One Tuesday evening last month, a group of about twenty gathered under a sculpture made of neon lights to listen to stories and tell their own in turn. This was the July meeting of Story Club South Side, held at Bridgeport’s Co-Prosperity Sphere, a community gallery and gathering space. The group is composed of writers, bloggers, poets, and some who identify as none of the above, but they’re united by a fascination with live performance. Yvette Piña, one attendee, said, “Every time I’m telling a story, I relive it so much I get goosebumps. It’s like, I remember how that felt, I remember that moment. There’s something cathartic about that.”
Meetings of Story Club South Side are scheduled around planned performances, but also feature an open mic. If you’re at Story Club South Side and you have something to say, you can share it. Soton Rosanwo, a fiction writer and one of July’s featured artists, said of open mic storytelling, “It gives us the opportunity to see our own experiences mirrored through the eyes of another. And in a small way, even for a short amount of time, lets us know that we’re not so different after all.”
Open mics have become a cultural phenomenon in Chicago over the last few decades. Recently, spoken word has gained new prominence through the rise of Chance the Rapper, Saba, Noname, and other Chicago artists who came up through the open mic scene. With the surge in popularity, performance organizations have also gained prestige—none more so than youth poetry nonprofit Young Chicago Authors (YCA). YCA’s weekly open mic WordPlay and annual Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry competition have reached the status of civic institutions. Michelle Obama invited YCA founder Robert Boone to the White House in 2009. Louder Than a Bomb, which Chicago-based poets Kevin Coval and Anna West co-founded in 2001, was the subject of an acclaimed documentary and is emulated in thirteen cities in the U.S. and Canada. YCA, which grew from humble beginnings, posted total operating revenue of $1.68 million in 2016. To educators, artists, and many others in Chicago, this is great news: an example of community-building around an artistic outlet that rigorously examines society, politics, and emotions. And YCA does draw in young poets from around the city: according to its self-reported attendance records, Hyde Park, Morgan Park, Pullman, and Chatham were the best-represented Chicago neighborhoods at July open mics.
But increasingly, a new generation of poets and organizers, particularly on the South and West Sides, is questioning whether groups like YCA—as its prominence has increased—can represent the communities most in need of artistic expression and communal space. A new crop of open mics—In the Yard, People Say, Church on the 9, Lady Church, and Story Club South Side among them—have started up in the past six years. Each has a different focus, but they’re all united in giving voice to groups who’ve sometimes felt sidelined as more established venues have matured.
Community-based performance has long been integral to Chicago’s literary culture. During the Black Renaissance of the 1930s and 40s, authors like Richard Wright and Margaret Walker shared their pieces in meetings of the South Side Writers Group. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks developed her craft in conjunction with writers like Wright and Langston Hughes, and later in life mentored young poets.
Today’s open mic scene has its roots in the 1980s, when spoken word poetry emerged alongside hip-hop lyricism. Slam poetry began in Chicago. The Uptown Poetry Slam—which poet Marc Smith still hosts each Sunday night at The Green Mill, an Uptown bar—claims to be the nation’s first. The genre received its biggest boost in the 2000s, when open mics sprang up around the city and the Mos Def–hosted Def Poetry Jam aired on HBO.
“It was all like, a secret hideout from the rest of the world,” poet and musician Avery R. Young said of the early-2000s open mic scene in Chicago. During that time, Young helped run an open mic at now-closed venue Biddy Mulligan’s in Rogers Park.
Part of the original team of Young Chicago Authors, Young has dedicated himself over the course of his career to creating inclusive performance spaces around Chicago. To Young, the open mic at Biddy Mulligan’s was “a place where everybody and everything that was radical or felt radical had space to be as radical as possible.” This has been his goal all along. “[My peers and I decided that] we were going to provide a space in this city where folks can speak as themselves and for themselves, and I believe that is our history at the end of the day,” Young told the Weekly.
