Poet Cedric Hameed grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., — a poor, crime-ridden, urban community. When he was in fourth grade, a documentary filmmaker for PBS, seeking potentially at-risk children to feature in a poetry study, came to his elementary school.
This man believed that if kids had an avenue of expression via poetry, then they’d be able to express how they felt about their environment, then progress and better their lives. Every Wednesday, the man would visit their classroom to teach them about sonnets, haikus, blank verse, free verse, etc., and, then, the students would write poetry.
“He planted the seed,” Hameed says. And the man was right; poetry enlightened Hameed — and saved his life.
The now 35-year-old wants to pay it forward to the community of Sarasota by initiating change through spoken word. The performance art is a meeting point of music, theater and lyric as a means of storytelling.
“Spoken word is the expression of saying exactly how you feel,” Hameed says. Since he moved four years ago from the Bronx, N.Y., to Sarasota, he’s founded and led Speaking Volumes Poetry Slam — a televised scholastic competition among Sarasota County high school students. Seven students each from Booker High School, Sarasota Military Academy, Sarasota High School and Northport High School will be featured in the next competition, which takes place April 29, at Florida Studio Theatre.
“For a lot of kids, it’s more than a poetry slam. It’s the first time they can say how they feel on a platform where they can be heard,” he says.
One young man had been kicked out of several schools in Sarasota County when Hameed met him. The student became involved in the poetry slam and eventually decided he wanted to do more with his life. He graduated from Booker and is attending the University of Florida.
But 33-year-old Hameed’s outreach doesn’t stop with youth. He leads a bi-monthly adult spoken word class at Florida Studio Theatre from October through March. He’s also a part of the Poetry Life Initiative, a weekend of events beginning May 3 that promotes poetry education through collaboration among FST, Bookstore 1 and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
But poetry wasn’t always the major influence in Hameed’s life. In fact, in high school, the 6-foot, 6-inch teen had played basketball with Los Angeles Clippers power forward Lamar Odom and was on his way to pursuing a professional basketball career, beginning at Boston University. However, upon graduation from high school, he discovered a paperwork filing mishap left him ineligible to play.
Hameed went to a community college in Jamestown, N.Y., instead. Because of this, his passion for the sport declined, and he lost his direction.
“I didn’t want to let go of the fact that the ball had stopped bouncing,” he says.
His brother, Kashif Hameed, convinced him to stay with him in the Bronx and help him initiate a poetry program to get adults and teens off the streets. His brother had no knowledge of Hameed’s poetic outlet, or that he’d been writing poetry since elementary school. He would write something and immediately throw it away.
Hameed planned his first spoken-word poetry café without the help of his brother and invited 90 friends and family members. But only seven people attended.
“I hadn’t done spoken-word poetry prior to that night or said how I felt,” he says. But the attendees encouraged him to follow through with the event.
“I had an adrenaline rush, and I hadn’t had that same feeling since playing basketball,” he says of performing for the first time at his event.
After Hameed performed, his father was so inspired by his son, that he wrote something on the spot he wanted to read. At that point, everyone wrote a poem and shared it.
“It was a big point, to see that poetry had a big effect on something,” he says.
For Hameed, poetry filled the void that basketball had left.
When Hameed was in elementary school, his alcoholic grandfather physically abused him when he used to stay with his grandparents every summer. He never told anyone about it, and it was a hard situation to process emotionally. Basketball acted as his outlet, but it was stripped from him.
“I could have used it as an excuse to take a self-destructive path, to have a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “But I made the decision that I wanted to be different, I wanted to make a change.”
For two months following the first spoken-word café, Hameed’s determination grew. He studied spoken word, went to as many venues as he could and got over the fear of performing. At his next event, 90 people attended. Eventually, it was a standing-room-only event. To boot, it was regularly televised on the HBO show, “Def Poetry Jam.”
“I had a lot of teens who weren’t in school, but some started writing college essays — just from doing spoken word,” he says.
Hameed wanted to continue his community outreach when he moved to Sarasota to begin a family. His outreach isn’t for profit; he works full-time for Comcast. The cable company has even helped support his cause by televising “Speaking Volumes Poetry Slam” each year.
He’s honest with the students in his spoken-word events about the fact that he went through rough times and turned out OK. He wants to be a positive influence to help them know they can be something more; they can do something different.
“I feel like if you make it through certain situations in life, that you’ll end up becoming that example or voice that other people need to hear,” he says.
IF YOU GO
SPOKEN @ The Cabaret
A monthly spoken-word poetry performance
When: 7 p.m. Monday, April 15. Runs every third Monday of the month.
Where: Florida Studio Theatre’s Goldstein Cabaret, 1241 N. Palm Ave.
Cost: Tickets are $5
Info: For more information, call 366-9000.
Speaking Volumes Poetry Slam
When: Monday, April 29
Where: Florida Studio Theatre
It will eventually be available OnDemand, under the “Get Local” tab.
Five things that inspire Cedric Hameed:
1. Author and poet Maya Angelou. “I can identify with a lot of personal tragedy that you have to go through to find your voice. I think she’s a great example.”
2. Poet and social activist Langston Hughes. “The era in which he decided to be so expressive was uncommon for others. He was a big part of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that inspired a group of people to look past their own circumstances to progress and change. Anyone about change inspires me, to be honest.”
3. Rapper Tupac Shakur. “He inspired me, not by what he glorified, but because he’s a big example of someone who goes through an internal struggle. He gave me examples of mistakes or pathways I didn’t want to take.
4. News stories. “In February, a basketball team in Texas let their special-needs basketball manager play the last five minutes of the game. The team they were playing was aware of it, gave the ball to him and let him score. It reminds me that there’s something bigger than myself here.”
5. “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” “I can’t watch it because it makes me boo-hoo every time.”
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