First Wave: Learning, Giving Back, Drawing Crowds

by Amanda Mae Brzenk



"Spoken word" seems fairly self-explanatory, but it means much more than just written poetry delivered orally.  It grows out of hip hop culture, which is in itself a broad and misunderstood term.  Hip hop began as an underground outlet for minorities in times of struggle, and replaced knife and gun battles with DJ and rap battles.  As the genre became more widely known, it interacted with a broader diversity of communities, becoming multi-dimensional and multi-media— incorporating such elements as MCing, DJing, graffiti art, string instruments, beat boxing, voice, visual art, dance, gospel, and personal narrative—which First Wave embodies today. Hip hop culture and spoken word are also about more than these art forms: they're about community and social justice, bridging racial, ethnic, social, economic, and cultural disparities.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is the first and only university that incorporates hip hop culture into its curriculum.  First Wave is the first step toward bridging this same gap within smaller communities and educational institutions.  In an interview the founder and director of the program, Willie Ney, described the serendipitous efforts that led to UW-Madison’s social and financial support for a program devoted to spoken word.  He sought information about Youth Speaks, a significant spoken word program in the Bay Area, from its directors, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Paul Flores.  After meeting with them and the program’s founder, James Kass, Ney was excited about the possibilities and began recruiting and organizing his own team. 

In 2005 Ney was given the resources he needed to open the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiative (OMAI) by UW-Madison’s administration, and in 2007 the first 15 students were recruited for First Wave.  Today the program consists of 55 students 45 of whom have full scholarships.  As Ney puts it, “now if you talk to any spoken word artist they will have heard of First Wave through rapid fire expansion.”  Unfortunately, the movement hasn’t caught on at other universities.  It surprises Ney because of the great success that has come from First Wave in only a few years, but he understands that, in general, schools aren’t ready to commit to hip hop at their campuses by offering scholarships.  “The formal traditional arts don’t incorporate hip hop,” he says, and as is usually the case, change is difficult to achieve.  UW-Madison is ahead of its time with its prominent multi-cultural initiative.  While Ney’s efforts have paid off, as demonstrated by student retention and graduation rates, artistic and academic success, and awards to the program and to students, there are still huge divisions among university-recognized arts, popular arts, and youth-centered arts that disallow collaboration.

In Madison, however, the English, Creative Writing, and theater departments work closely with First Wave and its students and continue to develop a closer relationship.  There are a few instructors in particular, such as Creative Writing professor Amaud Johnson, who Ney calls a “big ally” of the spoken word program.  One of the great things about the partnership is the artistic and aesthetic diversity that First Wave students have begun to bring to traditional campus arts. The First Wave program was formally recognized for its achievements with innovation and diversity with a special Governor’s Award in Support of the Arts in 2009. 

As illustrated on the OMAI website, the curriculum for First Wave students is “more than a program.” It is “a family, a community, a movement.”  The first two years are the most rigorous, beginning in the summer before freshman year.  Students are brought together with events and activities in order to give them a head start with the large communal expectations placed upon them throughout their time with First Wave.  They are enrolled in the same Freshman Interest Group (FIG) containing three classes so as to further bring the students together in an academic setting with classes meant to stimulate their special interests.  Students also take specialized workshops and service-learning classes so that in their sophomore year they can begin independent projects to showcase their work and participate in travelling spoken word events.  By senior year the goal is for each student to put together a portfolio and a senior arts project. 

While First Wave offers a tight knit community for First Wave students, they are not limited to a degree in Creative Writing, English, or Theatre.  The students choose their major from the thousands offered to all UW-Madison students, and their participation in First Wave, as Ney believes, should be secondary to their academic success in whichever area of study they choose.  Many students accepted to the First Wave program are first generation college students from their families, and so earning a degree is all the more significant.  The first group of students graduated Spring, 2011. Ney is confident that they will “become symbols” for their families and communities and inspire them.  He believes that whether or not his students continue professionally within the arts, upon graduation they will have the tools and confidence they need to make a difference both in their personal lives and in their communities. 

Another integral element of the First Wave curriculum is community service, and   First Wave participants are represent their own communities to others.  Outreach toward local schools and events is significant in that it gives the students the opportunity to give back.  Although academics come first at First Wave, Ney’s students understand the resources at their disposal, don’t take things for granted, and are “hungry” to put themselves into the world.  The fact that these students are able to embody their communities and First Wave is a testament to the program's high standards. 

It certainly seems to be a triumph for the people on both sides of the events put on by First Wave.  The students perform the art pieces that they have worked hard on, and the youth who encompass a great deal of their audience get to watch a performance that keeps them in their seats.  Ney says that his students are invited to an enormous amount of events for audiences at diverse venues such as the Boys and Girls Club, AIDS Awareness, and the Willie Street Fair.  First Wave Students participated in performances both at Madison Square Garden and on Broadway in New York City, 2011; in July, 2012 they will perform at London's Cultural Olympiad. In addition the members of the program take part in individual open mic performances around Madison as part of their outreach portion of the curriculum. OMAI/First Wave host numerous local events as well. (See sidebar.)

Local community members are enthralled by First Wave performances.  The group has been invited regularly to the governor’s mansion as well as the Olin House to perform for the chancellor of the university.  The passion and connection that the students of First Wave display make everyone feel as though he or she is part of it.  Hip hop is a truly multi-cultural, bridge-building phenomenon, and it is significant to notice, according to Ney, that the most affluent, mainstream, older crowds are also drawn to and captivated by the dynamic poetics showcased all around the county and the country.  It is an art form that brings people together.  

At any given time First Wave students are organizing, rehearsing, reaching out around Madison, getting ready for performances, or up on stage giving their audiences, their founder, and each othertheir all.  Ney could not be prouder of what First Wave has accomplished in only a few short years, but he is not planning on slowing down anytime soon.  He has seen with his own eyes the community that First Wave creates, bonds, and acclimates.  It is clear from the spotlights that hit the performers not from the lights, but from the audiences’ eyes, that First Wave brings something that hasn’t been brought before, and something with it that everyone wants to share.  Ney sees the bridge his students have helped build for their lives and the life of the community, and in his words, “we’re lucky to be where we are.”

Amanda Mae Brzenk is a student of creative writing at the UW-Madison. She interned with Verse Wisconsin in Spring, 2011, when she worked on this piece.