Soft guitar music played quietly as four high school students moved their microphones into position, forming a tight quadrangle on the small stage. As they readied themselves to perform — junior Jada-Amina Harvey and sophomores Omari Ferrell, Ike Nwoye and Nanyamka Gallardo — their anxiety was as intense as the bright lights bearing down on them.
This was the final performance of Epic Sound, Kenwood Academy's slam poetry team, in their first bout in Louder Than a Bomb, Chicago's largest youth poetry slam. It was the group poem round, and just hours ago, when they were practicing in the lobby, they had struggled to get through their piece.
Because Epic Sound was in first place after four rounds of individual pieces, they were performing last, as the rules dictated. The group that finished right before them had aced its poem about prejudice, receiving a 30, the highest score possible.
As they watched the previous groups perform, the teammates whispered reminders about choreography, lines and pacing to each other.
"Don't overthink it," warned Ashaki Howard, one of the team's coaches.
The audience of about 200 fell silent as the group paused to collect themselves before their first line.
This is the poem they've been struggling with for months.
This is the moment they've been working toward.
This is Louder Than a Bomb.
More than 900 high school students from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs participated in this year's Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam, now in its 13th year. The high school portion of the slam is set up like a tournament, with teams from each school competing in two preliminary bouts before the winning teams battle in semifinal and final rounds. This year more than 100 teams vied for just four spots in the final team round.
The tournament was co-founded by Kevin Coval and Anna West, both Chicago-based poets and educators. Sitting in the offices of Young Chicago Authors, the organization that hosts LTAB, Coval said he and West started the slam as a way for students to voice their frustrations, triumphs, desires and sorrows through poetry.
The first slam was in 2001: The Twin Towers had fallen, the city was trying to pass a controversial anti-gang loitering law. Coval felt the media were telling only part of the story of what it was like to grow up in Chicago, making the stories of "young people of color in urban environments (seem) monolithic" and portraying teens as "dangerous."
"We wanted to create a space for young people who were living the statistics and the stories that the media was reporting, to have a space to tell the other side of the story, on their own terms and in their own words," Coval said.
Paul Teruel, the director of community partnerships at Columbia College Chicago's Center for Community Arts Partnerships, said programs like Louder Than a Bomb allow students to meet teens from different backgrounds. Louder Than a Bomb "levels the teenage dichotomy between classes and ages," Teruel said. At Louder Than a Bomb, "I've seen students from affluent high schools working with students from low-income high schools, and it's like a meeting of the minds all about the art form. It's rare to see teens in the Chicagoland area coming together for a single purpose, and Louder Than a Bomb does that."
The students competing at LTAB are from a wide range of economic backgrounds, with participating schools as diverse as New Trier High School, in Winnetka, and TEAM Englewood Community Academy High School, in Chicago.
The extracurricular slam team at Kenwood Academy has competed since the festival's first year. Last year, the team made it to finals but lost by less than a point to Northside College Prep. This year the team hopes to make it to finals again, but they have a handicap: Every member is new to LTAB.
Kenwood Academy is a neighborhood high school on the city's South Side. Nearly 85 percent of the 1,776 students enrolled at Kenwood are African-American, and 69.8 percent are low-income.