Jamal Msebele says riots in his native London neighborhood last August hit close to home.
The unrest was sparked by the shooting of a 29-year-old London resident by police. Peaceful protests soon turned into widespread looting and arson throughout several London neighborhoods.
“The riots were literally on my doorstep,” said Msebele, who lives in East Ham, a suburban district in East London. “It was a very interesting experiencing, I guess, because the area is kind of an impoverished area and it’s not very rich. So in terms of people robbing shops and whatnot, it’s not an everyday occurrence. But to see such a mass of people doing it in an organized way was a shock.”
Msebele shared that experience in a spoken word poem with about 200 people on Nov. 3, during Oak Park and River Forest High School’s annual fall Spoken Word Showcase. Msebele was joined by five other Londoners at the showcase, including his mother, Sifundo, herself a poet. They performed a group poem as well as individual pieces during last Thursday’s show.
For the last eight years, London teen poets have visited OPRF for a week-long exchange program. And each year the Londoners perform with OPRF’s Spoken Word Club in the fall show. The exchange program almost fell through due to a lack of funding, but private donors stepped in to keep the program alive this year.
Thursday night’s show inside the Little Theater at OPRF was packed. Tickets sold out days before the performance, said Peter Kahn, the Spoken Word Club’s sponsor and an English teacher at the high school. The London poets planned to perform pieces about the riots before making their trip to the U.S.
The London Teenage Poetry Slam normally sends the highest-scoring teams to the United States, but funding woes resulted in just four poets and two adults coming this year. A couple of the poets have been to the states before. The group visited Chicago sites, including downtown, and met other American poets. Last Monday, they did a workshop with students at Julian Middle School. They performed some poetry for OPRF’s Spoken Word Club during a morning period last Thursday, and also played music from artists in their country for the students on their iPods.
For those visiting the U.S. and Chicago for the first time, it was a pleasant “culture shock.”
“Just from being here and being around the school and the teachers, it just shows me how different the culture is here,” said Jennifer Perry. “I said it felt like a film at first, and it still does, but the people are so different than back in London. It’s a different lifestyle. People are friendly, people want to talk, they want to laugh, they want to smile. It’s just completely different.”