When We Filled The Hall With Our Words: How I Became A Poet

We stood in a circle during a class break at Arapahoe Middle School. A slow Friday. I was in the middle in oversized basketball shorts and a bushy braid. I stiched worlds together as I rapped a verse. My friends collectively bobbed their heads to my flow as they waited for their chance to display their lyrical prowess.

We spent the free time in our middle school schedule rapping about our 6th-grade lives. There was a written verse here and a premeditated verse there, but the real skill was spittin’ of the top of your dome. Freestylin’. We didn’t know much about hip-hop culture, but we stayed true to the game nonetheless— rapping about family, basketball, rez life, and how cool we were. We unashamedly told our stories, looked at ourselves as giants, and envisioned a fruitful future.

In those days, all my rhymes were basic. Something like

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My name is CooXooEii
Wind River is where I stay
B-ball is the sport I play.

I took the freestyle sessions seriously. I wanted to be on beat with the best flow. If I wasn’t, I had to stop and start over.  

Yeah, I’m Arapaho
You know how it go
Listen to my flow
I’m so cold 
Like some chilled-out snow.

My ear picked up when others were off beat, and the sound didn’t sit right with me. So when it was my turn in the cipher circle, I made sure to do it right. I listened to a lot of old-school hip-hop during those years. Outkast. EPMD. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. Dr. Dre. Every night, I fell asleep with my headphones on and a CD player on repeat. I imagined myself on stage performing the songs. I didn’t want to be a rapper, but I loved freestyling, telling a story, and listening to Andre 3000 effortlessly drift over a beat.

As much as I loved constructing my own bars, there were days when I stole verses from real rappers. I’d stop and rewind the CD and write down the words. I once copied an entire Eminem verse from a song called “Guilty Conscience.” My fellow lyricists were shook when I rapped it for them, but none of them suspected my plagiarism. Stealing lines from other rappers is a no-no in the hip-hop world, but for a middle schooler, it taught me to blend, bend, fluctuate, and stretch words.  

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Once, a friend and I devised a plan to take our skills up another level. We planned to steal pocket-sized Rhyme Dictionaries. We snuck into the classroom, and he stuffed one in his pocket. I didn’t grab one. I froze. The following week, he pulled out the book and spit some of the meanest rhymes that ever came out of his mouth. Everyone instantly forgot about my stolen Eminem verse. Devastated with jealousy, I went to the classroom, and as soon as the coast was clear, I grabbed a rhyming dictionary and put it in my backpack.

This is me mean spittin’
Nothing you hear is written
It sounds so good
Call it finger lickin’
Straight courage round’ here
No, ain’t no chicken.

In high school, I found a new group to carry on the freestyling tradition. I never thought words would create a path for me. It was something I did just for fun. Then I watched a spoken word video on Facebook called “Why I Hate School but Love Education” by a poet named Suli Breaks. It was all new to me. It’s an acapella rap, except he isn’t rapping; he’s talking with a musical flavor. His slow deliverance allows him to pause and stress certain words. 

That video sent me down a rabbit hole. I watched spoken word videos for hours. Because spoken word artists don’t have music to back them up, their voices are full of passion. I rewatched Anis Mojgani’s videos for weeks. Incredibly lyrical with few rhyming words. It was magic.

In college, I freestyled and wrote poetry here and there. Then my junior year, I took a leap of faith and auditioned for the spoken word troupe on campus. We met once a week to workshop, practice, and critique our poems and performance. Taking and implementing feedback is crucial to good writing, so I gladly accepted the feedback because I wanted to deliver a great story. The same energy from my freestyling days transferred to my poet days (a weird distinction to make because rap and poetry are the same). 

We performed our pieces once every month, and I jumped at the opportunity to read at the first show of the school year. To me, performing felt like acting. Imagine this scene:

You’re standing in front of the mic, adjusting it to your height. The room is dark except for the overhead bright light. It’s blinding. No one in the room is in sight. Your body heats up, and your heartbeat doesn’t feel right. You’ve practiced your lines, but you hope they don’t slip from your mind. You say the title of your poem and start. Then you hear the snap of fingers and the approving mhmms, and you know your words are flowing over the crowd.

That was the moment when I said, “This is it. This is what I want to do.”

Every poem I write is influenced by my experience growing up on the reservation. Every poem is my worship of Jesus Christ. Every poem is a product of those middle school poems, and every flow is a memorial to the kids I grew up freestyling with. As I said, I didn’t want to be a rapper, but somewhere within me, there was a dream of words— a syntax constructed to move my audience and myself. 

Yeah, it used to be cool
To spit these rhymes 
In the middle of school
I never knew 
They would become my tools
If I didn’t chase this path
Man, I’d be a fool.

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