Poets took to the floor two at a time, squaring up in a masterful competition of word and flow. They poured out their souls on stage to an audience that in turn listened enraptured and shouted with enthusiasm. While the competition was fierce, each poet brought a message that stood out on its own, backed by experience and passion. Together they spanned the human experience and painted a lyrical picture of black life in Cincinnati and America.
This was the explosive fifth edition of Stay Woke, a culture and creativity showcase hosted by artistic collective Blvck Seeds. The main event of the night was the Poetry Slam, the festival’s first, in which twenty poets competed for the grand prize of $150 and the opportunity to perform at Cincinnati’s Ubahn Fest, just a weekend away on September 8 and 9.
CJ Houston and Blvck Seeds member Siri Imani acted as MC for the Slam and introduced the three guest artists of the night. The first, singer-songwriter Lauren Eylise, serenaded the audience with her acoustic guitar and powerful voice. The winner of the 2016 WomenInCharg3 Best R&B Artist of The Year Award gave the room a glimpse of her soon-to-be-released debut solo EP.
Spoken word artist and activist Malcom London followed Lauren and the second round of the Slam. The Chicago native was one of the Slam’s three judges and was in town to perform at Ubahn. Finally, the night’s featured artist was Cleavon Matthews, or Prophessorx, of Underdog Academy, who gave a blistering performance read out of his new book of poetry.
Jessi Jumanji, another member of Blvck Seeds, silently painted on stage behind the competition. Her other Afrofuturistic work provided a backdrop to the poets on a projector screen, and by the end of the Poetry Slam, she had a finished piece. It still had to dry, of course, but prints of her work were on sale at the event. She was one of several vendors. Black-owned businesses and artisans showed up to sell jewelry, clothes, incense and artwork, and the scent of Dayton professional chef Dre Newton’s Caribbean cuisine wafted through the row of stalls.
At the end of the night, after three blazing performances, the grand prize was taken by Cocoa Flo, the stage name of Jasmine Swanagan. She danced her way forward to accept, cheered on by the crowd and the other finalists: J Rap, Calla, Chris Rivers, and Journey.
You can find Cocoa Flo’s on Facebook and Spotify, and of course see her live at Ubahn. Catch Blvck Seeds and Malcom London’s performances there, too. And if you missed out on Stay Woke, don’t worry; it’s held on the final Thursday of every month, so the next one will tentatively be September 28th.