The spirit of those days gave rise to the Louder Than a Bomb festival as well as YCA’s weekly open mic, WordPlay. WordPlay has been a springboard for many of Chicago’s most notable artists, while simultaneously welcoming first-time performers. WordPlay created a positive feedback loop, turning out confident poets and performers who attracted and fostered fresh talent.
One young poet who received a boost from WordPlay was Kush Thompson, now a teaching artist with Young Chicago Authors and a frequent host of the series. Thompson had only written poetry in her room before beginning to perform with her poetry team in high school and subsequently becoming a regular attendee at WordPlay.
“It was my sophomore year in high school when I joined a poetry club.That was the first time I had ever shared my work out loud,” Thompson said. “Young Chicago Authors is on Division and Milwaukee…it was right by my house, a short bus ride away.” Thompson had never shared her work until that point, but now found herself in a context where sharing was the norm. “All of a sudden I’m in a room that is continuously, week by week, packed with people who are doing the exact same thing, and people who do it for a living,” Thompson said.
“It begins in an open mic,” Thompson said. “I see it all the time. Artists that I’ve never heard of before come to WordPlay and then by a month later, people are saying the words to their songs along with them. Where else could that happen?”
WordPlay and Louder Than a Bomb are YCA’s most public and popular programs, but the organization’s influence extends even further, through its educational partnerships and free workshops. Currently, YCA offers programs in poetry, hip-hop, and journalism, an “LGBTQ salon,” and a variety of summer programs for Chicago youth. The organization also provides free coaching to some Chicago Public Schools to jumpstart poetry clubs and Louder Than a Bomb teams citywide.
Peter Kahn, the poetry teacher and coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School in west suburban Oak Park, notes the influence that spoken word has had on young people in his community. “Initially, I taught poetry in the traditional manner [on the page], and that was a disaster,” he said. So in 1997, he invited a former student to help teach a class. They mentioned spoken word to the students, immediately piquing their interest. “Before you knew it, the kid with the lowest grade in the class won the poetry slam.”
Oak Park and River Forest’s poetry team has had a presence at Louder Than a Bomb since the competition started, and hosts highly anticipated, school-wide open mics for freshmen and sophomores. “I think the more opportunities kids get to speak and be heard and hear others…it builds empathy, among other things,” Kahn said.
Kush Thompson now runs a performance series called Lady Church with Jasmine Barber out of YCA’s Milwaukee Avenue headquarters, which sits on the border of Wicker Park and Noble Square. It’s part of an attempt to create inclusive spaces when existing spaces, like YCA’s general programming, don’t meet the needs of all communities.
Since 2013, Lady Church has served as a place for women and femme performers to gather, discuss, and perform outside of existing open mic events. WordPlay in particular, Thompson said, has come to be dominated by rappers and musicians rather than poets, and has developed a masculine energy. “I think after a while you come to the space and you start to believe it is for one particular kind of artist or one particular kind of person, because that is what’s becoming popular,” Thompson said. Maintaining the value of these spaces in different communities depends on ensuring that everyone’s “whole self,” as Thompson described it, is valued in the space.
“I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with having a dozen other spaces for a dozen kinds of people, because it’s needed,” Thompson said. “Sometimes you just need to be in a room with people who are just like yourself, not having to tiptoe or not having to worry about being the ‘other.’”
And of course, Chicago’s size and issues of structural inequality pose challenges to YCA’s ability to serve communities around the city. “[The scene in Chicago] acknowledges that the city is so spread apart and so segregated. There’s an open mic pretty much everywhere you go in the city in response to that fact. And I think that’s a very Chicago thing, making sure that what you need is where you are at all times,” Thompson said.
Poets outside of the YCA network are quicker to suggest that performance spaces aren’t equally distributed across the city. Kwynn Riley, the organizer of In the Yard, an open mic hosted at the #LetUsBreathe Collective’s #BreathingRoom space in Back of the Yards, said, “As a poet myself, it’s always really hard when I want to find places to perform. I don’t know any dope spots that are near where I live.”
