James R. Jordan Boys & Girls Club member Jermaine was just 9 years old when he wrote the poem that led him to be a finalist in the prestigious 2022 Rooted & Radical Youth Poetry Festival.
Out of more than 160 submissions, Jermaine, now a high schooler, was declared an All-Star and one of the city’s top 20 poets this year.
“Poetry is all about being real,” Jermaine said. “I wanted people to see my real story, and where I’m coming from. How I am and why I am what I am.
“That poem was one of my first works (when I started writing poetry and rap at 9). That’s why I think I was hanging on to it because it was one of the realest things I ever wrote. It came from a very young age.”
In the poem, Jermaine addresses being a Black man in America, and the impact of losing his cousin to gun violence. He said the poetry helped him process the loss of his cousin, where he could sit down with just a pen and paper and express himself.
“(Writing poetry) is a freedom,” Jermaine said. “I feel like I can have an open mindset. I wrote this poem when I was in a dark space, and music helped me calm down and helped me be myself and think about stuff differently.
“Poetry just gives you the freedom of expressing yourself."
Rooted & Radical was the first poetry competition Jermaine ever competed in, mostly devoting his time to working on rap music. But with the help of Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago Early Literary Specialist Kee Stein, Jermaine found guidance and mentorship.
Though poetry and rap are similar, the cadence and pacing are different since spoken word has no musical beat.
Before coming to BGCC, Stein was a professional poet working in spoken word and rap, and was very active with Young Chicago Authors and the Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival (now renamed Rooted & Radical Youth Poetry Festival).
Stein said she was excited to help Jermaine hone his craft and work with someone who was ready to be vulnerable in front of an audience, and who just wanted to get better.
“It’s difficult to put yourself out there, when you think about the content of his poem, talking about his experience navigating life as a young black man in America,” Stein said. “But I was immensely proud that he performed like he never did before (at the competition). He’s going to have so many more opportunities coming his way, and already is seeing that.”
Jermaine hopes to continue to enter more competitions, and has even been invited to do workshops and work with Young Chicago Authors. He also looks forward to continuing to spend time in the Notes for Notes Studio at the Club, where he wants to write more music.
Though BGCC does not have a formal poetry club or program, Stein is looking forward to reaching even more kids throughout all the Clubs to expose them more to the power of poetry and rap. Allowing them a space to express themselves and finding their own voice.
She said many still have a lot of ignorance when it comes to poetry.
“When I was their age, I used to think poetry was just a lot of dead white men using flowery language I didn’t understand" Stein said. “It’s so much more, it’s also rap, it’s also hip hop. If we can meet kids where they are and find new ways to express themselves, it’s so helpful and super necessary for them, especially at this moment in time.”