by Jordan Kunkel
From a young age, Ireon Roach knew she wanted to slam poetry. As a second grader, she was stringing together rhymes and not much later, she was watching HBO Def Poetry Jam sessions with admiration.
Now a senior at Nicholas Senn High School, Roach, 18, finds herself the 2016 winner of Chicago’s Louder Than a Bomb spoken word competition, the co-coach of Senn’s Louder Than a Bomb team, and an advocate for her Englewood community and those affected by Chicago violence.
In fact, Roach finds home in performing her words and in participating in Louder Than a Bomb.
“It’s different from theater, where you are just reciting someone else’s words and you can put yourself in there as much as you want to. But when you’ve written something and it’s your truth and you say it, it’s empowering,” Roach said.
At a time when youth are pushing to have their voices heard, Senn isn’t the only high school where students explore violence through art. The Louder Than a Bomb competition alone has sparked 120 teams across the Chicago area. High schools such as Regina Dominican in suburban Wilmette are exploring themes of violence through dance, while on Chicago’s South Side, a vocal ensemble provides a safe space for students to pursue music and respond to violence.
At Regina Dominican High School, the intermediate dance class has been tasked with choreographing solos based on a social justice topic of their choice.
The class, which consists of five students, a range of freshmen through seniors, took on many issues of abuse, including child, domestic and verbal abuse, as well bullying through social media. The students also discussed gun violence in class.
While the students do not have personal experience with many of these topics, Kristen Rybicki, the dance teacher at Regina Dominican, has been using the project as a way to encourage her students to widen their perspectives on these issues.
“I think that encouraging the girls to think beyond themselves and to find a commonality on a global scale is important in fostering compassion,” Rybicki said. “The truth in this is the education – doing their research, becoming knowledgeable, and then sharing that knowledge.”
As part of their research, the students were asked to investigate where these issues have existed in history, in their present communities and in their own lives.
They then were asked to create solos by investigating what types of movement represent the emotions and situations they were trying to represent.
“Most importantly, these girls were able to pull themselves out of their experience and get into someone else’s,” Rybicki said. “The hope is that they can go on and believe that they can inspire change, that they can create something that speaks the voices of many, and that they can learn and educate themselves in the process in order to share it with others.”
Regina Dominican junior, Jennifer Delaney, choreographed a solo about emotional bullying. She had personal experience with this topic and said that the project helped her address this part of her life and learn how to express her feelings in a medium beyond words.
“You cannot visualize the hurtful words, which is one of the main causes of emotional bullying, but I can try to help other people understand what it feels like by dancing in a way that shows the emotional effects and gives off the impression of loneliness and sadness,” said Delaney, 16. “A lot of people have been bullied at one point or another in their life, so I’m glad I can use movement as a way to connect with people and let them know that they are not the only one going through this.”
Across the city, Curie Metro High School’s Musicality Vocal Ensemble uses their voices to both escape from and address the violence of their South Side community.
After the school closed the musical theater class at Curie, teacher Michael Gibson, provided a safe space for his students through the after-school vocal ensemble.
Musicality has a large repertoire that includes many songs related to violence and peace. Over the summer, the group competed on America’s Got Talent, where they performed Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” in response to the murder of one member’s sister.
Back at Senn, April Potack, a freshman member of the writing club, breaks social barriers through a serial novel exploring the large divide in U.S. public opinion during the zombie apocalypse. In her novel, members of one political party see the members of the opposing party as zombies – and vice versa.
“That’s really deep, how you can ignore someone’s belief so much that you disregard their humanity,” said Alexander Laser, English teacher and co-founder of the writing club at Senn. “And she came to that connection on her own.”
Joel Ewing, the head theater teacher at Senn and Louder Than a Bomb coach, has many students who explore violence through spoken word.
Ewing referenced the piece “Anymore,” co-written and performed last year by Roach and then-senior Lawren Carter. The piece was inspired by a fourth of July weekend a few years ago when 78 people were shot over the course of one weekend.
“I was out of town for that summer but immediately thought of my South and West Side students, like Ireon and Lawren, and just wanted to check in,” Ewing said. “And they expressed they were afraid and didn’t want to go outside, so genuine fear and anxiety. And they found some solace through the writing and wrote this amazing piece. They’ve performed it everywhere.”
Roach sees spoken word as a natural reaction to the violence that she witnesses in her home community.
“This art form is an art form of the oppressed,” Roach said. “There’s an urgency to it, and nothing is more urgent than the violence and violent culture of Chicago.”
She believes it is important for those who are directly affected by Chicago violence to give the issue a voice.
“It gets scary because it get truthful,” Roach said. “You have to admit the faults of your community, the faults of your friends and the people that you know are involved, but you have to sort of make room for evolution as well. There’s so many components and the responsibility of that is on our shoulders.”
With 17 years of experience using spoken word as a tool for expression, Kevin Coval, the founder of the Louder Than a Bomb competition, sees it as an opposing force to the sanctioned violence of Chicago’s segregated communities.
“This is a space where people can escape that imperialism of their own stories and talk for themselves,” Coval said. “I think that Louder Than a Bomb is part of the narrative, of that Chicago cultural renaissance that we find ourselves in the mix of, and I remain impressed and in admiration of the courageous young artists who continue to demand to be more.”