Sacramento Area Youth Speaks’ poetry slam team

Local youth poets won big at an international festival—and found family

From left to right clockwise: Denisha Bland, Danielle Scales, Keishay Swygert, Nmachi Som-Anya and Jacquez Cosby of the Sacramento Area Youth Speaks’ poetry slam team.

From left to right clockwise: Denisha Bland, Danielle Scales, Keishay Swygert, Nmachi Som-Anya and Jacquez Cosby of the Sacramento Area Youth Speaks’ poetry slam team.


Learn more about the Sacramento Area Youth Speaks’ team at

The room filled with silence as the Sacramento Area Youth Speaks’ poetry slam team finished its piece “S.A.C,” a poem about Stephon Clark, the young African-American man killed by Sacramento police earlier this year. Students from various Sacramento-area high schools gathered in July to attend the 2018 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Houston, Texas. There, phrases such as, “They turned Sacramento’s slogan into Farm-to-Fork Capital / their intention was always to eat us alive,” struck the audience like emotional bullets. “They put their whole heart, soul and body in that piece and they left that room literally in tears,” explained coach Denisha Bland. Bland and her band of young spoken word artists, Jacquez Cosby, Nmachi Som-Anya, Keishay Swygert, Danielle Scales and Simone Hall, reached first place in the semifinals and ranked third in the world. Bland, and several members of the group, briefly set their poetry books aside to chat with SN&R about the team, learning experiences and how they became family.

What made you want to start the slam team?

Denisha Bland: I actually didn’t start the slam team. It was started by Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, which is the organization that I work for. We been running a youth poetry slam team for about 10 years now. It started in Grant High School with five youth, and then we partnered up with our sister organization, Youth Speaks, and started going to the international poetry slam, which is Brave New Voices. This is my first year actually coaching. We created this amazing slam team that I give all the credit to the youth.

What type of subjects do you cover?

Nmachi Som-Anya: We talk about things from racism to injustice in schools to the academic achievement gap to rape and a lot of personal and introspective things.

Bland: It’s just issues that they are facing today as teenagers in the Sacramento area. They all come from different areas of Sacramento and they have put their voices together to speak them. The issues I noticed in their poems were police brutality, racism, women’s rights and gender identity.

What’s your role as their mentor?

Bland: I am the lead poet educator for SAYS … I help them with their own lives through hip-hop and spoken word. I am from South Sacramento, and I used poetry as an outlet to get where I am. So, I am going back into my community to help the kids who are into poetry and art and to help them use it as an outlet. I want to be that bridge to help them to get wherever they want to be.

What was it like competing at Brave New Voices?

Bland: It was amazing because I watched from the sidelines [as] many teams and coaches before me [get] to Brave New Voices and [not win], so to finally be the coach [with] that breakthrough was an amazing feeling. I was very excited for the youth and the organization. It’s an honor to say that I’m their coach.

Jacquez Cosby: It felt crazy to compete … I never seen an organization like it, and when everyone got together, we weren’t just people in a place. We were more like family. We care for each other and we know each other’s struggles.

How did the audience react to the Stephon Clark poem?

Keishay Swygert: They felt us. I feel like we put it on for the whole city and for Zoe [Stephon Clark]. … They felt our pain as a city and as a team and what we were going through. We let them know that it wasn’t a slam piece, it was a Sacramento testament.

Bland: That’s one of the lines in the poem, “This isn’t a slam piece, it’s a Sacramento testament.” I think they left that there on that stage, and the people really were able to feel the pain and passion that the city was going through. Everybody could watch [the Stephon Clark story on] the news, but to hear it from the youth, it left the room in tears. It was the last piece we did before we won the semi-finals.

Biggest take away from BNV?

Bland: I don’t think I got the biggest take away yet because I am still going through the festival every day in my head. The biggest thing that I learned though was how to depend on and listen to the youth. The whole experience taught me that to have faith in them because they got it all they just need a little bit of guidance.

Danielle Scales: The biggest take away for me was being able to find community within your art and realizing that a lot of the time as artists, we use our craft to heal ourselves but [also] how much of it can help heal other people. What we write down on this paper is not just what we go through, but what people go through all over the world, and being able to connect based on that.

Advice for young poets?

Bland: I think young poets should know that everybody is born a poet. Poetry is inside of you and you just got to be able to let it out. Once you let it out, tap into your artistry, be hungry for it and find an outlet to get your voice out. Poetry is art. Poetry is soul. Poetry is freedom. It can take you anywhere you want to go, but you have to believe in your own artistry before anybody else believes in you.