It's a packed house on this mid-May evening at the Blue Room. The third Tuesday of every month always draws a specific crowd to the jazz club at 18th Street and Vine. It's poetry slam night, when wordsmiths from across the metro gather to show their skills to a jury of their peers. Secret judges are scattered throughout the crowd. Whoever wins takes home $100.
Tonight is extra-special because Mayda Del Valle is the featured performer. Exactly one week ago, she was at the White House, having been invited by President Barack Obama to be part of a presidential poetry slam. She's known for her work on Russell Simmons' Def Poetry on HBO.
In the crowd are two Kansas City spitters who look at Del Valle and see one possible future.
Robert Brown and Taylor Brown have the same last name but aren't related. They're as famous as poets get in Kansas City without going national. When they perform together as the Brown Bombers, people in the crowd come up afterward and ask to book them for more readings. They've given poetry workshops for college students at the University of Kansas and for elementary-school students at Baptist churches. Though they're only 17, they regularly win slam competitions against veteran poets who have been in the game for decades.
Del Valle starts her set in front of an improvising jazz band. Taylor and Robert are sitting at a table in front of the stage. Del Valle is talking about lying men and the lessons from her mother's kitchen when Taylor leans over to Robert and mutters: "We going to practice or what?" Robert shakes his head. He doesn't think they need it.
When Del Valle finishes her set, the two get up and leave the room. This is when the slam part of the night begins. Close to a dozen poets will come to the mic to read their works and compete for the $100.
Taylor and Robert reappear at the side of the stage just as the contender is finishing. As the next competitors go up, the Brown Bombers show no sign of nervousness or intimidation. They're barely noticeable, the tall, lanky boy and the shorter girl with the circular hat on the back of her head, arms crossed across her chest and a stoic expression.
Glenn North is the MC. He and his partners, Marcus Brown and Jay Hawkins, kick-started the city's slam scene in the late 1990s, organizing the now-defunct Verbal Attack open-mic event. Today, Marcus Brown is in the audience and still encouraging careers. The 36-year-old is Taylor's uncle, the man who pushed her to develop her talent.
"She had flunked the sixth grade, and I was at her mama's house and found this poem she'd written and left out on the table," he says. "When I called her in to talk to her about it, she thought I was mad at her. I wanted her to keep it up. It didn't read like something a sixth-grader would write. It felt like something a mature adult would put down."
When it's their turn onstage, Glenn gives them a longer introduction than any of the other competitors. He talks about how they competed in a national Brave New Voices slam that was taped for an HBO series. He describes the Brown Bombers swooping in and taking awards wherever they go.
Tonight the Bombers are flying parallel to each other rather than together. Robert goes up first.
As soon as he opens his mouth, the strength in his voice surprises.
He's tired of people questioning his age. The way racy topics can sometimes elicit a heckler's "we've got kids in the room" or someone at the bar asking about his bedtime.
Philosophy like a sage on a good day. Wouldn't read it from the page on a bad day. Mold each stage I grace like a wad of clay but the audience can't get past my birthday. And it's not the new bloods that pissed me off. It's the seasoned fight-the-good-fight types. Never had the urge to bite types. Hear about a slam the day before and that's the only time they write types... . One night some cat said I got poems that old and all I could say was yeah I know. 'Cause I hear it each and every time you come to a show.
The crowd cheers and whoops. Del Valle throws her head back and laughs, puts one arm in the air and pumps it.
Real poets don't care about the fame as long as when I step from the mic deception is slain.
Except for Glenn's quick interjection that this is the second half of the team, there's barely a pause before Taylor picks up the mic.
She cries herself to sleep most nights. Because she's been beat most nights. Most nights she's too scared to speak. So she prays to her god silently like, Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
But if my wounds don't heal before the wake, I pray the Lord my life to take.
And she cries. And as tears flow to her cheeks she begins to feel the same pain felt in past centuries ... I killed my daughter so she didn't have to be a slave kinda pain. But black women that's OK. We be strong.
Unlike Robert, with his measured delivery, Taylor rips into it like these are her last words and she doesn't know if there's enough time to get them out. It's as much of a metal vibe as the hip-hop feel most poets bring.
Both walk from the stage without stopping to look at the crowd or soak in the approval. They might as well have dropped the mic to the ground as left it in the stand.
In the back row, a woman turns to her date and points at the stage. "I like that," she says. "Mm hmm, I like that."
