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Hip Hop Fridays: Little Havana Teenagers Fuse Poetry And Hip-Hop

Under the gaze of other teenagers, Gabriel De Los Reyes rises and neatly unfolds a computer-printed paper from a folder. The lanky 14-year-old clears his throat and quietly introduces his poem Green Paper.

Then he explodes.

''My notebook holds the only paper I need, 'cause you may have dead presidents on your paper, but I have the lines of revolutionaries,'' he says.

Giggles erupt from the teens gathered Thursday evening in this East Little Havana after-school program, their pencils poised over blank sheets of paper.

Now it was their turn to craft rhymes.

The program is called WordSpeak, and it gives the teens the chance to put their thoughts to paper and perform spoken-word poetry -- think hip-hop lyrics without the music.

This weekend, they'll take to the stage to show off their skills.

''Hip-hop offers the young generation a way to define themselves against their parents. And it allows an aggressive format for people to express their immediate emotions and experiences,'' said Paul Flores, a spoken word poet who flew in from San Francisco to coach the teens Thursday on the technique of the genre.


Flores, 31, corrals the teens with the cool of a hip middle-school teacher, helping them assemble the building blocks of poetry.

They cull together phrases about themes such as trust and confidence, and try different ways of writing and reciting their lines.

''Work on your memorization,'' Flores tells them. ``You can always read, but memorizing means you can offer more. It's like currency, you have something to offer, to exchange at any time.''

Most of the teens here belong to Abriendo Puertas, a social services agency. All are Hispanic, all from low-income families. Some speak only Spanish.


This may be Little Havana, but those of Cuban descent are more and more outnumbered by teens from countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras.

But hip-hop and spoken word is not foreign to them. Neither is graffiti, although most don't think of it as an art form.

''With graffiti and with hip-hop, it's a very community, cultural thing,'' said graffiti artist Keen One, who taught a workshop on his craft to the teens earlier this week. ``It helps bond.''

At Flores' spoken-word workshop Thursday, the fashion and lingo of the hip-hop generation was in full effect.

Jerry Olivar, 13, likes rapper DMX, even if his friend Adolfo Briones, 14, thinks the guy is too old-school.

One teen sports a backward cap and a jumbo pink T-shirt, which naturally leads to playful ribbing.


Most of the teens here who will perform this weekend are novices, but Flores points to Gabriel as an example of a rapidly developing spoken-word poet.

Gabriel is quietly fierce, a freshman basketball player at Coral Gables Senior High School who writes incessantly and hates the shallow raps of mainstream hip-hop.

When his mother does his laundry, she often finds crumbled-up poems in his jeans. But she pushes Gabriel to pursue the art, even if she doesn't approve of the occasional curse word.

''When you see people react to his words, when people cry in reaction to his words,'' says his mother, Grizelle De Los Reyes, ``it's very powerful.''

At church recently, Gabriel performed a poem about racism, weaving in the haunting imagery of lynching from the song Strange Fruit by jazz legend Billie Holiday.

''It makes me feel like I'm scratching an itch,'' he says of his writing. ``I'm letting myself free, like I need to get all my emotions out.''

This article appears in The Miami Herald

David Ovalle

Friday, November 12, 2004

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