The Wisconsin Book Festival brought a diverse array of discussions and events to Madison, taking place mainly from Oct. 16 through Oct. 19 with some further programming to take place in the weeks to come. I had the pleasure of attending two spoken word performances held by UW-Madison’s First Wave at the Overture Center for the Arts.

The first performance, entitled “Passing The Mic / All Elements Hip Hop Art Showcase” took place Oct. 16 at 5:00 pm. It was part of the 10-year-old “Protect the Mic” initiative, which aims to raise recognition and respect for hip-hop in the Madison community. The goal is to end hip-hop disenfranchisement and teach people how varied and beautiful of an art form it is.

Chinaka Hodge and reg e gaines hosted the event. Hodge is an accomplished poet and writer whose work has been featured in Newsweek, San Francisco Magazine, the Believer Magazine, PBS, NPR, CNN, C-Span. Gaines has published four poetry books and been nominated for both a Tony Award and a Grammy Award.

Performers came from high schools in St. Louis, the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Madison, Indianapolis and Chicago. All of the performers are part of youth teams in their respective cities and are candidates for the First Wave arts scholarship program at UW-Madison.

The poetry from these young artists was raw and powerful, though sometimes stammered through. When a performer paused or forgot words, the crowd clapped and shouted encouragement, often along the lines of “you got this!” Audience response was, at both of the events I attended, highly encouraged and participated in.

Performances were done by individuals as well as small groups. Themes included race, gender identity, poverty, body image, mental illness and general internal struggle.

The second event I attended took place Oct. 17 at 5 p.m.. Three First Wave poets spoke on the theme of racial inequality. This theme was chosen in part due to the Race to Equity Report, which exposed profound disparity in Dane Country regarding incarceration rates, poverty, and achievement gap issues between African-Americans and whites.

The performers were Joseph Verge, Sean Medlin and Melana Bass. After each poem, two acclaimed respondents critiqued and analyzed the poem.

High praises for Verge came from gaines, who said Verge’s poem “became part of [his] DNA.” Gaines also said that when speaking on subjects as well-covered as the black struggle, you need to say something truly brilliant if you want anyone to pay attention to you. Verge accomplished this.

Medlin’s poem touched on his life experience and his fear of turning out like the murdered African-American teenagers. One commentator mentioned that when all of our energy goes into what we don’t want to be, we have no room to dream. Also, that “when driving black, no one sees your resume.” Racism is still alive, it affects everyone and Medlin’s powerful insight brought this to light.

Bass’ poem touched on her deep love for her brother, who has a learning disability, and her fear for him and black men in general. She compared living as a minority to being on a rollercoaster ride, and used the refrain “hands up is not enough.” Hodge suggested that she break her poem into two separate poems, and that she hopes to one day read Bass’ anthology.

The night ended with the First Wave poets answering audience questions, and a final chilling group performance of spoken word and song about racism in Dane County.

It was a pleasure to hear from all of the accomplished artists, seasoned and new, about such prevalent and essential themes.

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