The first time they opened their mouths, you knew they had something special," says Chris Odam, a creative writing teacher at the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts , who taught Robert Brown and Taylor Brown as freshmen. "It didn't scare me but it humbled the heck out of me. It's like, these two are in my class — what do I do with them?"
Robert was the restrained one. When he wasn't on the mic, he was in every school production because everyone wanted him. He was the one who, as a sophomore and a junior, returned to visit the freshman class because Odam could use his help.
Taylor was the one who used words like knives. If the mood struck, she would walk out of class — if she had even shown up. No one challenged her views because you couldn't argue with her head-on.
Despite their differences, their exceptional talent made people want to see them together.
"There was a man from the downtown Kansas City library who wanted us to perform for a Mali ambassador because he'd seen each of us perform at coffeehouse readings," Taylor says. "It wasn't our idea, but one of our teachers, Ms. Harper, said we should do something together."
The arrival of Abdoulaye Diop, Mali ambassador to the United States, was in conjunction with an exhibit called Visual Griots of Mali, a collection of photos taken by middle-aged students from the West African country who used images to fill the role of a traditional Mali storyteller, or griot. The event organizers wanted the Kansas City version of a griot storyteller and found the Brown Bombers, says Henry Fortunato, the library's director of public affairs. Fortunato described the Bombers' performance as a "breathtaking" spoken-word meditation on Mali.
That event was so successful that poetry slam organizers in Kansas City and around the region started asking them to spit as the Brown Bombers. The pair realized that they would be more successful together than they would apart. They could each get small bookings individually, but for the big shows — the ones like Brave New Voices, where they could make money and be seen — organizers always asked for the Brown Bombers. For a short set, maybe three minutes of poetry, they can now make up to $50; they can make double that for a featured set of 30 to 45 minutes.
They disagree on almost every point. Politically, Taylor backs the New Black Panther Party, while Robert works as the youth council president for the local chapter of the NAACP.
Sometimes they argue to the point of viciousness.
"We're in this production together, and I have to go up on this platform, and every time I hear her muttering, 'I hope he falls, I hope he falls and dies and catches a stray nail through the ear on the way down.' We were in New York once, and I got my hand caught on a subway train standing on the platform. People around me are like, 'Oh my god ... ' because if the train had taken off, I would've lost an arm, but she's back there screaming, 'Go, train, go!'"
Taylor laughs, then agrees. "It is true," she says. "We really don't like each other."
Yet they spend time in each other's homes — Taylor's near 12th Street and Brooklyn and Robert's at 56th Street and Woodland — and borrow each other's things. Robert complains that he can't go to a public library anymore because of all the library books Taylor has taken from him and lost. Taylor wishes that Robert would stop stealing her CDs before she gets the chance to listen to them.
"Because we're exact opposites, it's good for poetry and bad for everything else," Robert says. He's standing less than a foot away from Taylor, looking her in the eye. "As soon as I make it famous, I'm going to drop her, but I need her to get there."
The Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts sits atop the hill at Flora and Swope Parkway, an academic home to arts-inclined students in the Kansas City, Missouri, School District.
Less than 20 years old, it's among the district's more modern buildings, with professionally equipped theaters and an art gallery. Here, the tools that would ordinarily be found in shop class are used to build sets and rig lighting for plays.
Teachers aren't sure if the graduation-rate data are trustworthy, but they assume that Paseo's is high for Kansas City. A few of the school's graduates go on to college but most don't.
Fifteen minutes after the bell rings on this Monday morning, students are shuffling down the corridors, unconcerned about being tardy.
Attendance is usually sparse on Mondays, and today, with the end of the semester less than three weeks away, the wide halls seem unusually empty. One kid is showing off his new belt buckle — most kids get plastic buckles that look like dollar bills, but this one depicts Mexican currency. "That's the peso, the negro," he says. Another boy stops at classroom doors looking for a teacher who might have a microwave so he can reheat his Egg McMuffin.
On the building's first floor, students pop into Melody Conner's room, and the drama teacher patiently sends them where they need to be by the next bell ring.
Conner has worked here for more than 20 years. She's among those who appraise the talent when kids audition to get in; once they're here, she builds them into actors. She's currently directing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a comedy that presents all of Shakespeare's plays in less than two hours. It opens tomorrow night. Robert is one of the leads. Taylor is on the crew.
"If it wasn't for students like Robert and Taylor, and maybe 10 others, I would probably retire at the end of this year," she says. "But I want to be around for them. All that's keeping me now are those talented kids who need someone."
