Tou SaiKo Lee mentors South High students in spoken word


“Poetry changed my life,” said Devante Kearney, a junior at Minneapolis South High School and a participant in the Loft Literary Center’s Inroads program that takes place after school. “I used to have anger problems—I was always arguing,” he said. “Poetry was a place for me to calm down and figure out why I as angry all the time.” He started writing, and at first, he described himself as being an “underground writer,” not showing anyone what he wrote. He’s written hundreds of poems, and one day, his English teacher, Corinth Matera, suggested that he try spoken word.

For the past few months, Kearney has been working with six other students under the mentorship of local rapper, spoken word artist, and community activist Tou SaiKo Lee. The students have been writing individual and collaboratively created poems in pairs and with a large group. “The goal is giving them a support network to enhance their writing and peformance in spoken word,” Lee said.

The students come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Some are refugees from Africa, some are Asian-American, and some African-American. The collaborative approach allows the students to come together and unite their voice, according to Lee. Their writing ranges from the political to the personal: dealing with family and relationships and broader issues of justice and political themes. 

Lee gives the students tips and feedback, but they also support each other, helping one another elevate their skills. “They vibe off each other,” said Lee.

For Kearney, it’s been a challenge to go from simply writing poems to performing them in public, which he’s done twice so far. He said he feels nervous for the Inroads presentation at The Loft Literary Center on May 19, but at the same time, past experiences left him with a good feeling.

Another student, Malanda Kisongo, began doing spoken word a year ago, though he wrote poetry before that. “I got into it by looking at vides on YouTube,” he said. He went to an open mic at the University of Minnesota, and performed in front of 200 people. “I was real jittery,” he said of that first experience, but he doesn’t get nervous anymore. He’s performed publicly about five times. 

Kisongo was approached by Corinth Matera, who came to his class and asked if he was interested in joining Inroads. The program has improved his writing, he said, and he also has appreciated talking with the other students in the class about different topics. “What other people go through gets you thinking. Even if you have a biased point of view, it makes you be more open-minded,” he said. Kisongo hopes to attend the University of Minnesota, where he plans on perhaps majoring in Youth Studies, but he’ll continue writing poetry. “It maintains my sanity,” he said.

Carma Sims is the only girl in the class; she heard about it on the morning announcements at school. She writes about family and relationships. She’s gained a lot more confidence in her writing, and she’s a lot less secretive about what she writes. Plus, she’s gained confidence in herself too. “I finally actually did it,” she said. “Writing means a lot to me.” 

The name of the students’ Spoken Word group is called South High Underground Rise. The other students involved are Gamachu Berga, Ethan Bean, Temesgen T-Mez Fekadu, and Nico Mura.   

The Loft Inroads reading featuring Tou Saiko Lee and South High students takes place on Thursday, May 19 at 7 p.m. at The Loft Literary Center. It’s free and open to the public.