Scenes from the Youth Empowerment Open Mic

by David Lee, Community Journalism Intern

Rappers, singers, steppers and poets performed at the Youth Empowerment Open Mic on July 30, sharing stories about police brutality, racial injustices and love, learned and lost.

Elephant Rebellion, a youth empowerment hip-hop collective, hosted an open mic on July 30 at the Chicago Art Department to provide a platform for local youth to showcase their talents and experiences.

Students from Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago’s KINETIC program also debuted a poem, constructing images of their cultural experiences.

“A lot of the opportunities out there are for 21 and up, or they’re in bars where youth can’t get in and get their voice out there,” said Christine Medina, of Elephant Rebellion. “This was made specifically for that reason – a safe space that’s filled with good vibes.”

About 25 people came to perform or just listen to the acts, which featured emerging artists Jahleigh Bullie and Mel in addition to KINETIC, other community youth, and an impromptu performance by Elephant Rebellion.

And a lot of the event really was centered on creating a safe space, like the free write during the first 15 minutes of the program. Visitors were given a pen and paper to write anything – some of the talents present took the time to craft vivid poems but some also just wrote and shared whatever came to mind. One poem was presented in Hebrew.

The Chicago Art Department was also featuring an art installation from Free Write Jail Arts, a program encouraging incarcerated youths to express themselves through visual art and literacy. Elephant Rebellion has strong ties to the program, as president Elgin-Bokari T. Smith is also a teaching artist for Free Write Jail Arts.

“What everybody says matters, no matter the way they’re saying it,” said Angel Pantoja Jr., a former Free Write Jail Arts student now involved with Elephant Rebellion. “No matter how they’re saying it. No matter if they have an accent. No matter if they can’t speak English properly. No matter how they’re saying what they’re saying, it matters. Everybody has a right to their voice.”

And although some voices were speaking out on political agendas and societal issues, others were talking about their feelings for somebody or praise to God. The open mic allowed community members to share whatever they had on their minds without discrimination for certain topics or the polish of the finished piece.

Hip-hop and slam poetry made up the majority of acts, and heads frequently nodded along with a beat or in agreement with a poignant line.

David Lee is the Community Journalism Intern with Advancing Justice | Chicago. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidYLee95) or contact him by email.