In the three years she has known Robert and Taylor, their talent has always been evident to Conner.
"It's stunning, what they're able to achieve," Conner says. "They are an example of the best Paseo has to offer."
Robert Brown is bright and a natural leader. "The first time I saw Robert act, it was just awe. You don't know how to keep from going 'wow.'" But she knows he could be even better if he were surrounded by people as good as he is. "He needs to go someplace where he's not king of the world," Conner says.
Taylor Brown, Conner says, "has more fight in her, more determination. She talks quicker than she thinks a lot of the time. People don't challenge her enough because she's got this explosive side to her. You can't get to her head-on, so sometimes you have to find a way to go around the side and meet her that way. I don't know where it comes from. She got real narrow in her focus at some point. It's been difficult to open that up."
Taylor is assistant director for the upcoming show, and the backstage responsibilities have brought out parts of her personality that Conner hadn't seen.
"She's right in her element, and it's not an easy job. She's really organized and totally different than what I've seen her like in class — attentive. She's not afraid to ask questions."
Taylor knows she can be difficult. "I flunked the sixth grade, but that didn't happen because I'm a lazy person. I've always been the same Taylor, but I needed to learn the world doesn't revolve around Taylor and swallow my anger with the world. And that took me years and probably still some of this year to figure that out."
Taylor describes her home life in generalities that seem surprising for someone who is otherwise so specific with her language. "It's not that bad. I'm not spoiled but I'm taken care of."
Because she's not as active as Robert, she has more spare time. To fill it, she reads.
Marcus Brown is equally vague but implies more about the circumstances at Taylor's home. "Her dad doesn't always do the right thing, so her mom needs a lot of help. I'm trying to be instrumental so she can get where she needs to go and help.... It's not stable. But it's not the worst thing."
Robert splits his time between his mother's and his grandmother's houses. But except to sleep, he isn't at either very often. "I wake up and go to school, and I'm usually out a lot. I've got show rehearsal, sometimes I'm spitting. There's always something going on, so I don't have time to be at home much."
For Conner, the Brown Bombers are an example of what was once right with arts education in the school district that has, in recent years, lost its way.
"It seems like there used to be more talent like Robert and Taylor," Conner says. "That's not to say there aren't talented students here now — there are lots of talented students — but today it's harder to find those kids. Our audition requirements to get in have been watered down. There are a lot of kids who come in and just want to coast through. We're not pushing them as much anymore, and they don't want to be pushed. Too many come and go without learning what they need to."
The Brown Bombers are equally apprehensive about where Paseo is headed.
"As much as I think Paseo has the potential to be the best school in the city, the higher in grade I get, the more I see Paseo dying," Taylor laments. She cautions that before you can criticize something, "you have to take the right action to make it better."
When the Brown Bombers tried that last year, it almost got them expelled.
According to Taylor and Robert, the trouble started with a biology teacher named John Zumwalt. The way they tell it, he thought that they weren't giving his class the attention it deserved and said they wouldn't be allowed in the classroom anymore. In response, the poets printed up posters, with slogans like "Killing Intelligence Patiently," and plastered them around Zumwalt's room.
Maybe they were just a pair of entitled art students throwing a tantrum against a subject that didn't excite them. Or perhaps they were just doing what poets do: expressing their frustrations with provocative language. To Taylor and Robert, it was symptomatic of the tensions between the school's more artistically inclined teachers and those focused on a more traditional education.
"It's not for one teacher or another to decide who can and can't get into their classes when they're being paid to teach you," Robert says.
The last thing either of them expected was for the police to show up. But because the word "killing" was in their posters, Zumwalt considered it a threat.
Taylor was excited about the possibility of being arrested. "I was kind of hoping for it," she says.
"So we go downtown, and they're talking about kicking us out of the district," Robert says. "Then they start quizzing me, like they're thinking I don't know anything and I'm just some dumbass. They're asking me things like, 'What's four times three?' What's my foot up your ass?"
The police decided that the posters didn't constitute a threat, and the subject was dropped. But Robert and Taylor had been taken out of class during finals week and ended up failing several classes. "I can't make straight A's now on my record because of that bullshit," Robert says. "Not that I would've anyway."
Paseo's principal, Dr. Juanita Hempstead, says she can't discuss the specifics of the incident because the legal system was involved. She confirms only that some posters were hung and describes the Brown Bombers' narrative as "exaggerated."
One thing is certain: The Brown Bombers are still 17, often letting their passions run away with their talent, convinced that every battle needs to be fought or else it's a loss.
