On April 17 at the Hayti Heritage Center, seven slam poets competed for a coveted spot on the 2021 Bull City Slam team. These poets are part of the 16-year legacy of “the oldest poetry event in the Triangle – the Jambalaya Soul Slam. Since 2005, poets have competed monthly. 12 slam poets, aged 18 or over, can participate in these monthly slams. Some slams have specific themes, including an erotic poetry slam in February. The 12 winning poets faced off in April’s Grand Slam final. The top four poets – the Grand Slam champion and the next three with the highest scores – form the BCST for that year. The BCST then competes in the regional Southern Fried slam poetry competition each June.
To get a real feel for what Jambalaya Soul Slam is, you have to experience it for yourself. Physical space is well suited to amplify sound. Most poets didn’t even need a microphone to make their voices heard. The projection coupled with the echo gave the impression that their poetry literally struck me. The event was immersive and intimate, as if the space was inviting us to sit quietly and absorb the words.
Nine poets performed on Saturday evening. The first, Khalisa Rae, was the star poet of the evening. She read a sample of poetry from her new book, “Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat.” The first poem she read, “Full Moon to Monday,” was about sexual assault, a recurring theme throughout the night. It ended by referring to the narrator’s need to be ready for an exam on Monday morning. Although I’ve thankfully never experienced anything so traumatic, I understand the surreality of putting aside all your real issues in favor of schoolwork.
After Khalisa’s performance, the slam’s MC Dasan acted as a “sacrificial poet” – essentially a practice performance for the benefit of the judges, who were volunteers from the audience. Finally, the actual competition began. The slam consisted of three rounds: seven poets performed in the first, then six, then four. After each of the seven poet performances, the judges held up chalk paddles with their scores from 0.0 to 10.0. The rest of the audience would boo if they thought the judges were too harsh and cheer if they agreed with the rulings. During the performances, the audience showed their support by humming, tapping their feet or clapping. Each poet had his own style of delivery. A woman alternates between speaking and singing. LB, who placed second, centered each of his three poems on a different metaphor – music, an infomercial, and a white man talking to a black man about the latter’s place in the South. Four amazing poets named Ta’Mia, LB, Hausson and Alani prevailed and are this year’s BCST.
Most of the poems were related to violence against black people, especially black men and boys. It was humbling to sit there and listen to that emotion unfettered. Often the emotion behind the words was the only thing I could really grasp because the speed and complexity of the poetry sometimes made it difficult for me to understand the words themselves. Yet the emotion was still there. That said, I wouldn’t say that I understood the specific anger, sadness and pain described by the poets; these feelings are tied to things that I will never experience firsthand. Still, I was grateful for the chance to listen.
As the night began, Dasan shared how poetry can create safe spaces and opportunities for healing. Many poets spoke from personal experiences and were incredibly vulnerable through their art. I recognize that it was a privilege for me to hear their stories, and I recognize that these stories do not belong to me.