Just nine months ago, final-year med student Crystal Skeete was sitting in the audience of the poetry slam event called Verses, organised by a new youth-led, art-activist collective The Two Cents Movement at the auditorium of the University of the Southern Caribbean.Skeete, 26, had developed an interest in spoken word from attending the popular UWI Speak event at the St Augustine university and had performed at her church and a few charity events, but she didn't imagine she'd be where she is now.She's the winner of the most recent Two Cents poetry slam, held in April in collaboration with the NGC Bocas Lit Fest; star of possibly the most popular YouTube video featuring a T&T poet–with more than 53,000 views and counting–the subject of TV, radio and print interviews; and the target of praise from Port-of-Spain Mayor Louis Lee Sing, who called in after she performed recently on a radio station.
To top it off, she's even being recognised by total strangers."This woman walked in the hospital"–Port-of-Spain General, where Skeete is an intern–"and she just started smiling that little awkward smile," the Tobago-born Skeete recalled with amusement. "So I just kinda looked and I said, 'Hi'. She's like, 'Oh my gosh, I love your poem.' I was like, 'Okay. Thanks.'"Skeete's bout with minor celebrity comes through a wave of interest in spoken word that was fed over the last few years by a handful of students who organised the UWI Speak, Muhammad Muwakil being the most high-profile of the lot.With Muwakil busy with other projects, including the jazz/spoken word band Freetown Collective, the mantle of sorts has been handed to Jean Claude Cournand, who runs the Two Cents Movement with the help of a few other creative young people, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest folks and sponsors.The spoken word centre of gravity had moved from UWI to USC, where Cournand, 23, recently graduated with a degree in behavioural sciences.
Spoken word is similar in style to rap but uses a more conversational cadence."I think people gravitate towards it because it's one of the more conscious art forms," he said. "They get something different from it than they will get from soca and from other things they will typically encounter on the radio."Cournand is hoping to use social and traditional media to push the profile of the art form even further. He's in talks with Synergy TV about a series, and Skeete's video is the ninth the group has produced since last year. They intend to produce at least one a month for the rest of 2013, featuring the best spoken word poets they can find.The videos are impressively produced. Each poem is set to music, and it's hard to believe the first few of them were made by a small group on a limited budget, much of the money coming out of members' own pockets.
Cournand also intends to use the videos in appearances at schools, where they will be catalysts for conversations about things that matter to students. Spoken word is a good tool for communicating detailed messages to young people, he said."You can write a good spoken word piece in a relatively short space of time with a lot of content," he said. "A spoken word piece might have 700 to 1,000 words, while a song might have 50 to 100 words."Cournand is also new to the form, performing in front of an audience for the first time in 2011 at USC as part of a competition to become student ambassador. He felt the title and the influence that came with it would benefit the group he was then running, the USC Debate Society.He had also attended UWI Speak and was fascinated by the art form and felt he'd learned enough from observing others to try his hand at it. He won the competition and found himself performing at other school events. Pretty soon, he said, he'd gotten a reputation as a spoken word artist.
The Debate Society evolved into the Two Cents Movement but with essentially the same goal: to get young people thinking and talking about serious issues. In addition to the slams and the videos, Two Cents organises spoken word classes, one of which Crystal Skeete attended, sharpening her craft."Crystal is the perfect example of how everything came together well," said Cournand.The NGC Bocas Lit Fest recognised from inception the power of spoken word to get young people interested in poetry, holding open mic events since its debut in 2011.This year, under Cournand, a competitive element was introduced with the Verses Bocas Poetry Slam, the final of which drew the biggest crowd of any event at the festival.And while festival director Marina Salandy-Brown said the last night of the festival, which features different forms of entertainment, typically draws a large audience, this year, with the First Citizens Bank-sponsored slam, it was much bigger than the previous years."There is an enormous appetite for spoken word," said Salandy-Brown. "It so much feeds into our oral tradition. And Bocas is about drawing on our oral traditions. Calypso and all these musical forms give us a voice, are part of our culture; it's what we do–and we're good at it."
Skeete won after performing two pieces, including the one that's the subject of the video, Maxi Man Tracking School Girl, told from the perspective of a secondary school girl, with a twist at the end.The poem doesn't reflect personal experience, Skeete said, but she'd been bothered by the phenomenon for years after observing it during her commute. She finally had to put pen to paper, and the Two Cents platform has given her the opportunity to share her thoughts with thousands of others."You get to speak out on things you really believe in," she said of spoken word. "You reach out to young people in a way they're more likely to listen to."