Nearly 500 people came to downtown Washington, DC to hear the words of incarcerated youth at the 6th Annual Free Minds Poetry Reading. The 6th & I Historic Synagogue was filled almost to capacity with family members, attorneys, judges, writers, artists, business people, schoolchildren, activists, neighbors, and regular DC residents who came to see what all the excitement was about. Guests brought donations of paperback books which would be distributed at the DC Jail. The evening was emceed by local favorite WKYS disc jockey, EZ Street, who warmed up the audience before introducing nine young Free Minds members who are now back home in the community. Each young man stood at the mic and read their own poetry as well as the words of their fellow members who are still incarcerated.

Audience members alternately laughed, cheered, and even cried upon hearing the hopes, dreams and regrets of poets like 18 year-old Delonte, who had been released from jail just one week earlier after being charged and incarcerated as an adult at the age of 16. In his poem, Change-Like Symptoms, Delonte described a desperate desire for a positive new direction.

Change-Like Symptoms

I refuse to stay in park and become rusty and old 
I want my value to go up 
So I’ll always be worth bein’ sold
You can be stubborn and stay the same 
But I’ma make a quick change
Like a Lamda switching lanes
Tryin’ to get to its destination
One thing people fail to do
Is make change—a revelation
You need it to get places in life
Well I’ma make an upgrade
While you clowns stay in clown stage
I’m glad unique sticks to me like glue
I’m daring to be different
I’m feeling sick with change-like symptoms

It was his first time performing in front of an audience, and Delonte said he had to pray to make his knees stop shaking. Despite his nerves, the appreciation and applause of the crowd and the chance to give voice to the young men still behind bars made it all worth it. “I can’t wait to do this again next year!” he said.

The final piece was an original performed by nationally acclaimed poet, Messiah who had also served as a coach for the event, teaching the young men the art of spoken word performance.

The presentation concluded with the debut of “Hear Us Out!” a rap song written, produced and recorded by Free Minds members with the help of local artist Head-Roc. The song was received with wild applause and a promise by EZ Street to air it on the radio.

Messiah with Free Minds members

At a reception following the reading, guests enjoyed refreshments and mingled with the poets, buying hand silk-screened t-shirts and the Hear Us Out! poetry book which they then had autographed.

Free Minds Poets sign autographs

“This is my favorite part!” said 21 year-old poet and first-time performer Terrance as he signed a book for a woman who had driven all the way from New Jersey to attend the event.

To all of those who came, listened and heard, thank you for believing in our youth!

Hear excerpts of the poetry reading from Coffeehouse TV

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