Slamming for Gold

Youth Speaks Hawaii captured gold at what can only be defined as the Olympics of youth slam poetry - the International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C.

Melissa Moniz
Friday - August 15, 2008
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The Youth Speaks Hawaii squad
The Youth Speaks Hawaii squad that competed in Washington, D.C., (clockwise from left) Travis Thompson (mentor), Lyz Soto (coach), Jocelyn Ng, Alaka’i Kotrys, William Giles, Ittai Wong, Jamaica Osorio, Kendra Wong (Ittai’s mother), Mary Osorio (Jamaica’s mother), Jason Mateo (of Youth Speaks Bay Area), Stri Longanecker (mentor) and Kealoha (mentor)

The crews from New York and Philly didn’t take Hawaii’s delegation seriously - until they won gold at the International Youth Slam Poetry Festival in Washington, D.C.

Youth Speaks Hawaii captured gold at what can only be defined as the Olympics of youth slam poetry - the International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C.

Although medals weren’t presented, there was no podium and Hawaii Pono’i wasn’t played in their honor, the group of five Hawaii teens did our state proud.

Our Youth Speaks Hawaii Slam Team brought home the win after weeklong competition against 45 teams from throughout the world. Hawaii’s team: William Giles, 19, and Jocelyn Ng, 19, who attend Kapiolani Community College; Ittai Wong, 16 of Punahou; Alaka’i Kotrys, 16, of Halau Ku Mana; and Jamaica Osorio, 18, of Kamehameha Schools.

And what’s equally exciting is that this year’s contest was filmed live for HBO’s Teen Poetry Series, a six-part documentary that will air in the coming year.

The teams performed poems about a range of issues.

“Our diversity of topics was actually one of the things that the other coaches complimented me on when we were there,“says Lyz Soto, executive director and coach of Youth Speaks Hawaii.

“They felt that our team touched on a wide range of topics.And that was one part of what set the team apart this year. They covered everything from ethnic and racial diversity, to seven deadly sins, to cultural language, to material possessions, environmentalism, the war, Native Hawaiian culture.”

Jocelyn Ng and William Giles
Jocelyn Ng and William Giles

Qualifying for the finals was no easy task. Youth Speaks Hawaii arrived in the nation’s capital armed with a plan and an impressive number of performable pieces, 18, compared to last year’s eight.

As Soto explains,“Part of what happens with slam is that you do two quarter-finals, then a semi-finals, then finals. It’s an elimination process. Part of the rule is that, for quarter-finals, you get to repeat one piece, and for the semi-finals you get one repeat, and for your final you get one. If you don’t use it, then it has a cumulative effect, so you would have three at the finals - which can be a really great position to be in. We only used one repeat for our semis, so we did have two repeats going into the finals. So it meant that we had our strongest pieces available to perform on the finals stage.”

But it wasn’t the competition that the teens brought back home with them, but the life experience and friends they made during their stay at the George Washington University dormitories.

“We got really tight with the other teams, especially the Youth Speaks team from the Bay Area because they were right across the hall from us and so we hung out a lot,” says team member Giles. “Even though it’s a competition, it’s not like a cutthroat competition. It’s more about the sharing, and everyone was really fun to hang out with.”

Fellow team member Ng adds, “Just talking about it will not live up to anything that it was, because there’s just so much love and support there. We made so many friends.”

Friendships aside, this year’s first-place win was exceptionally special for Hawaii’s team, considering the upward climb they’ve been challenged with since entering this competition four years ago.

Ittai Wong and Jamaica Osorio
Ittai Wong and Jamaica Osorio

“At first it was just like people would just give us props because they know we traveled so far, but we did make an impression in New York in 2006,” says Soto.“In 2007 was when we made it to the semi finals, and we missed making it to the finals by a hair. I think that was the first year that most of the other coaches started to take Hawaii seriously.”

And in retrospect,Youth Speaks Hawaii began to take themselves a bit more seriously - spending countless hours brainstorming, writing, practicing and perfecting their pieces.

“We worked really hard all summer, and we were hoping to do well,” says Giles, a Kaiser grad. “We were really proud of our work.”

The sharing and support with which slam poetry is synonymous was captured on stage at this year’s competition. After the winners were announced, all the teams gathered onstage and refused to separate, chanting “One team! One team!”

So while each team made its way separately from home cities across the globe, they left united with more stories to tell and life experiences to expand on.

“When you leave that competition you’re just inspired,“says Ng, a Kalani grad.“It’s such a learning experience.”

Giles adds, “There are basically six members from almost anywhere you can imagine sharing stories and things they are passionate about. Being exposed to that global element is a huge opportunity. I got to listen to poetry from parts of the world that I’ve never been to before. It’s life-changing.”

Youth Speaks was founded in 1996 and is the leading nonprofit presenter of Spoken Word performance, education and youth development programs in the country. Youth Speaks Hawaii started in 2005 and is an organization that mentors youths primarily between the ages of 13 and 19. While slam poetry is the main focus, what it really encompasses are writing poetry and performance. Currently Youth Speaks has about 40 to 50 participants. Free workshops are offered at The Arts at Marks Garage each Wednesday. To join or for more information, call Lyz Soto at 306-7197 or visit

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