The Daily Illini

SPEAK Café empowers creative minds

By Alicia Barbas, Contributing Writer

This past Thursday marked the second SPEAK café event of the semester, hosted at the Espresso Royale inside of the Krannert Art Museum.

The café was filled with R&B music until it quickly became populated with people of all ages; from mothers with children to retired professors, most of whom seemed to feel both nervous and excited to be sharing their work.

As people began to enter the room, Shamiira Brown, Interim Hostess of SPEAK café and close friend of its current leader, Shaya Robinson, stood behind the single microphone at the front of the room. She announced that she would begin the night by performing a poem she wrote herself about women in our current society, followed by a poem about “passive activism.”

“As of right now, my favorite poem that I’ve written is called ‘Tip Over,’ and it’s about heart break,” Brown said. “It was actually God speaking to me about how I should never feel empty from someone rejecting me, that I’ll always feel full.”

The café event is about 13 years old and was originally created by Dr. William M. Patterson, who runs a hip-hop workshop at the University and was inspired by poetry café trends in Los Angeles, Robinson said. It was originally organized through many students and leaders at the African American Cultural center and was meant to be a place to discuss politics and social conditions in society.

“I would say self-knowledge is a big topic for me in my life right now,” Dae Thomas, senior in LAS and one of the night’s performers, said. “But overall, race, gender, politics. Everything around you has conflict, so I think we should all write some things, whether or not it’s poetic.”

While these topics continue to be present, over the years the event has come to include not just African American college students discussing social justice issues, but also people from all around the community who feel passionately about creatively expressing a variety of thoughts and emotions.

Each performer came out of the audience one by one, giving insight into different inspirations that led them to write their pieces.

“I just write how I feel,” Kelsie Coleman, 25-year-old resident of Danville, Illinois, and author of a self-published poetry book, said. “I think it’s important to talk about insecurities, and to talk about love, and to talk about what you feel during the day, just because you never know how that can touch somebody else.”

Robinson shared quite a few poems herself, one of these was entitled “Dark Girl,” which highlighted many aspects of self-identity and empowerment.

“This poem kind of talked to my younger self and it just talks about feeling like nobody loves you,” Robinson said. “Just going through some of the really tough times as a child and then finally realizing that you are light, you are loved, and beginning to love yourself as a person and who you can be when you decide to not let any other outside influences tell you who you should be.”

As a way to encourage more performers to come in front of the microphone, Robinson explained that SPEAK Café stands for Song, Poetry, Expressions, Art and Knowledge. This means that any form of expression; from singing, to dancing, to poetry, to portraying an inspirational figure in your life, is accepted and valued in this space.

As the night went on, there were a variety of ideas performed throughout, ranging from Latinx identity, to bird observations, to political music, to hopeless romance. Every performance was very recognized by audience members.

“I’m all about the good vibes because we really want to be able to be free in here,” Robinson said. “To show love to everyone that comes in this space.”

Along with this, Robinson explained that hosting this event on campus provides the opportunity for young people, who will soon become leaders of society, to discuss important topics that impact them.

The Krannert Art Museum also provides a central community location for young children as well as senior citizens to learn to freely and creatively express themselves.

“It’s more about giving people the opportunity to share their art,” Brown said. “But it’s also about, as you can see, people sharing their emotions, their experiences.” 

While every participant had a distinct approach to both writing and performing, Brown explained that whatever gives her a feeling that she can’t ignore in a particular moment compels her to write her thoughts down.

However, SPEAK café is not the only platform for this kind of creativity. Many of the participants and leaders of this event have also been involved in other poetry events in the community.

Thomas has been involved in the Registered Student Organization on campus called Writers Organizing Realistic Dialect, or WORD, that meets twice a week to focus on poetry and the arts.

On a similar note, both Robinson and Coleman mentioned that they often attend “Soul on Sunday” at the Iron Post in Urbana, which consists of live R&B music and spoken word art.

Brown recalled a different event that used to occur about five years ago at Soma Ultralounge in downtown Champaign called “Exposed,” which held a lounge area for performing poetry.

Toward the end of the event, Robinson said that this would be the last SPEAK event before the end of the calendar year and that it would pick back up again in February.

Robinson emphasized that new members are always welcome.   

“The first step is just to do it,” Robinson said. “Even if you don’t perform your first time, but just coming and seeing what it feels like when you get here. Start journaling, start writing, meet people that are doing some of the things that you want to do.”

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