As a stream of guests worked their way along a dinner buffet line and quickly staked out spots in Covel Commons’ Grand Horizon Room, student performers readied themselves for their moment in the spotlight at this year’s MLK Oratorical Contest at UCLA. With a half hour to go before showtime, there was hardly a seat left in the house.
The annual competition, now in its fourth decade, has grown from modest beginnings in the residence halls in the late 1980s to a much-anticipated kick-off for Black History Month, where students from UCLA and local high schools and community colleges are invited to explore the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. through poetry, spoken word and other art forms.
“Thirty-four years ago, this event started in Rieber Hall, and now we’re in the ballroom,” announced third-year UCLA student Christophe Charles, one of the night’s emcees. “Today, we’ll continue to celebrate that legacy for our students and MLK in speaking our voice and speaking our truths in different mediums.”
The Feb. 1 oratorical — hosted by the UCLA Black Bruin Resource Center, UCLA Residential Life and UCLA’s Golden Gamma Xi chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity — prompted each of the four performers with a timely theme: 50 years of hip-hop. The students had workshopped their pieces with a judging panel made up last year’s winner, UCLA student Danielle Taylor, two staff members and two local educators, before taking the stage in front of the crowd of more than 200.
As the lights dimmed, a prerecorded video of the evening’s first performer, Crenshaw High School student Diamond Johnson, appeared on a large screen. Lights then revealed Johnson on stage, speaking in free-flowing verse.
“Because of Martin Luther King, I can speak my dream,” the 15-year-old said. “I can speak loudly and proudly, and you can’t silence me. I will speak up and speak loud when it comes to Black influence because America revolves around us, and I have a right to do that.”
Next, the disembodied voice of Naomi Hammonds filled the room. As audience members turned in their seats, straining to see who was speaking, the third-year UCLA psychobiology student stood up from a seat in the front row.
“I aspired for so much more, just like our Black youth. I’ll be a future physician, a constant learner,” she said as she slowly made her way toward the stage. “I continuously wear my heart on my sleeve. But sometimes, it leaks onto my white jacket and seeps into the rest of my clothes. And now my socks are pink.”
During the contest’s intermission, members of Alpha Phi Alpha performed a spoken word and step dance tribute to the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. “MLK was all about movement — the movement Black people coming together,” fourth-year UCLA student and event emcee Chinazam Nnorom had said earlier in teasing the fraternity’s performance.
Kicking off the evening’s second half, second-year UCLA student Kyland Talbott walked the audience through his process of responding to hip-hop lyrics that inspire him — lyrics like “Visons of Martin Luther staring at me,” from the song “HiiiPoWeR” by Kendrick Lamar. Talbott said he rewrote the song’s verses from the perspective of MLK looking at current-day events and at Black influencers like Lamar and rapper J. Cole.
A recorded beat, mixed by Talbott, gradually built as layers of sound elements were added, and Talbott rapped: “POV, I am the King from the A, are you with the vision, and the Tea that I say, inner-city kids living in my dream, I was catching Ls, walking hours to defeat…”
The lyrics of Lamar also inspired the final contestant, Chaunti Hatchett, a second-year UCLA psychobiology student, who made an entrance with red lights illuminating her from the floor. She went in and out of shadow as she moved steadily toward and away from the audience during her performance.
“I beat my hands against the adversity blooded into my being, and then wonder if other people feel this much responsibility to live,” Hatchett said. “What would it be like if our existence wasn’t revenge? If our joy was not spited? I beat my hands against myself, because I am the only safe place this can land.”
After Hatchett’s performance, guests and performers mixed over plates of fruit cobbler and took turns posing in a UCLA-and-MLK–themed photo booth. Impromptu dance formations grew in size and energy across the room, and Amanda Finzi-Smith, the interim program director of the Black Bruin Resource Center, didn’t see any reason to rush into the closing awards ceremony.
In the end, Hatchett was named the competition’s winner, and performers received prizes ranging from an iPad and an ASUCLA gift card to tickets to Universal Studios. But the real reward, Finzi-Smith said, was the chance for students to express themselves on MLK and social justice in a creative and empowering way.
“MLK is a historic figure in the Black community and a constant reminder that using our voices can bring about change,” she said. “This event is important to the UCLA community because it is a reminder that students have a voice — and this event celebrates it.”