- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2016

Like the lead character in the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” four local young poets are clamoring for their “shot” at an international competition this week in the District.

Eliamani Ismail, Zahra Wardrick, Gaelyn Smith and Bobbi Johnson — each 18 years old — make up the DC Youth Slam Team, one of 60 entrants from the United States and overseas taking part in the 19th annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in the nation’s capital.

From Tuesday through Saturday, the teams of spoken-word artists will compete, engage in workshops and participate in community service events at various D.C. venues, such as the Ellington School for the Arts and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, with the final performance contest set for the Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

On a stage last week in Franklin Square in Northwest, Ms. Ismail and Ms. Wardrick hummed the tune to “Homeless” by Paul Simon while Ms. Johnson pleaded, “Have you seen my mother?”

Their humming paused, then started again, with Ms. Johnson asking “Can you please take me home?”

The D.C. poets will add music to their lyrics when they perform at Brave New Voices — a creative choice they say combines their background in art with performance. Ms. Wardrick says their listeners will likely be more receptive to their words because people are more familiar with music than poetry.

The DC Youth Slam Team already has an impressive track record: It won second place in 2013 and first place in 2014.

While the all-female collective takes their craft seriously, they see Brave New Voices as more than a competition.

“Technically, we’re here to compete. But I can also hear your story, love you and be your friend. I think we would treat each other a lot differently if we all went,” Ms. Johnson says.

Ms. Johnson and Ms. Smith last year competed with the DC Youth Slam Team at Brave New Voices in Atlanta. Ms. Ismail and Ms. Wardrick are first-time participants this year.

Since graduating from high school in June, the quartet has practiced every day except Sundays, honing their poetry to peak clarity and polishing their performance to perfection.

Through months of practice, they have come to realize how sharing their vulnerabilities with each other informs their poetry, so they begin each practice by expressing their thoughts and struggles.

“Just because I’m not on stage [in the opening performance], it doesn’t mean I’m not in the work,” Ms. Smith says. “A big part of being on a team is trusting each other. Because we put each of ourselves in the poem, our trust is better.”

Most of their poems are about race and gender — sensitive topics the teenagers feel compelled to speak out about.

“It comes back to telling your story as truthfully and sincerely as you can — that’s the beauty of slam poetry,” says Ms. Ismail. “You’re validating your own struggles and educating other people who may not have that background.”

The theme of this year’s Brave New Voices competition is #iTooAmAmerica, an homage to the last line of Langston Hughes’ poem “I, too, sing America.”

• Emily Kim can be reached at ekim@washingtontimes.com.

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