Students, Saul Williams will 'break silence' at Jan. 25 event
Anticipation grows; the crowd gazes at the artist as she stands before the microphone. She hears the rhythm beat inside her head. She closes her eyes and tries to forget about the performance. Instead, she focuses on the words she hopes will inspire people to speak their minds and "do something in their own way."
That's how LSA senior Lauren Whitehead will bring her message of conviction to a spoken word event that is part of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium. "A Call to Action Through Spoken Word," which will be at 8 p.m. Jan. 25 in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, will feature well-known poet, musician and actor Saul Williams, U-M students and local performers.
Williams first appeared in the 1998 film "Slam," which featured his poetry. The movie he co-wrote and in which he starred, won the Grand Jury Prize and the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival as well as the Audience Award for Best Picture and the World Distributors Award for Best Picture. Williams and co-star, Sonia Sohn, were awarded the Perry Ellis Breakthrough Award by New York's Independent Film Project (IFP) and he also was nominated for a Spirit Award for best performance.
"Hip hop is about youth culture. It is about being disenfranchised," Williams said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "I write to fill the void between what I'm reading and what I would like to read; to fill the void between what I am hearing and would like the hear.
"That's why hip hop was important to me ... I could, all of a sudden, turn on the radio and the TV and I began to see kids who looked like me and they were kids like me and they were dark like me, you know? And they seemed to think like me."
Williams will perform a reading and book signing at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Washtenaw Avenue at 2 p.m. the same day.
Whitehead says she is looking forward to sharing the stage with Williams.
"He [Williams] sort of is an icon for younger people about what the power of one person speaking their mind is and how far it can take you," Whitehead says. "Not that spoken word is now mainstream, but it is more in your face, and a growing culture of on-the-street grassroots activism. Williams has provided a good role model for young poets who want to be involved in this and who don't know what to do with the talent."
"That's what Martin Luther King tried to do. He tried to convince people," Whitehead says. "I feel like I'm not one of the first people to carry this torch, but when it's your turn to carry it, you have to hold it up."
Whitehead is no stranger to the stage; she's been performing spoken word since she was a freshman at the University. Whitehead is active with the U-Club Poetry Slam as well as Neutral Zone, a local community organization that provides a safe haven for teens where many of them participate in writing and start performing spoken word. Several participants from Neutral Zone will perform at the event.
Whitehead will recite her piece, "Trading War Stories," which begins, "I be one Black woman/ clean air in the thick/ of this atmosphere." She says spoken word, sometimes considered a living art form, not only gives her the opportunity to get something out of her brain and onto paper, but into a spoken venue.
"Once you say it out loud then it becomes true and real," Whitehead says. "You give people the opportunity to get something off their chest, and it saves peoples' lives to have that space and a microphone. It makes them feel amplified and important and heard. Everybody needs to be heard, I think."
Gena Flynn, program coordinator at the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives (OAMI), says organizers of the event are trying to raise awareness that people can advance issues through spoken word.
"Using poetry as a way to give their thoughts on general issues is related to King," Flynn says. "He used his words in a powerful way. It's 'A Time to Break Silence' [the theme of this year's symposium], and identifying spoken word and poetry as a way to break silence is important."