By Shirley Hawkins
LOS ANGELES — The stage at the Proud Bird restaurant sparkled with talent March 16 when the National Association for Equal Justice in America (NAEJA) held its first talent show that showcased young spoken word artists, comedians and singers.
“We wanted to attract more youth between the ages of 18 to 29 to join the organization,” said NAEJA President Royce Esters, who had been thinking about staging the talent show for two years.
Esters said that he wanted to showcase the creativity of young people and to present them with more opportunities. “If the youth are not going to school or enlisting to go into the service or working, they will spend their idol time selling dope, joining a gang or robbing,” Esters said.
Soof the Radio Kid kicked off the show by strumming his guitar and delivering an impassioned version of Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” to the delight of the crowd.
He was followed by a dreadlocked Kyle Smith who had traveled from New Orleans to Los Angeles to break into the comedy field. Smith kept the crowd chuckling with a funny monologue titled “Eyebrows” about a girl’s whimsical eyebrows.
Smith was followed by Watts native Maceo Bradley, who was dressed in a gold bow tie and suspenders and recited a sobering poem titled “Drowning” about his former rap crew. He said that all three of his friends had met untimely deaths.
“I wrote this song yesterday,” said Bradley, who doubled as the evening’s master of ceremonies. “One of my rap friends drowned and the other two got shot,” he said.
He recited the lyrics.
“I been drinking water like I breathe it, I’ve been seeking peace because I need it, gunshots up the block, another body dropped, I’m surprised that I don’t have my wings yet.”
During a pause in the show, Soof the Radio Kid showed off his impressive dance moves by demonstrating how to do the Floss, a popular dance. Several audience members joined him on the dance floor as lively music filled the air.
Poet/rapper Taylor Made recited a poem called ‘King,’ about a young man trying to shrug off the turmoil of life so that he can thrive.
“It’s about the plight of the black male in American society and some of the issues that we go through as black males,” he said.
Anisa, a spoken word artist and fashion stylist who sported a bright yellow T-shirt, read a poem praising black women, followed by spoken word artist LaVeda, who read a poem about being in love with her friend’s boyfriend.
The Real Little Malcolm recited a poem about growing up in Compton and hearing the constant sound of gunshots.
Ketayama Stewart, a former school counselor and Brooklyn transplant, recited a poem titled “Ebony” about a young dark hued woman who struggled to accept her beauty.
“I wrote this song in 10 minutes about a former student,” Stewart said. “She was beautiful, but she was insecure. She wanted to straighten her hair and to lose weight. But the beauty she sas seeking was already inside her.”
Khzzari had the crowd groovin’ with a jazzy song called “Operation Smooth” about the beauty of love that was accompanied over a funky soundtrack.
Jessie Andrews, also known by his rap name Jay Plus, recited a poem called “The Black State of Mind.”
He said that he had driven to Los Angeles from Albany, New York to break into the music business and become a rapper.
“I’m living in my car right now,” said Andrews, who is hoping to break into the rap business soon.
Feragi, who wore waist long braids and a bright green dress, recited a touching poem about black womens’ beauty.
Nia Ling, a high school senior and artist who had traveled from Riverside, unveiled her painting titled “The Planet of Love” which she donated to the top winner.
Taking the stage next was Shani, who recited a poem about Kalief Browder, a young man from the Bronx who was incarcerated on Riker’s Island for allegedly stealing a backpack.
“He was facing 15 years, but he was sentenced to three years in prison,” Shani said, adding that Browder was innocent of the charges. “He spent two of those years in solitary confinement,” said Shani, who added that Browder eventually committed suicide.
“I wanted to touch the sky, but instead I’m touching walls. Kids waiting on college letters, but I’m waiting on trial. You have me educating myself on how to be successful suicidal,” she recited.
Browder hung himself on June 6, 2015.
“I wrote the poem because I believe that the criminal justice system needs a lot of change,” said Shani. “Every day we’re seeing black and brown individuals being incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit and they are not seeing trial.”
The audience was entranced by the surprise addition of singer Maricio Donaldson, a Compton native and finalist on “American Idol” who sang a riveting rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come.”
After much deliberation, judges awarded the third place prize of $100 to Feragi, the $200 dollar prize to LaVeda, and the first place prize of $500 to Shani.
Pamela Richardson, chairperson of Labor and Industry for NAEJA, donated $500 to the first place winner. NAEJA supplied the rest of the prize money.
“I was very pleased with the talent show,” said Esters, who said he is already looking forward to the second annual event next year. “People from Rialto, San Bernardino and Riverside came. Everybody seemed to enjoy it.”
Royce Esters founded NAEJA in 1997, which is a nonprofit organization that works to eliminate discrimination, reform the justice and prison systems and award educational scholarships.
This article originally appeared in the Wave Newspapers.