22 Sep 2015

More than just words

9:55 am on 22 September 2015

Poetry was once reserved for the likes of Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe, but young New Zealanders are putting their own spin on things and battling it out to have their voices heard.

Rising Voices Movement co-founder Grace Taylor with  2014 Grand Slam winner Ashleigh Fata.

Rising Voices Movement co-founder Grace Taylor with 2014 Grand Slam winner Ashleigh Fata. Photo: Rawhitiroa photography

Spoken word has become a powerful tool for adolescents all around the country who want to have their say on what can been seen as taboo subjects, such as gender, culture and identity.

The best of them will now go head-to-head with only a stage and a mic at the Rising Voices poetry Grand Slam. The competition is in its fifth year and takes place in Auckland at the Manukau Institute of Technology on September 26.

Much like a rap battle, the 12 young New Zealand poets taking the stage will have to impress the crowd and three celebrity judges.

The judging panel will be made up of New Zealand’s 2011 Best Female Solo Artist, Ladi6, Jamaica Osorio, a world-renowned poet and activist, and Ken Arkind, a US national poetry slam champion.

With this pressure, it is understandable if the poets’ palms are sweaty and their knees are weak, but they are seizing this opportunity in order to become the grand slam champion in New Zealand’s spoken word community.

But spoken word is about more than being a champion.

It is about providing young people with an environment where they are safe, respected and feel they can speak their mind without feeling judged.

Rising Voice’s Auckland mentor Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala says that spoken word is important for inspiring important discussion and transporting stories and messages.

“I produce work that creates space for open discussion on the connections between historical events that influence our present,” she says.

Wasasala bases her performances on political and social events, specifically those surrounding racial injustice, cultural identity and women's empowerment.

In preparation for the Grand Slam, mentors are taking 18 Auckland students and 12 Christchurch students through a six-week spoken word poetry programme.

These workshops teach a variety of spoken word skills, such as general writing and performance techniques, body awareness and language through movement.

“Overall we aim to give them the tools they need to empower themselves and their creative practice as well as a strong sense of community,” Wasasala says.

This sort of workshop facilitation is happening at a crucial part of young people’s lives, when they need to gather all the tools they need to empower themselves, their voices and their autonomy over their bodies and environments, she says.

Every little bit of help is necessary, as only nine people from Auckland and three from Christchurch make it through to the Grand Slam finals.

Grand Slams and poetry programmes are not cheap, but are made possible through the support of the Arts Council of New Zealand, Creative New Zealand.

This year the national arts development agency provided a $30,000 art grant toward the six-week programmes and the poetry slams.

Last year, Creative New Zealand also supported co-founder of Rising Voices, Grace Taylor, with an arts Pasifika awards for emerging artist, which saw her pocket $4000 toward her spoken word journey.

Tickets for the Rising Voices Grand Slam can be found here