“Dear Stink,” recites 14-year-old Jamaya Walker, as she practices a spoken-word poem outside a youth center in Richmond, California. Stink was the nickname Jason Walker gave his young daughter because of her smelly feet.
Baby girl, I’m sorry.
I didn’t realize the seed of pain I planted in your heart
And watered every time clouds blew from my lips
At 5 foot 7, Jamaya looks older than her age. Gold chain-link earrings with feathers hang to her chest, and her long pink nails sparkle in the fading afternoon light as she gestures in rhythm with the words she reads.
Jamaya’s father, from whose perspective she writes here, was shot and killed two years ago. Richmond, a city of about 100,000, is consistently ranked among the most deadly in the nation, averaging 36 murders a year over the past decade. There were 45 the year Jason Walker died.
At the time, everyone told Jamaya not to cry. Remember the good times, they said.
But there weren’t many. Jason wasn’t around much. He never came to her cheerleading exhibitions. He gave her money to buy new shoes, but rarely took her shopping. Jamaya remembers watching him cook something white and powdery on the stove top once, but when the young girl asked if she could help, he yelled for her to go upstairs. In the words of another one of her poems, Jamaya is a hustla’s daughter.
I’m sorry for putting the daddy role on hold
For the thug role,
The money-over-everything role.
Shortly after Jamaya lost her father, she joined RAW Talent, a multiplatform artistic and spoken-word poetry program with a growing voice in the city. The group held a workshop at her school, and from her very first poem, the facilitators knew she had a natural finesse with words. Since then the teenager has learned to use poetry to articulate her feelings.
And Jamaya’s angry. She’s angry with her father for not heeding her warnings. “Daddy, drug dealers either end up dead or in prison,” she said again and again. Angry with herself for being right. She’s angry with the person who shot him and with the police for not doing enough to find his killer. Angry with her older brother for looking like her father. Angry with her mom for trying to protect her by hiding the truth about what happened. How can she remember the good times when they’re buried beneath so much heartache?
I ran out of time.
Time I thought I had forever,
Time I took for granted.
Even though they told her not to, Jamaya cries anyway. She cries for the same reasons so many daughters in Richmond cry. But now she also writes. “I don’t have nobody to vent to but my paper,” Jamaya says.
Jamaya, like many of the other students, didn’t consider herself a writer at first. She had never even kept a journal. But by Wednesday this week she has already written three poems about her father. When she channels what he might say, the words flow:
Stink, I’m sorry.
Sorry for leaving a daddy’s girl to defend for her own.
The teenage girls who rehearse with Jamaya after school during a RAW Talent session giggle, throw things at each other, and have Hello Kitty stickers on their laptops, but when they stand to speak, their poems are about poverty, sexual violence, and drugs. Murder, child abuse, prostitution.
Several feet from where Jamaya sits cross-legged in an outside area of the youth meeting place, a chain-link fence separates Making Waves—the nonprofit agency where RAW Talent is based—from 24th Street, a menacing cement stretch lined with auto body shops and a drug rehab center. Grown men walk by, glaring in her direction and lingering on the sidewalk, talking loudly and laughing. About 30 yards away, at the street corner, two security guards hired by the program stand watch.
Earlier last year, there was a fatal shooting near where the idle men congregate. The victim was the cousin of a RAW Talent intern. But Jamaya, focused on the papers in her hand, doesn’t seem to notice any of it. Instead she moves on to another poem. This one directed to the man who pulled the trigger on her dad.
You not hurtin’ him,
You hurtin’ us.
Jamaya’s big, brown eyes start to water and tears get caught in her long eyelashes. “I don’t even know why I’m crying,” she says. “I just need to write.”
Jamaya relays the same ominous warnings to her friends that she did to her father. “Richmond is not the place for boys,” she says. They end up carrying guns, getting involved with gangs and drugs, going in and out of jail. “A child lives what they see,” she says.
Richmond youth confront adult problems every day, but unlike their older counterparts, they often have no say in their situation. Few ask for input from poor black kids and hardly anyone is listening to them. “Every time you speak there is someone telling you to shut up,” says Hodari Davis, executive director of Youth Speaks, a national organization based in San Francisco that promotes the literary arts. While students in middle- or upper-class schools may be encouraged by teachers to express themselves, kids in impoverished urban areas have found their outlet through arts like spoken word and rap.
Spoken word is about resensitizing a generation that has shut down in order to not feel the pain of its reality. One of the Youth Speaks’ mottos is that life is text. Each person’s story is a platform to expose social injustices and advocate for change. “People call it poetry, but essentially it’s young people telling the story of their lives,” Davis says.
For poets, the self-searching that happens during the writing process can be healing. The members of RAW Talent actually call it their therapy. But when they perform, it can bring recovery to the entire community. “The audience—the teachers and parents, the adults—become the students,” Davis says. “That’s a powerful dynamic.”
Last year, RAW Talent organized a town hall meeting. In a community center in the beating heart of the Iron Triangle, young people from north, south and central Richmond, came together – a feat in itself considering the deadly territorial tensions. The mayor and other civic leaders also attended, and for three hours students expressed through rhythmic verse how they’ve been affected by violence. How some can’t even go visit family members across town because it’s not safe for them to cross the invisible, but very real, boundaries that divide the city. How every child has in some way felt the ripple effect of violence, either by losing a friend, sibling, or even a parent. “We’re trapped behind the invisible walls of Richmond,” one teen says.
As Jamaya searches for the poetry in her own painful memories, she remains aware she’s not the only one suffering. Pretty much everyone she knows has been a witness of tragedy, struck by invisible stray bullets. The reason she keeps writing, even when she doesn’t want to, is because, even as a teenager, she realizes not everyone holds the power she does. “I say how they feel for them,” Jamaya says. “I’m the voice for the young kids like me.”
My reason for breathing:
Stink, I’m sorry.