Fingers snapped and echoed across UNC Asheville’s Lipinsky Hall on Jan. 23 as Marc Bamuthi Joseph spoke in rhythm and rhyme about hate, greed, neglect and ignorance.
Capping off UNCA’s weeklong Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, keynote speaker Joseph tapped his way down the aisle of the auditorium, spinning and engaging with the audience, which echoed his rhythms with applause, snaps and praises like “that’s right.”
“I want to talk about family, and community, and equality and common ground,” Joseph said. “The way I personally think about social justice has everything to do with environment. I think the environmental movement is the movement of the 21st century.”
Joseph founded Youth Speaks and co-founded Life is Living, a “series of festivals designed to activate under-resourced parks and affirm peaceful urban life through hip-hop arts and environmental action.” He’s been named one of America’s Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences, is a National Poetry Slam champion, and in his work at Youth Speaks, he mentors 13-19-year-old aspiring writers. He also curates the Living Word Festival for Literary Arts.
The evening program warmed up with UNCA students Aaron Kreizman and Colette Heiser performing their own spoken-word poetry about the anxiety of entering adulthood and living up to the expectations before them, and local problems and personal struggles.
When Joseph took the stage, the crowd roared applause, which quickly quieted to the hushed snaps common at a poetry slam. Rhythm infused his words as he tapped out the beat with his feet, his rhymes harmonizing to his toes’ constant drumming.
Joseph’s final words turned to echo those of Martin Luther King, Jr., as he asked, “For whom America the beautiful? Spacious skies merely mock the blackbird with crippled wing. We slice the blackbird’s throat and ask her why she does not sing. No one remembers there was no head start, no exposure to art.
“We ask the blackbird why she cannot fly while the law is walking off with her wings,” he continued. “So savage we only see equality in 63 black-and-white dreams. Is it so savage to dream in Technicolor prisms tinged in right to be? Is it so savage to dream — at last free.
“To dream at last free,” he echoes. “Dream at last free. To dream at last. Free. Free at last. Free at last.”
The snaps from the audience grew louder into a standing ovation of full applause. Joseph stayed around to answer the audience members’ questions.
“Do you have any advice for a young man in need of motivation?” asked a student in the crowd.
“Risk,” Joseph answered. “Risk failure. Everything you value — every piece of technology — that was someone failing — at first. Not fearing to risk — nothing happens without a leap of faith.”