After a three-year drought, the Bull City Slam Team returned to Durham from Greenville, South Carolina in June with the regional championship in hand. They beat 31 teams to win the 22nd Annual Southern Fried Poetry Slam, a spoken word competition that attracts the best poetry teams from across the South.
In nine years of competing, the Bull City Slam’s only other win was in 2010. This year they won by a scant .2 points.
“We had a group of really dedicated poets,” said Chris “Dasan Ahanu” Massenberg, coach of Bull City Slam and slam veteran. “They were talented. They had diverse skill sets and they just really worked hard.”
The five-member team also included Micah Romans, Brandon “iShine” Evans, LeJuane “El’Ja” Bowens and Eric “Lyrically Blessed” Thompson.
Four of the five—Dasan, iShine, LJ and LB, for short—had participated in Southern Fried before, but Micah, who is the youngest member of the team at 21, performed at the regional level for the first time this year. Micah began writing and performing a few years ago when iShine and LB pushed him to; now, he is competing on a national level along with his old friends.
“It was a novel experience for me because I was a rookie,” Micah said. “They definitely treated me like a little brother.”
The family formed at monthly spoken word slams that Dasan hosts in Durham once a month to determine who will be on the official Bull City Slam Team. Every summer Bull City Slam competes in Southern Fried in June and the National Poetry Slam in August. This year they placed 24th out of 72 teams in nationals in Oakland, California.
The monthly slams, called Jambalaya Soul Slams, are held the third Saturday of every month at the Hayti Heritage Center at 804 Old Fayetteville St., the former St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. Judges picked at random from the audience score the poets, and the 12 poets with the highest cumulative scores from August to March compete in a final slam in April to claim a spot on Bull City Slam.
LJ, LB, iShine and Micah all said that the slams at the Hayti Center are competitive, but they feel more like family gatherings than contests.
“Have you ever seen those movies where they have those huge family competitions and they have a reunion and stuff?” iShine asked. “This is what this is like. We see each other once a month to be like, ‘Yo, I’m better than you.’”
At this comment, the group burst out laughing.
Keeping close ties
They also agreed that this family dynamic helped hold them together when practice for regionals and nationals began in earnest. Although they meet at Dasan’s turf in Durham once a month, the team is scattered around North Carolina, with Micah and iShine living in Greensboro, LJ in Fayetteville and LB in Wilmington.
“I feel like because they were all so far apart, they worked harder,” said Wendy Jones, the “team mom” and monthly slam coordinator. “Because most teams are in the same city, they practice together weekly or every other day. And all of them—LB being in Wilmington, LJ being in Fayetteville and us being in Greensboro—that didn’t happen. So it pushed everybody to work that much harder, and I really feel like that’s what made the difference for Southern Fried.”
Hard work with a little luck
Hard work in poetry looks different than hard work in other disciplines, but it is equally time-consuming.
“It looks like two, three-hour phone calls talking about poems at least about five times a week,” iShine said. “It looks like staying up until 2, 3 in the morning, practicing the same poems. It looks like being honest with each other about your work ethic.”
The family dynamic was key in “taking it all in and not getting mad at each other,” LJ said, but even with the edge that good team chemistry brings, a victory in a slam is not secured.
“A slam in itself is a combination between hard work and luck,” LB said. “The way it is set up is they choose five random judges—and you have no idea about their background, their exposure or anything. And to determine what they will grab from your poem and enjoy is pretty much a gamble, so it takes a lot of luck and a lot of preparation to actually be prepared to win these slams in a different region or a different area.”
The Jambalaya Soul Slams are good practice for regionals and nationals—Dasan purposefully gave the monthly slams identical formats.
“It’s really kind of an incubator for how people relate to the community,” Dasan said.
Dasan emcees each month’s slam, and although he does not compete, when it comes time for regionals or nationals he will perform if the team needs him to.
The Bull City Slam coach teaches creative writing at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh and is also a resident artist at the Hayti Center. Other members of this year’s team lead writing and performance workshops at schools around the state, but in October, Dasan will be resuming the Jambalaya Soul Slam Academy—a series of 90-minute workshops that focus on developing individual writing and performance skills. The exact date of the first workshop has not yet been determined.
October will also be an important time for iShine, who will be competing in the Individual World Poetry Slam in Phoenix, Arizona from the 8th through the 11th. In May, he earned a spot in qualifiers to represent Bull City Slam in the competition.
Despite their accomplishments, each team member is focused on keeping their spot on the team; less than two months after nationals, they have already begun competing in the Jambalaya Soul Slams to get a ticket for next year.
They may be family, but there’s no way they’ll be taking it easy.
To find the official dates for the Jambalaya Soul Slam Academy, go to http://bullcitypoetryslam.com/about.html
To follow iShine’s progress in the Individual World Poetry Slam, go to http://iwps.poetryslam.com/