, Huizenga will go to Lake Forest College and study sociology and anthropology. But the teen says they’ll always write.

“There is this other thing that I think happens to many writers, and it’s often why you start to write: You have to tell someone about your life,” Huizenga said. “I think if the only thing left to do is write, the writers become good at what they do. But the point isn’t to be a good writer. The point is to be a writer, I think.”

Michael Gerstein is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

The Latest
As her three-year tenure comes to a close, Jessie Montgomery reminisces over her time with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and shares her inspirations.
Some residents and business owners are happy to see the traffic and noise leave and for the community to regain access to green space. Others are sorry to lose the excitement and crowds.
Looking for a retreat in or near the city? Here are 10 trails, parks, forest preserves, urban gardens and lesser-known spots to escape the hustle and hurry.
The festival will be exiting Douglass Park after a 10-year run that has been plagued by controversy in recent years.
The festival’s co-founder, Mike Petryshyn, shared the announcement in a video posted to social media and on the festival’s website Tuesday evening. The new venue will be announced Wednesday morning with this year’s lineup.