Taylor: "Marcus Garvey said a good warrior would never surrender."
Robert: "She reads one book and she's quoting Marcus Garvey."
Taylor: "Shut up, Robert. I read a book and a half."
In July, the Brave New Voices competition begins again, and the Brown Bombers are preparing for a competition they can't steamroll.
"That was a humbling experience," Taylor says of last summer's defeat, the first time they entered the nationwide series of face-offs. "When we were there, we were only Kansas City good, and we have to compete against Philly and New York people who've been trained by Def Jam poets, just the best of the best."
Moreover, uncertainty surrounds the future of the partnership. They still have their senior year ahead of them. They both want to go on to college.
The Brown Bombers are easily "exploited," Conner says. "They don't say no to anything, and people want them in everything once they've seen them. They can get used up."
Taylor gets pushed to do poetry readings at everything from library events to a friend's birthday party. As Robert has been preparing for the Shakespeare opening, he has been approached to do readings on the same nights. They get regular requests from churches, writers groups in Lawrence, and acquaintances putting together events in coffee shops.
They've learned that the first thing they need to ask is whether the organizer has a budget.
"There was a guy in St. Louis who asked us to come out and he'd pay us $75 to split if we performed at his spot, and I guess he's got his own place," Robert says. "That's fine, even if it isn't much money, because then we can say we were featured in St. Louis." But when Robert asked where they would stay, the organizer offered to let them stay at his house. Robert turned him down. "People see the talent, but they don't see our age or our circumstances."
Marcus Brown acts as a manager of sorts, reviewing the terms of their invitations and trying to make sure that people don't use the Brown Bombers without giving them something for their time.
More than worrying about people using them, they're concerned about staying honest. Both have rules for themselves. They feel that if their work doesn't come from a truthful place, they shouldn't perform it. They have to live their messages or they'll just be another plastic poet, a spotlight jockey, a slam slut who's in it for the glory. That means organizing protests, working for political groups, mentoring students about developing their own poetry skills and working for their churches.
"There are poets out there that just spit, and they don't live what they write or try to uplift the community," Robert says. "You can't be fake."
And you can't rest.
After two decades of watching talented students come and go at Paseo, Conner knows all the ways that things can go wrong. They can get to college and find themselves in the shadow of more talented students for the first time in their careers. They can let their own anger get the best of them. Their potential can simply run out if it isn't challenged.
"They always wow, but they always wow in the exact same way," Conner says. "I want the world for these kids, but if they're not careful, the world will become stunted, smaller."
The Blue Room is darker now. The sun outside the front window has set, but the poets keep marching onstage. A man from the Dominican Republic recites the acts of his lovemaking: parted legs, wetness, leg cramps. A 20-something in a Che Guevara T-shirt reads a letter to his mind signed by his tongue. A Ph.D. student, jokingly shocked to see white people in the front row, praises Barack Obama with Jay-Z lyrics.
Taylor and Robert sit at their front-row table, just under the performers' right-hand field of vision. They don't look at each other much. Their faces are weary, as if their five minutes onstage were a day's labor. When one poet says certain white elites only see Barack Obama as a "nigger" no matter what he does, Taylor yells, "Spit!"
Robert is critical of the Brown Bombers' performance tonight.
"Tonight just wasn't right for us to spit together," Robert says. It wasn't their best work, he says. The energy just wasn't right. "We're kinda mad at each other right now, I guess. I wanted to go together; she wanted us to go on our own."
The evening's last poet finishes to cheers and applause. Afterward, the night's competitors approach Del Valle's table one at a time, and she cheerfully signs the books they buy.
Robert has left the room, but Taylor is still at the front-row table, laughing at a private joke with the slam's last poet, a young man in a red shirt and matching headband.
She's as dissatisfied with their performance as Robert.
"It just wasn't ... " Taylor slaps the back of one hand against the palm of the other four times.
"It didn't feel right to do it together. It definitely wasn't our best. But we're not competing with anyone tonight. Just with each other like we always do."
Taylor gets up to talk to a woman she has spotted at the bar and describes as a mentor.
MC Glenn North finally gets onstage to read the winners' names. Robert is called for the last-place finish and a $25 prize, but he's not there to hear it.
Marcus Brown has his own perspective on the Brown Bombers' performance. "I think they were good tonight, but I always think they're good when there's so much envy in the room. It's like, 'Damn, I wish I was 17 and that good.'"
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