This Poet Slams the Competition. Is Broadway Next?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
At 21, Mecca Verdell is at the forefront of Baltimore’s thriving slam poetry scene. Is it too far too fast?
By Carly Stern
Whether you were planning to join us in New York’s Central Park, or are enjoying OZY from across the globe, we still want you to celebrate the talent and bold ideas we had in our lineup — and that make our annual festival of ideas so powerful.
Hands clasped, Mecca Verdell paces slowly under the park’s fluorescent street lights. Night has fallen in Baltimore. Firm and commanding, she launches — from zero to 60 — into the combative opening lines of “Petty,” a poem that unpacks her complicated relationship with her father. Eyes wide, her voice drips with sarcasm as notes of frustration creep into her tone, anger radiating from her like heat waves. “It don’t matter what I say to hurt him,” she says. “The only person who’s roasting is me.”
Before you know it, she shifts and her pace quickens; Verdell’s voice cracks as she reveals why their relationship is so rocky. Suddenly she is gasping, spitting words out almost in a crescendo. Her anger gives way to raw vulnerability as she pours out verses with urgency — like the words must escape from her body. The performance might feel like a roller coaster for listeners, but Verdell is in control: Her rises and falls are timed with precision.
Though young by standards of the slam poetry world, Verdell (aka Meccamorphosis) is a red-hot talent. As a high school senior, Verdell was called the heart of her Baltimore youth team’s inaugural 2016 victory in Brave New Voices, an international youth poetry competition, during a summer of high-profile slam wins for the city’s teams. Drawing on personal experience, Verdell, 21, uses spoken-word poetry to demand attention on charged social issues — like colorism, sexual assault and the disappearance of Black girls — as Baltimore has wrestled with racial tension and political tumult.
Already, Verdell has been part of two teams that have won the Southern Fried slam poetry competition. In 2018, she was the first Black woman to become the national underground poetry individual champion (NUPIC) at Southern Fried. She finished among the top 14 in the Women of the World Poetry slam in 2018, after entering the competition on a whim at the last minute. She even beat 12 adults — including four of her mentors — in the semi-finals of Baltimore’s Grand Slam in 2016, says Jacob Mayberry, Verdell’s teammate, mentor and colleague at Dewmore Baltimore, a community organization that develops social justice–oriented poetry clubs in local schools, colleges, churches and prisons. But Verdell’s about more than just her own voice. From 2016 till earlier this year, she hosted an internet radio show called SoapBOX Poetry Radio where she interviewed nationally and locally known writers, giving them a platform to amplify their messages. Verdell also organizes youth-focused open-mic nights in Baltimore and teaches for Dewmore Baltimore.
When you hear her speak, when you hear her truth, when you hear her power, it’s shocking for a lot of people.
Brion Gill, slam poet
Stunned by how much she has achieved, barely out of her teens? Mayberry, who on stage goes by the name Black Chakra, isn’t.
“She is a monster of a different habit,” he says, recalling how Verdell’s transition from a solid youth poet to captivating performer barely took a month because she seized every opportunity to hone the craft.
But not every major change has been as smooth for Verdell, whose family moved around New Jersey about 10 times before she reached high school. As the only one of the five siblings who lived with both of her parents, whose relationship was strained, Verdell couldn’t figure out her role within the family. She flitted among predominantly White schools, where teachers could be insensitive to Black culture. To cope, she became good at turning herself into a “chameleon.” Verdell has a restless mind, so focusing in school was difficult — but acting in plays helped her make sense of these different personalities. Her big debut? Grandma Tzeitel, in a middle school production of Fiddler on the Roof.
In 2012, Verdell moved to Baltimore and attended the all-girls, majority-Black Western High School. For the first time, she belonged, though she had never set foot in the city before. Western didn’t have a theater club, so Verdell followed a friend’s lead and joined the poetry club. Immediately, she caught the bug. Writing poems finally gave Verdell a language to grapple with childhood trauma and mental health challenges she continues to face. Since then, this art form has been both her liberator and her crutch.
But slam poetry isn’t just Verdell’s personal asset; it’s a spark in Baltimore’s fight for equity. “There are lots of ways to heal from trauma, especially the kind of trauma that Baltimore is undergoing and has undergone,” says Gayle Danley, a former national and international poetry slam champion who’s a teaching artist at the Kennedy Center. But the arts, accessible to everyone, offer ways to see the world and process it. There’s always someone who needs your art in Baltimore, a friend had once told Danley, and this well will never run dry.
Verdell calls herself an “organizer of the spirit.” Brion Gill, a mentor and former teammate (whose stage name is Lady Brion), identifies Verdell’s participation in the uprisings after Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 as a transformational moment. As members of Dewmore Baltimore protested, the younger students were encouraged to leave. But Verdell stayed and was arrested alongside her peers. People often look at Verdell’s small stature and expect timidity, says Gill. “But when you hear her speak, when you hear her truth, when you hear her power,” he says, “it’s shocking for a lot of people.”
Still, her raw talent can be refined. Success is Verdell’s addiction, Mayberry says. She doesn’t always handle failure well, and he’s watched her fall into ruts after teaching classes that don’t go as planned. Verdell is also working on managing her emotions more responsibly while performing so the audience can process her words. You want to control yourself enough to get to the finish line, Verdell explains, and can’t trigger yourself into getting a high score. In slam competitions, a host or organizer usually selects five judges at random from the audience, who score the poet or group on a scale of one to 10. Yet it’s difficult to evoke feelings from a moment of pain without taking the audience back there with her.
Mayberry calls Baltimore the “Golden State Warriors of slam poetry,” because of how many finals the city has made, and Verdell is a player to watch. “Mecca is young, but she’s not afraid to get dirty. She’s scrappy, and she’s sassy and she’s agile,” Danley says. Verdell isn’t afraid to be on the ground when it comes to how she wants to use her poetry as a part of the social justice movement, she says. Gill expects Verdell to “cross-pollinate” her message across mediums like poetry, theater, acting and visual arts, and Mayberry suggests that Broadway could be next, given her multifaceted talents and theater background. But no matter the path, what Verdell wants is clout.
There’s so much talent in Baltimore that’s being swept under the rug, Verdell says, because people don’t know they have a platform. Amid the social tension in Baltimore and the Black community more broadly, everyone is looking for a savior who will take the lead. Verdell wants to help people understand they have this activist within themselves.
She’s doing that, one poem at a time.
Take on America With OZY recently visited Baltimore and invited 100 Black men to discuss the racial and political tension that has plagued the city for years.