‘Hamilton’ star Daveed Diggs: Slam poetry saved my life 

At 4 a.m. Saturday, Daveed Diggs left the party celebrating his last
performance in the Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton,” threw some clothes
in a bag, and jumped a train for Washington.

A little over 12
hours later, he was at the Kennedy Center, emceeing the Brave New Voices
Grand Slam Finals. “It’s not hyperbole when I say, I need this so bad
right now,”
he announced to deafening cheers from the audience.

poetry slam is an annual competition for teenagers run by Youth Speaks,
a nonprofit organization focused on youth education and the oral art of
spoken word, or poetry recitation. This year’s event was huge, drawing
more than 500 teens from all over the world. But when Youth Speaks was
founded, in 1996, it mostly touched kids living in the Bay Area,
including one Oakland native named Daveed Diggs.

“I had to make
this happen,” Diggs said in an interview before taking the stage. “They
would have loved me to finish out the weekend at ‘Hamilton,’ but I
wanted to do this.”

Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, with a
baseball cap taming his mass of curly hair, he spoke thoughtfully about
his youth and his artistic path, frequently flashing his signature wide

Diggs was a student at Berkeley High School just as Youth
Speaks was planting its roots in the neighborhood. The group, Diggs
said, made poetry and spoken word just another teen activity, as common
as parties or football games.

“It was a part of what you did
growing up,” he said. “It was woven in the fabric of the community. I
don’t think I realized how special that was until I left. I didn’t know
that it wasn’t part of what everyone did when they were teenagers, which
was to go watch your friends spit poems.”

As a result, Diggs
ended up with a group of friends who all write and perform. When the
34-year-old accepted a Tony Award this year for his dual roles as Thomas
Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in “Hamilton,” he gave a
shout-out to Rafael Casal and Chinaka Hodge, two Youth Speaks veterans
he has been close with since his youth. Both also had roles in the


In high school, Diggs participated in poetry slams co-organized by
Youth Speaks. The group’s founder and executive director, James Kass,
still remembers the first time he saw Diggs perform.

“I remember
the intelligent nature of his work,” Kass said. “On the stage, he was
dynamic. The same energy you see in ‘Hamilton’ now, that was evident
when he was a young person.”

Diggs used to write his poems 10 minutes before a show on a notecard
scribbled with thoughts and arrows connecting ideas. It wasn’t until
Youth Speaks that he learned how to get organized, he said, and think
about structure and word choice.

“I was a very good performer,
but not a great writer,” he said. “Then Youth Speaks came in, and I got
to see the poets they were working with, and they started working with
the poets at Berkeley High School. I became very aware that the way they
were teaching writing was great.”

Shortly after, he started to
write rap songs using the techniques he had learned, forming and joining
multiple hip-hop groups that eventually led to his meeting “Hamilton”
creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in Miranda’s freestyle group, Freestyle Love

After graduating from Brown University in 2004, Diggs
worked for Youth Speaks as a teacher, imparting the same lessons he had
absorbed when he was a budding artist.

“I was really aware, even
while it was happening, that the discovery of arts education in my life
sort of saved my life,” Diggs said. “As a kid, you don’t have a ton of
spaces where you are honored, where what you think is honored, and what
you say is revered.”


The personal, political and intimate nature of spoken-word performance translated to his acting as well.

is about finding truth and finding the way to convey the truth,” he
said. “These kids writing their own stories have such easy access to
that. I do try to access what I learned from watching them when I’m
acting. What are the ways to feel really honest? If it feels forced,
it’s not going to work. It doesn’t matter if you wrote the words or

Diggs hoped his presence at Brave New Voices would show the
teens that they, too, could make a life from the world of poetry,
hip-hop and performance.

“Maybe I can make them a little less stressed out about the future,”
he said. “I was so stressed, man. When I was 17, I was so worried about
what the hell was going to happen. Maybe it’ll take some of that stress

Youth Speaks’s goal, Kass said, is to create a new
generation of people who will define the culture of the future — just as
Diggs is doing.

“Here’s a young person we’ve known who is now one of the hottest
people in American theater,” Kass said. “Now he is speaking to an entire
audience of people that could be him in 15 to 20 years.”

Diggs’s appearance at the festival wasn’t entirely selfless, however.
He’s been in a “Hamilton” bubble for two years, and now he needs to
recharge. For that, it made sense to return to where he came from, even
if he was tired from pulling an all-nighter.

“The energy in the
room is crazy,” he said, laughing. “It’s crazy. Every time I come to one
of these things, I’m sweating and crying and laughing and screaming.
It’s been a while since I was just in a room where kids were being
brilliant and honest. I need this for myself. I really wanted to make
sure I had the space to come here, and be inspired, and remember what
this is like.”