Her brother was an inspiration, too. Phillip Scott, 25, is a recorded spoken word artist (and a trumpeter, currently touring the world in the Drumline stage show). He introduced Nia to the world of slams and open mics, where she met Wally B, who invited her to Heard ’Em Say. Along with Curtis and Eric, she began attending his Saturday afternoon workshops required for those who wanted to compete for the chance to go to Brave New Voices.
How she makes her poetry performance-ready: “I just reread it, keep adding line by line. Over time you realize you want to take a word out if it doesn’t feel right anymore… Sometimes I’ll take out a whole section because it’s slow.”
What the future holds: “I know that through words you can do so much. Even if I don’t become a professional poet I can still be someone through writing.
Have you always been this articulate? “Yes.”
Take, for instance, what she did in fourth grade: After deciding her teacher was doing too much indiscriminate butt-slapping (the congratulatory variety), Nia organized a mini-boycott and got her classmates to sign a petition. “We were having secret meetings: ‘Let’s meet behind the staircase and discuss.’” (The butt-slapping stopped.)
Wally B on Nia: “Amazing writer — very young, so she has the great advantage of having a really strong skill set in her writing and her performance. She has a comfort level beyond her years — she’s absolutely fearless."
Curtis Davis: Deceptively shy in demeanor, he comes into his own at the mic, his poetry deep and searching, as in this line: "Ever since the day I heard Otis Redding swallow a microphone so that we could hear his insides, I've been trying to figure out what it means to love and be loved."
How Curtis got his start: He started writing poetry at Blake, where he was encouraged by teacher Cassandra Curry. “All of my life I’d never been good at anything. Poetry was the first thing that made my parents proud of me.”
He accomplished plenty to make them proud: He made it onto Team Rock-It in its first year and competed in California two years in a row, and then, as a senior, he submitted a portfolio of five poems to the Alliance of Young Artists and Writers competition sponsored by Scholastic. He won a silver medal — one of only two seniors in Florida to win an award.
Sweetest part? The awards were presented at NYC’s legendary Carnegie Hall. His father drove him up. “My dad’s really a big sports buff. I never really got into it. Now I’ve found a way other than sports to really make him proud of me.” The drive up to New York, his father’s home town, was “a good father-son bonding” experience.
His poem about learning how to be a man — what was behind that? “I’m moving away for college [Florida A&M, alma mater of his mentor Wally B]… That was one of the main things — moving away. My dad always has long conversations with me about life — I quoted him in that poem. It just means thinking about becoming a man… taking with me all the things my dad has taught me.”
How he got into performing his poetry: “I didn’t start taking spoken word seriously until I started going to Hear ’Em Say two years ago in October. It really came natural to me even as a freshman… It helps me that I have a writing background.”
Wally B on Curtis: “The strongest writer of the three, very cerebral — not only from a knowledge standpoint, but he’s able to put his feelings into very creative words. I’ve been encouraging him to begin to tap into the emotion of his writing when he’s performing — he’s very reserved, tends to allow his words to lead him. The thing is, with spoken word, you’ve got to get in front of the words.”
How Wally B keeps the all-volunteer Heard ’Em Say going: The Hillsborough Art Council has been an important supporter from the beginning. Jennings says he’s made some “personal investments” to help the program, too (his day job is facilities manager for the USF Alumni Center). And he gets support from some “amazing parents,” who helped raise funds for the students’ trip to the Brave New Voices competition.
Next installment: Friday Sept. 30, 8 p.m., HOPE Learning Center, 2902 E. Lake Ave., Tampa. Free. Performers 19 and under are welcome.
Heard ’Em Say on TV: Nickelodeon/MTV cameras were on hand for last Friday night’s open mic to film a surprise presentation to St. Petersburg poet Shanoah Washington, recipient of the 2011 TeenNick HALO (Helping and Leading Others) Award. A fan of Heard ’Em Say, Washington thought the networks were doing a documentary about her Sista2Sista mentoring program for young women, and she recommended they shoot footage at Heard ’Em Say. The segment is due to be broadcast the second week of November.