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Dasan Ahanu, 2023 Piedmont Laureate and Durham-based poet, said spoken word poetry saved his life. 

After stumbling onto an open mic night devoted to the art form — which Ahanu described as the intersection of literary and performance art — his life changed. He said he was able to find his calling as an artist and his role in the community.

Now, Ahanu is helping youth find their voices, too, through a new spoken word competition for local high school students in Durham, Orange and Wake counties.

The premise is simple: Students record themselves performing their original spoken word compositions. They then submit the video online to be judged by a panel of professional poets and spoken word artists. Submissions were accepted through Oct. 27. 

“I wanted the students to be able to make submissions in their own voice and to be able to do it on their own terms,” Ahanu said. “There's poetry contests where you submit your writing, but it's not always equitable because not everybody is able to write in the way that whoever's looking at it would be able to set aside bias on. That means there's certain young folks who probably aren't going to get regarded for what they're actually doing with their words and the images and the thoughts. They're able to do video submissions.” 

The competition is sponsored by various arts organizations in the area, including the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, Raleigh Arts, the Durham Arts Council and the Orange County Arts Commission. 

To spread word of the program, Ahanu spoke at four historically under-resourced high schools in Wake County and provided poetry guides to teachers in each county. He said students were engaged, excited and responsive to the idea. 

“They asked good questions at the end, and one student had something he wanted to share and shared in front of the whole assembly,” Ahanu said. “It was great.”

The student participants have the opportunity to gain statewide attention through the competition. The top 12 selected by the panel will be recognized during a reception at the North Carolina Executive Mansion on Dec. 12, where they can perform their work. The top three will also receive cash prizes.

“That's something that, as a high schooler, they're going to remember that for the rest of their lives,” Katie Murray, director of the Orange County Arts Commission, said. 

She said the competition might convince kids to try their hand at spoken word and could make the art form more visible and accessible in the community. 

Margaret DeMott is the director of artist services for the Durham Arts Council. 

“[Spoken word] is a form that is particularly conducive to civic discussion,” she said. “Whether it's racial inequality or any of the social justice themes of our day, those things find a home, and they're at home with words.”

According to DeMott, the program is a reminder of the rich literary talent and artistic opportunities in the Triangle.

She said the competition could be helpful for high schoolers, who are at a critical age where they are faced with a lot of life decisions.  

Ahanu said he wanted to help younger people see themselves as a part of the artistic community and support them as artists.  

“I want the high school students to feel seen and heard, to know that their voices matter,” Ahanu said. “I want to light a spark where I hope they keep creating, regardless of what they decide to do.”


@dthlifestyle |

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