Hidden in the depths of the Cesar Chavez Center at San Francisco State University, S.P.E.A.K.’s Open Mic Night finds its home at The Depot, a small, intimate space for young, raw talent to shine. S.P.E.A.K. stands for “Spoken Poetry Expressed by All Kinds” and the founder, Imani Cezanne, created S.P.E.A.K. in order to motivate and inspire the San Francisco State University community, as well as the surrounding areas.
When I took my seat toward the front I didn’t know what to expect. The hosts of the evening, Cezanne and A.J. May, kicked off the event with some witty banter and an explanation of the rules: each brave volunteer that signed up had only four minutes to perform, and they would choose the order at random. I enjoyed that sense of spontaneity; it kept the audience guessing, as well as the performers. The most important rule is the Speak on it! rule: if you really love what the performer onstage is saying, you shout: Speak on it! Once this rule was enforced, the crowd grew much louder and opinionated, creating a sense of community in the cramped Depot. So many people signed up to perform that the hosts decided to extend the event from its usual 8pm end-time to 9pm.
The actual open mic consisted of a healthy balance of spoken word, slam poetry, and singing/rapping. I loved sitting in my seat, feeling excited about whatever the next performer would do onstage. It was thrilling not to know and to be pleasantly surprised by a love poem or blown away by members of the SFSU Slam Team reciting their own poetry. There was even a seventeen year old rapper that performed, giving off a strong energy for the crowd and providing the audience with his latest jewel case album to be bought after the show. The founder herself, Cezanne, performed a poem she wrote entitled “Dear God”, which took my breath away with her strong voice and pride in being a woman. There was a moment during one of the performer’s sets that made me stop and look around at what an amazingly accepting and supportive community the audience of SFSU was. The poet was in the middle of his spoken word poem when he stumbled over his words and then forgot them completely, having to stop and pause. For a moment, he felt defeated. That is when members of the audience and of S.P.E.A.K. spoke up and shouted and clapped for him, making him feel like he was okay, that he could keep going. Eventually, the poet regained his former glory and ended the poem on a high note. It was that exact moment that I realized this was a safe place for all kinds of artists to express themselves. Whether it be an experienced spoken word poet or a first time songwriter that is struggling with being onstage.
Toward the end of the night the crowd died down and people left, but the people who decided to leave for the last half hour definitely made a mistake. The end was completely unscripted, a burst of creative spontaneity: performers coming onstage to freestyle rap to the Kingdom Hearts theme song and randomly bringing someone up to beat-box for them. The show ended with the hosts using that beat-boxer to rap their way offstage.
I enjoyed every minute of this open mic night with S.P.E.A.K. as my guide, and a quote from one of the presenters, A.J. May, really stuck with me. May mentioned that, going to school here every day, some of us most likely walked past these performers on our way to class or saw them on campus and didn’t know they were artists. He went on to say that “people have hidden gems inside of them” and I personally believe, as a student at SFSU and as an artist, that S.P.E.A.K.’S Open Mic Night is San Francisco State University’s hidden gem.
Erica Arvanitis is a Litseen intern and a senior at SFSU for Creative Writing. She is originally from San Diego and enjoys writing short stories, eating burritos, and watching TV in her free time. She hopes to write professionally for a magazine when she grows up — any magazine will do.