20 Under 25: Team Rock-It West Wing

Slam poets, Tampa: Eric "Gravity" Almanzar, 18; Curtis Davis, 18; Nia Scott, 15

click to enlarge Team Rock-It (from top): Eric Almanzar, Curtis Davis and Nia Scott. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
Team Rock-It (from top): Eric Almanzar, Curtis Davis and Nia Scott.

click to enlarge Eric "Gravity" Almanzar. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
Eric "Gravity" Almanzar.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Following the initial publication of our interviews with the poets of Team Rock-It, below, we received an email from one of them, Nia Scott, who complained that we'd missed out on most of the story. You don't want to mess with Nia; she may be 15, but she stands up fiercely for what she believes (she's already written a letter to President Obama protesting arts funding cuts). Besides, she had a point. The original interviews focused more on the team's poetry than their personal histories, and also failed to mention a key player in their success: Walter "Wally B" Jennings, who helped them perfect their craft at his monthly Heard ’Em Say Teen Poetry Night in Tampa, an event that's about to get national exposure on Nickelodeon and MTV.

So consider this the augmented version — we hope it fills in the gaps, Nia.

How Heard ’Em Say led to Team Rock-It: Walter Jennings, 34, discovered his knack for spoken word at a fraternity open mic night when he was a senior at Florida A&M. “The first thing I thought was, ‘What would my life have been like if I’d been able to share these things when I was younger?’” Ever since — as a co-founder of Black on Black Rhyme and a member of the poets’ collective that organizes the Hillsborough Poetry Jam in area schools, as well as the founder of Heard ’Em Say — he’s been helping young people express themselves through poetry. For him, it’s about giving kids “a platform to talk about their experiences,” so they know “it’s okay to be you.” Through workshops and competitions during "slam season" in the spring, he helped Team Rock-It prepare for the challenge of Brave New Voices, considered the Olympics of youth poetry slams and billed as "the largest ongoing spoken word event in the world." Curtis Davis was on the Tampa team in both 2010 and 2011; this was the first year for Nia Scott and Eric Almanzar.

High verbal scores: Both times it's competed in Brave New Voices, Team Rock-It has finished in the top eight. More than 50 teams traveled to Oakland, CA from all over the country to compete this year. Eric, Curtis and Nia, all charismatic, candid wordsmiths in their own right, performed solo and with Team Rock-It East Wing from Orlando. L.I.F.E., the godfather of Black on Black Rhyme poetry nights at the Blue Shark in Ybor, says the West Wing poets are "amazing spoken word artists."

Eric Almanzar: The most polished of the group, he's done Black on Black Rhyme solo gigs and manages to come off both as a sly ladies' man and a kid just figuring things out. Example: In "Love/Hate Story," an ode to a difficult girlfriend, he proceeds through a series of rhymes that go from "godly, or should I say goddess-ly," to "honestly," "modesty" and the kicker, "Girl, you ain't as hot as me." He played string bass from third grade till his sophomore year in high school, and is now teaching himself ukelele. He has produced several hip-hop "beats."

But wait, there's more…: This is what Nia added in her email: “Eric Almanzar is a great poet — although he may appear comedic at times his passion for writing and skill should be taken very seriously. Not only does Eric make people laugh, but he makes fun of his true heart-break experiences. And I for one do not feel as if his interest in a ukulele is pertinent to his poetic potential. (You also spelled ukulele wrong).” Ouch. And… “Eric has also won adult slams, such as Sacred Sound Saturday slam, in which he has been the undefeated and defending champion for two months.”

And here's what Eric had to say about the slams: "Sacred Sounds Saturday slams take place on the third Saturday of every month at Sacred Grounds Coffee Shop. I am the defending champion of this slam and I decided to challenge myself by defending my title again this month, but with three completely new poems. Everywhere I go, I'm known as the 'funny poet,' which inspired me to show my versatility when it comes to subject matter.

Another note from Eric: "Nia, Curtis, and I really feed off of each other's energy and writing. We all have unique styles, so in spending so much time with one another, we've evolved as writers and performers. The skills that we've picked up from one another will certainly help us in the future, both as a team and individually. I must say though, I think the key to our success this year was our genuine love for one another and what we do. Wally B., Nia, Curtis, and I were never as passionate about winning as we were about getting our messages heard. That is all!"

Wally B on Eric: “I conducted Poetry Jam at his school [Hillsborough Steinbrenner High] in 2009. It took me a whole year to get him to come out to Heard ’Em Say. This year I got him into the fold. He’s always been a very gregarious performer… natural, very comfortable on stage, engaging with the crowd — very funny.”

Nia Scott: A student at Blake High School for the Arts, Nia describes herself as a "poet, musician, and artist... I began writing poetry in the seventh grade and I'm looking forward to the continuance in the craft." She currently holds the title of Hillsborough County 2011 Poetry Jam winner. Remarkably cool on stage, she's a good actor, too, as in a performance of the lines, "Once I could have sworn I saw you smile, but I remembered it was, it was, it was [sneeze] probably just allergies."

“I love everything about words the older I get.” Nia started writing poetry in the seventh grade. Language arts teacher (and OWN host runner-up) Phyllis Tucker-Wicks saw her potential and cast her in plays, including a touring black history piece that led to her performing in front of big school groups twice a week.