In an orange tie-dye shirt and with a comb pick in his hair, Jordan Perry gave no apology for being a black teenager in America.
Standing firm in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s granite statue, the civil rights leader’s eyes staring over him into the water nearby, Perry opened his heart in poetry. Despite the stereotypes and misconceptions he faces as a black teenager, he made it clear: He is very proud of his heritage. No apologies necessary.
“I love the fact that I am black, and no one will be changing that,” the 17-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., said, finishing his poem to applause.
Jordan was one of more than 500 young poets visiting the District this week for a spoken word festival and competition, which wraps up Saturday evening with an event at the Kennedy Center. As he and a dozen other artists performed at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Thursday, others scattered across landmarks along the Mall to share verses about issues at the forefront of their minds.
“They’re uniting about what’s really urgent to them, both on the personal scale and the global scale,” said James Kass, founder of Youth Speaks, the program that hosts the annual Brave New Voices poetry slam festival.
With images of the recent high-profile fatal police shootings of two black men fresh in their minds, some used their poetry as a call to action against police brutality.
“Black lives matter!” Joab Louis, 18, began his performance under the cool shade of a tree at the civil rights leader’s memorial. He gasped as he pretended to wake up from a nap in physics class, where he dreamt of “a gravitational pull between my dark skin and a cop’s bullet.”
Louis repeatedly expressed frustration and fatigue over police violence. While others display anger through protests, he uses poetry as a form of therapy.
“Having that venue to let that out is very important to healing,” Louis said. “By putting our frustrations in our writing, it helps us relieve ourselves of some of the pressures and issues facing us today.”
Kass started Youth Speaks in the mid-1990s to provide an avenue for younger generations, particularly children of color, to vent through poetry and spoken word performances. At the festival this week, young adults from across the country — and from as far away as the United Kingdom and South Africa — have been forming bonds through the rhythmic cadence of their words.
They take poems they’ve written on a spectrum of topics, from personal to political, and they add a series of theatrical movements: There is shouting, cursing and voicing of audience approval as poets bring their perspectives to life.
And while the week culminates in a competition, the main goal of the festival is for each poet to have a venue for self-expression.
“They come because they can hear an authentic voice and be an authentic voice,” Kass said. “It’s an active space where listening is happening in a dynamic way.”
Anderson Allen, 24, spoke about the dangers of misogyny. In his performance, he removed a metaphorical mask from his face, exposing a man shaped by the pressures of society’s perception of masculinity. When the man couldn’t live up to that vision, Allen put two fingers to his head like a handgun and dropped to the ground. His dreadlocks swayed as he fell.
“The way I see it, anywhere you go is a stage,” he said. “You have to speak on what’s in your heart or say what’s happening around you because, somehow or another . . . someone is experiencing that.”
Maia Abbruzzese seized her moment in front of the monument to express disappointment with Congress’s inaction on gun legislation in the wake of mass shootings, such as the attack that left 49 people dead at Pulse nightclub in Orlando last month.
“Dear politicians, after one of the most fatal mass shootings in American history, I personally want to let you know that my thoughts and prayers are with you,” she screamed, mimicking the often-used “thoughts and prayers” line politicians send in the wake of tragedy.
Abbruzzese, 17, is not yet able to express her opinions on a ballot, but she said shouting the words of her poem a couple of miles from the Capitol empowered her. She considers poetry a mechanism for social change.
Aleah Bradshaw, 20, of Denver agrees.
“A lot of times, we say, ‘Is it society that impacts art, or is it art that impacts society?’ ” she said after delivering a poem focused on preserving the planet. “I belong to the neighborhood that believes art directly influences the way that society works, and I think the art of this generation is poetry.”