joshua-bennett_web.jpgFlorida International University

Acclaimed spoken-word poet Joshua Bennett says he performed at the Belafonte Tacolcy Center’s Freedom School one recent morning because he couldn’t say no.

“Marginalized kids, their whole lives, people pull out on them,” he said. “Someone being there for you is the ultimate validation, and I always want to be that.”

The school starts every day with a pep rally called “Harambee,” Swahili for “Let’s come together,” and every Harambee includes a guest reader. Bennett stepped in after the scheduled guest canceled at the last minute.

“Tamara has never listened to hip-hop,” he recited, voice gritty with passion, performing “Tamara’s Opus,” a composition he also performed for President Obama at a poetry slam dinner at the White House. “Never danced to the rhythm of raindrops or fallen asleep to a chorus of chirping crickets. She has been deaf for as long as I have been alive.”

Bennett, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, has won praise and awards for performances on the Home Box Office series “Def Poetry Jam,” as well as the network’s “Brave New Voices” series.

His poetry is featured in One Night, a film that premiered June 25 in Miami at the American Black Film Festival.  Bennett was in town to attend the opening.

He is one of 35 recipients of a Marshall Scholarship to study in the United Kingdom for a year. Then, he plans to earn a Ph.D. in English at Princeton University.

Bennett said he came to the Freedom School because he wants to show minority children that they have choices, that their goals can include options other than medicine or law or becoming a hip-hop MC.

“I want to show them that there's a whole world for them, that you don't have to be an MC to get out of here,” Bennett said.

And he takes something out of performing for young people, too.

“There’s nothing better than being around young people that are alive and vibrant,” he says. “These kids are brilliant, they're so sharp."

The Freedom School students applauded wildly after Bennett’s performance, and he joined them in singing the school’s theme song, “Something Inside So Strong.”

“I've worked with kids before and this is by far the most attentive group of kids I've seen at their age,” Bennett said.

Photo: Joshua Bennett