Slam Nuba’s Johnny Osi

Published on: March 12th, 2015

From forming its 2015 team of slam poets to compete at the National Poetry Slam to revamping their community workshops, this year is going to be a busy one for Slam Nuba. It has housed some of the nations finest poets, who tackle social injustices. We chatted with the newest Slammaster Johnny Osi about Slam Nuba and what it brings to Denver.F

Yellow Scene: Let’s start with the basics, what is Slam Nuba?

Johnny Osi: Slam Nuba is a lot of things. First and foremost we are a performance poetry venue. Every last Friday we have an event that consists of an open mic, featured performance from somebody who is a nationally touring poet or sometimes who is just a renowned local poet and a poetry slam. There’s also an overarching body of slam poetry called Poetry Slam Inc. and we are a registered venue with them, which means every year we put together a team of five poets who go to the National Poetry Slam and we are one of the three teams that represent Denver. Outside of that, we are out in the community. We’re doing poetry presentations in schools and colleges, and I just got done talking to a class of retired professionals who want to learn about stuff. They wanted to learn about poetry, and wondered what is this slam poetry thing, so I came in and did some poems and talked to them about it all. So we really do quite a bit over here.

YS: For those that don’t know, what is slam poetry?

JO: So slam poetry isn’t really a thing in and of itself. It’s really just spoken word poetry. Slam is the competition, it’s when the poets come up on the stage and have three minutes to perform their piece without the use of props, but there are very few rules. You get three minutes with a 10 second grace period to perform an original work. Then random people are selected from the audience, preferably people who don’t even know anything about poetry because the whole idea is that the crowd participates and the crowd gets to decide who they like and who they get to hear more poems from. It’s just how the competition works and that is called slam. There really isn’t slam poetry. You get the three minutes to do whatever you want. You can rap, you can be very metaphorical or you can tell a story. It’s just whatever you want to do in those three minutes.

YS: How long has Slam Nuba been around?

JO: I haven’t been around for the entire history, but I know that it started in 2006. But what happened is Ashara Ekundayo, Ken Arkind and Panama Soweto who came out of Café Nuba started Slam Nuba so they could compete at the national level. I’m not sure what happened to Café Nuba, but I know that it is not around today. So they spawned off from the poetry venue to start a slam. Since then they have been putting together teams and going to compete in the national poetry competition, as well as regional competitions and doing quite well. This year we were fourth in the nation, back in 2011 they were the champions, most years they have made final stage and individually some people have gone on to win individual poetry slams and Women of the World poetry slams. I keep saying they because it was before my time.

YS: How did you get involved with Slam Nuba?

JO: I sort of stumbled into it. Prior to Nuba I was doing this solo hip hop rapper thing, making my own beats and music and performing shows every now and then, and I’ve been in some bands and stuff. Then I ran into a person who told me I would be really into someone who told me to go check it out. I had been to some open mic scenarios before so I kind of had an idea of what I was going to. But the first night I was there my mind was just blown. Fellow poet Jovan Mays said that “this ain’t your grandmama’s poetry.” This poetry was on a whole other level, its very visceral and intense, and personal and connective, you know you can feel it. That’s a lot of what the poets are trying to do. We are trying to make it accessible to people without dumbing it down or anything. We are trying to open up so you can feel it. It blew my mind and I immediately wanted to do it, so I started getting in on the slams. I had a couple good showings, but mostly did poorly. Eventually I made the team and that was the most exciting ever. Now I get to sit a room with poets writing and rehearsing, perfecting your craft and bringing it out into the community.

YS: You’ve mentioned the community a bit, what kind of outreach does Slam Nuba do?

JO: It varies, there are a lot of people who reach out to us to come do work in their schools. Sometimes it is putting together a full slam at a school, sometimes just meeting with a group of kids and doing a writing workshop. This last summer we went to what seemed like a writing camp, and we came in and talked it about what we do and gave them a display of our work and then spent the next two hours teaching them to write. It helps them bring out their own creativity. We also have something that is kind of on hold where we invite people in the community to come to a poetry workshop. Anybody is free to come and get workshopped by the nationally touring poet that is featured. So you get face-to-face time, real intimate time with a well-known poet. We are working out all the kinks and want to bring the workshop back bigger and better. We want to create a real space where kids and adults can get involved and be creative and express themselves. That’s really what this whole poetry thing is about.

YS: Besides the community outreach, what is Slam Nuba bringing to Denver?

JO: The first thing I’d have to say is it brings an art that involves the observer. It brings the people into the art. You’re encouraged to give feedback. You’re encouraged to make noise during a poetry performance. You’re encouraged to boo a low score or cheer a judge who gives a high score. Actually the way we run the slam now, the whole crowd stands up for the poet they want to move forward. We’re engaging a community experience as opposed to just presenting an art to look at objectively. Aside from the work out in the community, I’d say is the creation of the community for people to share and express.

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