Young Identity are at the heart of Manchester’s slam poetry scene. Since its foundation in 2006, this extraordinary arts organisation has consistently delivered high-quality, high-energy events, imbued with love for their craft. I first came across their work last year, at a literature festival organised by the British Council in Berlin – I’ve never heard an audience of middle-aged English expats cheer quite so loudly. So, naturally, I was buzzing for my very first One Mic Stand, one of Young Identity’s best-known events.
For the uninitiated like me, here’s how a poetry slam works. The contestants have up to three minutes to showcase their piece, and they are judged on content and performance by a panel. The highest scorers perform a second piece after a brief interval, and the winner goes home with a £50 cash prize.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I got to experience One Mic Stand to the fullest: the vibe was lukewarm for much of the night, which was disappointing since the event is often praised for its energy. This had nothing to do with the performances, but rather with the audience. The place was jam-packed, but it became clear early on that most of us had never been to a slam night before. We didn’t know the rules of this strange new world, and despite the hosts’ encouragement to engage, our participation was awkward, tentative. Plus, we didn’t fully get the hang of the finger-clicking.
The hosts were Reece Williams and Roma Havers, both amazing poets in their own right. Williams was especially charming, combating the audience’s shyness with a lovable sense of humour. Havers was warier, but always held her ground with jokes and anecdotes. Not to mention, she opened the night herself with a striking poem about gender expectations.
In true Young Identity fashion, the pieces were varied. The themes ranged from mental disability to relationships with parents, the latter approached from different angles. Chrispie Brown performed a touching ode to his mother, while Rory Dickinson intermingled memories of his father with regret for his lost Irish heritage. Various performers tackled the subject of race, with tones spanning from the reflective to the angry. Among them, Kashi47 started strong with his rap lyrics, but the audience cringed when he described putting ‘[his] d**k inside ovaries” – not exactly in tune with the empowering atmosphere of the event.
Chayo Melara Page showed up in a pin-striped suit, complete with a straw hat and mobster-like swagger. Saf Elsenossi showcased his many talents, with singing and Swahili woven into his performance. His poem about Manchester was one of my favourites, because his love for the city was contagious. Liv Barnes delivered a brave piece about self-loathing and guilt, with a rawness that couldn’t help but impress. Jardel Rodrigues won the night with a mixture of pulse-pounding rhythm, trademark wordsmithery and pure charisma. From the third row, I could see his eyes bulging with intensity under his thick hoodie.
The competition was accompanied by stunning performances by poet Dave Viney and singer Eva Bee, both Mancunian to a dropped T. Viney was hilarious in his rendition of ‘Mancs for the Memories’, a piece about the North-South divide, but struck emotional chords in ‘Nice One’, which described his relationship with an abusive father. In the artist’s own words: “if I’ve awakened some deep-rooted sadness that ruins your night, I’ve done a f***ing great job.” The explicit imagery in his ‘Partly Political Broadcast’ seemed to shock some audience members, but I was more troubled by his childhood antics, involving his little brother and a kitchen knife. (Don’t worry, nobody got hurt in the end.)
Eva Bee’s music was like spoken word on acid. Her presence was a wonderful addition to the event, with her jazzy voice and complex lyrics finally stirring some movement in the crowd. We swung our heads and shoulders to and fro, though most of us weren’t brave enough to dance, and erupted into a cheer at her duet with Isaiah Hull. ‘This city has a heart that is untouchable,’ Eva declared as she sauntered off the stage.
Young Identity certainly know how to bring out that heart. One Mic Stand is a platform for radically different voices, so you’re guaranteed to find something that speaks to you. It’s poetry that pulls your heartstrings in a hundred directions.