At their soul-searching best, the poets may inspire a suicide note--the first cry for help from a troubled child.
At their worst, they leave an auditorium full of at-risk children feeling good about themselves, proud of their newfound talents and shouting, "I am beautiful."
The Watts Prophets, born from the ashes of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, spin their magic today through rhythm, poetry and rap at schools, youth organizations and detention centers across the country.
"Poetry is the tool we use. It's easy to make kids understand there are no mistakes in poetry," Richard Dedeaux, a member of the trio, said after a recent appearance in Reno. "You can make no sense, or fantasize, or go into deep-rooted feelings.
"Some are funny, they turn it into jokes. Some talk about their daddy in prison or the abuse at home. It's very, very valuable--to go inside kids' hearts and unleash these pent-up feelings."
I am black
I am intelligent
I am tall
I am articulate
I live in a rich neighborhood
I used to live in the ghettos
I'm in foster care
I live in the Biggest Little City in the World
--by Kira, 15
Traner Middle School is one of the most diverse schools in Reno, with children of every race and culture--and serves a working-class neighborhood on the edge of downtown where parents often work two jobs or night shifts at the local hotels and casinos.
The students spent two days in poetry workshops, then appeared at an assembly to read their works, rap, dance or reveal just a little something about themselves. Even the boy in charge of adjusting the microphone did so with a clear sense of pride.
"There's a whole different aura about the kids. They feel special," principal Debbie Feemster said.
Down low South so far I forgot
Where is it? Hot? Yes, but not for me
This is where I was born
This is where I belong.
Windy cool, sun so bright
Ocean breeze where the coconuts grow
And the mangos we eat, waiting
This is where I belong
Tongan I am.
For the poets from California--Dedeaux, Otis O'Solomon and Amde Hamilton, a priest in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church--the themes of decades past are the same, though the tone has mellowed since they first started writing about racism, poverty and violence in 1967 at the Watts Writers Workshop.
The sounds of drums could be heard everywhere in their Los Angeles neighborhood in those days--in parks and nightclubs, on the streets. Those were the days when Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Don Cherry played improvisational jazz at clubs along Central Avenue.
The rhythms live with Dedeaux, O'Solomon and Hamilton today, echoing through their performances in Newark, Lincoln, Neb., Santa Barbara, Calif., and Davenport, Iowa.
"I see myself in so many of these kids," O'Solomon said.
Loni Harris, whose Sierra Arts Council brought the trio to Nevada as part of its Children and Violence Project, said the group's message was a perfect fit.
"We're trying to redirect at-risk students to focus any violent behavior toward the arts, poetry or writing or painting or performance," she said. "The idea is put it down on paper rather than going out and acting on it."
Peggy Lear Bowen, who teaches English, said the poets "were able to take students who never have had the courage to express themselves in the written word before and give them another tool to express themselves."