There aren’t many avenues where the oppressed can speak their truth to power and feel completely safe from ridicule, ostracizing, and threat. Speak Café fills that void in Champaign-Urbana, being a positive place where all people of all ages can go, listen, rap, perform poetry, read, and just belong to a community that informs and empowers.
Speak Café — standing for Song, Poetry, Expression, Art and Knowledge, is both a space and a performance opportunity. The events are filled with activists who participated in actions and events including those such as the civil rights and Black Power movements, project 500 at University of Illinois, the annual Unity march, and the demonstrations for Troy Davis. It is these movements, and the ideas and experiences related to the concepts of Race, Roots and Resistance that inspired the creation of the Speak Café in the first place.
The first Speak Café was a project developed by students participating in Professor William Patterson’s class, Cash Rules Everything Around Me (C.R.E.A.M.), in 2005. Patterson, who has lived in North Champaign with his family for most of his life, challenged his students to create a civic engagement project that engaged both the Illinois Campus and CU Community.
What began as a class project has taken on a life of its own complete with dedicated individuals who keep it going. Aaron Ammons is one such person. An activist, poet, and organizer in our community, Ammons has been hosting Speak Café for 5 years. He says that the objective of Speak Café is to, “bring the broader community and campus together to create a synergy when the academy and research meet the everyday indigenous knowledge. The other objective is to archive these experiences and the poets.”
When asked if Speak Café was fulfilling its objective, Ammons said yes. In particular, he noted that the Speak Café is an important tool to bridging the gaps between those whose lives are embedded in the community and those whose lives revolve around the university (including students, faculty, and staff).
“The everyday experiences and life long experiences are not always noticed by students and faculty because there are two different worlds. But the experiences are unique because it’s a smaller town and they should be shared.”
The most recent Café was held on Thursday, October 6th. The specific theme of the night was “Carrying the Torch with Spoken Word.” Café organizers explained that this refers to, “how we use our verbal/written ability to carry on the legacy of Black Power.”
Jasmine Mckinna, a senior at the university, performed an original poem called Ode To the Chicago Youth at the most recent Café. Jasmine comes from the west side of Chicago, and has a lot to say about the oppression faced by Chicagoans and the impoverished everywhere. Mckinna believes that exposure is important to spreading knowledge.
“I feel that it’s easy to challenge people. It’s easy to sit there and listen, even in my piece is say, ‘is my only contribution to write a poem and is your only contribution to listen to it?’ so I feel like it’s important to let people know that there is something that you can do,” says Mckinna. “If you hear it and it affects you, then that means that you are at least a little bit passionate about it and you can go out and talk to your family, friends or even Speak Café about it.”
The Speak Café is hosted the first Thursday of every month at The Palette in the Krannert Art Museum from 7-9 pm. The next one is scheduled for November 10th and the theme will be, “The Pen, the Paper, the Point.” Neither experience nor talent is need to be a part of Speak Café, but as organizers note on the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=287307927951452 “it’s always good to practice your craft.”