Every April, Mzee Soyini Najwa, founder of the Najwa Dance Troop at Malcolm X College, assembles a diverse group of Chicago poets, writers and singers to perform at the school’s annual “Tell it Like It Is” festival.

The event provides a forum for African-American artists and allows students to network with peers.

Malcolm X College, located at 1900 W. Van Buren, hosted the 9th annual festival on April 20. This year’s focus was on the “Griot” warriors. Not the ones from West Africa who read poetry, told stories and played music to chronicle the history of specific tribes. Rather, the focus was on the “Urban Warriors” like Stokley Carmichael, rapper Common and Black Panther the late Huey P. Newton. All of them, and many others, present African-American history and culture through the art.

This is the first year the show has had theme. Artistic director Najwa wanted to use the show to celebrate the accomplishments of today’s Urban Griots.

Several Chicago poets, including Momentum, Orron, Discopoet Khari B., Triple Blak and the night’s emcee, Armen Ra, took to the stage.

After an introductory performance by singer Tisa Butler and a few moments of darkness on stage, the Najwa dancers welcomed the return of light with a brief African dance and the chant of: “We want you to listen, your eyes are my window to heaven. You are the other half that makes me whole.”

Poet Momentum led off the spoken word performances. All of his poetry deals with how God helped him overcome his deviant past.

“If you can’t hear these words I speak, I can write them in braille so you can feel me,” he recited in his poem I S.P.I.T , a poem chronicling why he decided to pick up the microphone in the first place. His poetry is direct and passionate.

Later in What’s In Me he claims to have, “Good and bad in me/Mom and dad in me/Bone and teeth, the only things that are white in me.”

Later on, the Najwa dancers performed the Dung Dung Ba, a dance that originated in West Africa. It is done by the women to encourage and support their men.

The African Griots are believed to date back at least 1,000 years in Africa. A Griot was a travelling poet, singer, dancer or musician, and was known to keep the oral tradition of tribes.

Usually a member of the lower class within the tribe, they nevertheless were a symbol of the culture. What separates them from mere poets or singers is the way they conjure up images of God and family through their performances. Griots still exist in many African cultures and communities today. American spoken word performers and hip hop artists have carried on the tradition.

– Robert Felton