Nashville is full of stars: country music stars, television stars, and even television stars who are also county music stars. Sebastian Jones a different kind of local celebrity – a quiet 17-year-old who’s a star of Nashville’s spoken word scene.
“We got my man Sebastian the Divine Scientist,” an emcee shouts over screaming fans. “Let’s make some noise!”
When he’s not on stage, Sebastian Jones is an ordinary high school senior. Dressed in a cardigan sweater with medium-thick-rimmed glasses and a loose-fitting beanie cap, he speaks softly and moves almost lethargically. But when he gets on stage, he transforms into a spoken word Jedi master.
“If you live open mics/Stage lights and a faceless crowd,” Jones says in rhythm. “You know how it feels/to breathe passion out of lungs/sitting behind rib cages like incarcerated diaries.”
Spoken word is the lovechild of poetry and hip hop—blending the dense imagery of written verse with the rhythms and energy of rap. It all comes into play for Sebastian.
“I like Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou., rappers like Common,” he says. “I like the lyricists, those who are conscious, more conscious.”
“More than money saved,” says a line from Common’s The Sixth Sense, “I wanna save children/ dealing with alcoholism and afrocentricity.”
Growing Into Slam Poetry
Finding his own voice has required a lifelong journey for Sebastian. Adopted at the age of four, he carried around a bottled up need to communicate.
“As a kid, I didn’t know who I was, really,” he says. “I’d been placed in different homes and things like that. So I always was creative.”
He started rapping in fifth grade, but it just didn’t do the trick. Then one day, he saw a spoken word performance that changed everything.
“I kinda fell in a black hole. So when I started writing, after that, I haven’t stopped since. It was something I’d never seen before,” he says. “ It was like, ‘man, this is better than rap!’”
That discovery freed his voice to articulate what had been bothering him all those years.
“Raise your hand if you want to speak, boy/Go play with your toys/Go eat your food/Go get your school clothes/I was told to do so but never got a say so/When older ones conversated/I was forced to lay low/If out of line, I would get a swollen behind—J-Lo.”
Listen to a performance of “Hush Your Mouth”:
Don’t think Sebastian started out as a fully formed poet-prophet. In fact, he lost his first poetry slam competition.
Improving his Game
“I’ve seen a lot of writers quit over something smaller than that,” says Benjamin Smith, executive director of a spoken word group called Youth Speaks Nashville. “Sebastian was not going to be deterred by that.”
In the year following that setback Sebastian worked tirelessly to improve his game, and was eventually selected to compete at the national poetry slam finals. But what Smith likes best is Sebastian is never satisfied.
“He’s getting standing ovations all around Nashville,” he says. “ Many artists, I feel like, would be content and feel very proud of themselves. He’s able to put it in perspective and see there’s room for him to grow.”
Room to grow means doing a line-by-line audit of each piece before every performance. Standing in front of a mirror he choreographs his movements and vocal choices. Here he’s working on a poem called “Hush Your Mouth.”
“Then I say, ‘this voice is an oral sunrise,” he says. “I really don’t have too much movement with that, but the voice inflection is to sound…really…cool. So I say, ‘this voice’—let it marinate—‘is an oral sunrise.’ So people can have that ‘Oooo’ moment. ‘Awww, I really liked that line. That was powerful.’”
Audiences flock to hear those powerful lines. When he takes the stage, there’s an electric hush that falls over the crowd—a quiet excitement that’s always teetering on the edge of explosion.
“This voice is a sea shell by the sea shore, making sure these lines hit like belts against tender legs. This voice is a force that can be found—even in a child.”
In April, Sebastian will again compete to represent Tennessee at the national poetry slam. He’s yet to write the poems he’ll perform then, saying he wants those pieces to reflect the constantly improving, “new, updated Sebastian.”
More: MP3 Direct Link