That information adds a powerful context to Smith's performance of his spoken word poem, "Principles," performed at the annual Brave New Voices festival in Washington, D.C. last week. The festival draws more than 550 young people each year, to compete in the only youth-focused slam poetry contest in the country.
Smith opens his more than seven-minute performance by paraphrasing John F. Kennedy’s famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you…”
Then Smith flips the script, illuminating that the questions black Americans must ask themselves about their country.
“Ask if your country belong to your country-folk,” Smith says. “Ask if your country addicted to blood. Ask if your country addicted to forgetting… Ask if your country is built on stolen land, and stolen breath.”
“All lives don’t matter the same as all lives,” Smith continues. “Some lives matter only to ourselves. Some lives matter only in they hood. Some lives matter of fact, and some lives up for debate. All lives matter to somebody, but what about this life of mine?”
His emotional performance goes on to addresses police violence, homophobia, misogyny, inequality and more. He candidly illuminates the challenges of identifying as a citizen of a country that doesn't seem to respect or accept your identity as one of its own.
Spoken word, or slam poetry, has a long history, especially in African-American communities where it has served as a medium to share traditions and culture. Its roots began in the oral traditions of Africa, and was carried on through the orations of famous poets throughout American history as a way to document the struggles of black people and other marginalized groups.
The Brave New Voices festival harnesses the power of that tradition by connecting youth and mentors in a weeklong series of workshops and events.
The event is produced by Youth Speaks, an organization connecting young people and creative leaders in cities across the world to “find, develop and apply their voices as creators of social change,” according to its website.
Don't miss Smith’s powerful performance captured in the video below.