'They're living their words' Spoken word: Jadon Woodard (L) of the Philly Youth Poetry Movement turned his life around with poetry
The subway train rattles forward, filled with downcast faces on a dreary Monday morning. This is the room Jadon Woodard works most mornings, walking through the cars and booming: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!” He launches into his act, improvising a spoken word rhyme about a passenger’s apparel or, if they’ll help with the material, a riff off someone’s name.
Jadon will rake in a few bucks in donations for the entertainment. He used to need these sessions; it was the way he scraped together enough money to get off the street for the night. He also does it to hone his craft, just for the adrenalin rush of working the SEPTA orange line – possibly the toughest room in Philadelphia.
That kid on the train? He’s a national champion. And rapidly becoming a star.
Jadon Woodard is one of the lead poets of the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, a New Beginnings program of Resources for Human Development. The Movement helps young people find their voice through spoken word poetry, promoting social change, cultural and ethnic diversity and positive self-esteem. It’s a safe haven for expression, a place to for young people to work on the art of literal and performance poetry, and fosters emotional healing and community service.
It’s also an avenue for national and international competition for the best of the best of the Movement. And the Philly Youth Poetry team might be the best in the country. In 2007, the Philadelphia team won the national title at the Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam (the Movement was featured on HBO, which produced a documentary on the event). Josh Bennett, one of the Movement’s leaders, performed at the White House for President Obama and the first family.
This year, if they can scrape up enough money, the Movement will head to Los Angeles to try to reach the finals and win the title again. It sends Jadon back to the trains, and all the talented kids at the Movement to the streets, performing at the Rotunda in west Philly, in clubs and bookstores, or on the streets of the city trying to raise money wherever they can to pull together the plane fare to L.A.
This is why Jadon has come here. Spoken-word poetry saved him from the streets, literally turned his life around. He heard it for the first time in a bookstore, where he was stealing Playboys to sell to kids in his neighborhood. The bookstore where Jadon was shoplifting happened to have an open mic night for spoken word. He put the magazines back, and got up on stage.
“It was the first time I heard someone really speak my language,’’ he said.
Growing up, Jadon bounced out of five different high schools before getting involved in spoken word poetry. In his sixth high school, he graduated valedictorian. He now has a college scholarship, and a blossoming career.
“If it wasn’t for poetry, I don’t know where I’d be,’’ he said. “I’d be strung out. I’d be somewhere under a car. I’d be dead, or locked up. I’d be a horrible product of my environment.
“I stayed focused, my art made me focus in school. I found something. I found my niche. I had to do good, so that I could be good.”
Jadon came across the Philly Youth Poets at a slam in Florida, and decided then and there to move to Philadelphia and join them, to hone his art with Movement Director Greg Corbin and the best spoken word artists in the country. He didn’t know anyone, had no place to stay, and no way to make a living.
“I was homeless,’’ he said. “But I was on the team, and that’s all I cared about.”
“When he’s writing, when he’s on stage, that’s what sustains him,’’ Corbin said. “He drinks it like water. If he couldn’t drink that water, he’d dry up.”
To earn enough money to find a roof most nights, Jadon worked the trains.
“I developed a little bit of a following; people would recognize me on the street and say: Hey, I know you from the trains,” he said. “I’ve grown so much as a performer. If you can survive the trains, you can survive anywhere. You can’t be scared of performing after that. On any kind of stage, in front of 20,000 people, believe me, that’s nothing after you’ve survived the trains.”
That training came in handy when he had to make the Philly team. The tryouts to make the cut are grueling. Live performances, judged in front of big crowds, can make or break young poets. On the final day, Jadon stood in eighth place. The team takes four, with two alternates.
His final performance was scored a 30 – a perfect score. It was the only perfect score of the competition, and it vaulted him, just barely, into fourth place and a spot on the team.
Corbin said he started the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement because “I saw a need for young people to speak.”
“There was nothing for young people,’’ Corbin said. “Most places that did spoken word, kids couldn’t even get into. I just thought: What if there was something just for young people. I handed out flyers – there weren’t even attractive – and asked kids if they might be interested. The turnout that first night, just on word of mouth, was amazing. And it’s grown from there.
“Our poets are doing work that is hard-nosed and risk-taking. And they’re living their words.”
Growing in his art with the Movement, Jadon has landed a commercial (that’s him in the Sprite NBA Slam Dunk ad featuring the Knicks’ Nate Robinson), and he appears on a Nickleodeon special in February celebrating Black History Month with a spoken word piece on Josephine Baker. He credits spoken word poetry, the Movement and Corbin with helping him grow as an artist – and a person.
“Greg is like a mentor, a big brother,’’ he said. “He makes the point that we not only come here to become great poets, but to become great people. What’s the point of being a great poet, a great performer, if you’re not a good person?”
“It has crafted me into the person I am. I think it’s made me a great performer and a better writer. But I developed into the person I am because of the people who care about me. In Philly, they’ve shown me nothing but love. It’s a community; they care about you.’’