Riley is a South Side native who’s been writing poetry since elementary school, and who rose to prominence when her poem “PWI 10 Commandments,” a reckoning with Black women’s experiences in white institutions, went viral in 2016. Riley partnered with #LetUsBreathe because she recognized that the collective had a similar goal: to provide a platform for voices that aren’t heard in the spoken word poetry scene.
“It’s pretty much an alternative to YCA,” Riley said. “As you, know YCA gets too full…and this space is very inclusive. It’s for everybody, and it’s very free.”
Riley wants to challenge the centrality of YCA to Chicago’s open mic scene, saying that the North Side organization has become increasingly closed to young poets outside its community. “They don’t really invite South Side poets, or poets that I know like K Love, like Jus Words, artists that are in and from the South and West Side community to feature. There’s a generally a circle that’s begun to form within the YCA community, and I don’t think it’s really fair to new and emerging creatives from the South and West Side of Chicago… to create a benchmark of success that includes YCA.”
With In the Yard, Riley hopes to affirm the talents of young poets who can’t get time onstage at established events like WordPlay. “I want them to know that they’re still an artist, they’re still a poet, they’re still a creative even if they don’t get a chance to perform at YCA. Because they can start with our open mic at In the Yard. They can get a feature there. Their name will definitely get called.”
“The South and West Sides are where the story needs to be told,” Riley added. “We have this horrible narrative that’s being portrayed of our communities on the news…. And so that’s where we need these open mics, not on the North Side.”
(In response, José Olivarez, the group’s marketing manager and a poet in his own right, wrote in an email that “Young Chicago Authors supports all open mics in the Chicagoland area that seek to provide safe spaces for young people to share stories with one another. We dispute the idea that there is a social circle at YCA that acts as a barrier to South and West side poets.” According to Olivarez, at July WordPlay events, the hosts and all of the features came from the South and West Sides.)
Resita Cox is another organizer of the new South Side open mic scene. A journalist and poet who runs the open mic People Say at community arts space and streetwear store Trap House in Auburn Gresham, Cox grew up in North Carolina, where she became president of the first Black spoken word performance group at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Cox moved to Chicago to work as a journalist after graduation, and first encountered Trap House owner Mashaun Hendricks while reporting on a restorative justice court in North Lawndale.
Of WordPlay, Cox said, “I think that it’s a beautiful thing that they do a weekly open mic, because my open mic is monthly, and I tell you it is a lot of work.” But, like Riley, she is resistant to the dominance of distant North Side neighborhoods in the open mic scene. “All of the cool open mics, you have to go downtown, you have to go to the northern neighborhoods, and that’s not okay,” she said.
Hosting a smaller, local open mic in Auburn Gresham has fostered relationships among audiences and performers, some of which have blossomed into collaborations like Seven Days in the TRAP, a weeklong residency in which artist Hakim Dough and Trap House founder Mashaun Hendricks created original music and podcast episodes. “I always say network with someone,” Cox said. “You have people who are producers and you have people who are writers, who are poets, and if you just combine those things you can make something beautiful. That’s what happened through People Say.”
And, Cox said, her goal is simply different than that of a youth performance organization like YCA. People Say hosts performers of many generations. For instance, a woman who lives down the block perform on the same bill as her two sons. “And then this guy who’s just walking by,” Cox said, laughing. “You’d probably see him as the neighborhood guy who’s always on that corner. He’ll come in and sign up and say something. You don’t get that in Wicker Park, you get that in a really community community, and it’s so beautiful.”
Sam Clapp is a contributor to the Weekly. He’s completing a master’s in sound at Northwestern University. He last wrote for the Weekly in May 2017 about a history of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Ashvini Kartik-Narayan is a student at the University of Chicago majoring in public policy. She last wrote for the Weekly last month about activism in opposition to the University of Chicago Police Department.