Editor’s note: This story is part of our Young Voices Cleveland series.
Lionel Morales wastes no time telling you who his best friend is if you ask him. There’s a good chance that person would be sitting next to him whenever you pose that question.
“Two years, one month and one day,” Lionel and his sister, Rajah Morales, gleefully respond when asked how much older Rajah is than Lionel.
It’s always been a finish-each-other’s-sentences kind of relationship, and that extends far beyond pleasantries and general questions. Lionel, 18, and 20-year-old Rajah comprise New Genesis, a Hip-Hop and poetry duo built on chemistry and the desire to let their voices be heard on social injustices, Puerto Rican pride and whatever else is on their minds.
One of their latest offerings, “Go In, Poet,” finds the Cleveland tandem encouraging potential writers and performers to express themselves at all costs. It’s full of the kind of advice and encouragement that others gave them before they became some of the city’s strongest, most unapologetic young voices.
Rajah: Poets, someone else is listening, someone else gets it!
Lionel: You could lift the weight, you are strong and you are gifted.
Rajah: The power’s in your hands, in that mic when you hold it.
Both: Now, there’s one thing left to do: Go IN, poet!
New Genesis derived that title from one of many sayings you’ve likely heard if you’ve attended a Lake Erie Ink open mic night or poetry slam over the past couple of years. They’re the safest of spaces, where teenagers support one another by snapping vigorously or pounding the table after hearing great lines. They might scream to the performer, “don’t be nice, be nasty,” or “go in, poet!”
The Morales siblings became interested in poetry as teens, but their parents say they both were singing and rapping from the time they began to speak.
“Being in a Latin household, we’re very musical,” says Tamika Santiago, the young adults’ mother. “There’s a lot of music playing, all day, every day. “When I was pregnant, I used to put headphones to my belly. I used to read to my belly … so, when they first started [writing music and poetry], it wasn’t a shock.”
Both Rajah and Lionel admit to feeling nervous about performing their work in front of crowds. But the more family members, teachers and others in their lives heard what they had to say, the more they realized they had to keep going. They began hitting poetry slams and events like Literary Cleveland’s INKubator after Lake Erie Ink founder Amy Rosenbluth invited them to an open mic night a couple of years back.
Before Lionel began seriously writing poetry, he was a little apprehensive about watching the news. Once he was over that, the more passionate he became about the things he saw and frustrated by the discourse surrounding news stories like the killings of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. He also began to understand that it was OK to write about his own feelings.
“I write about my own struggles with depression and the social injustices us minorities go through,” he says. “It’s a much bigger outlet for me. Growing up in the ’hood, you’re really not allowed to talk about depression or those deeper feelings or you’re considered weak and you’re a target. It doesn’t matter what people think is normal or what you should talk about.”
The more they wrote, Lionel says he and his sister realized how liberating it felt to create without confinement. With each poem, song and performance, they became less concerned with what others thought they should focus on. That’s the spirit that birthed poems like “Latina in America/Latino in America” and “To the People Who Voted for Donald Trump.”
“‘Latina in America/Latino in America,’ is told from both perspectives,” Rajah says. “I said something like: ‘Why do you insist your cashiers follow me around the store? The only thing I’ll steal as your consumer is respect I’m owed.’”
Lionel adds, “I’ve been in those situations, being followed around stores because somebody thinks I’m going to steal something.”
Rajah says there wasn’t any one event that caused New Genesis to speak on injustices and discrimination, but rather a culmination. Still, you’re sure to hear about plenty of their experiences in their work. Like the time a motorist harassed her family as she entered a library to register to vote. Or the general assumption that she receives better treatment because her skin is lighter than Lionel’s.
“The one thing we never did was muzzle their craft,” Santiago says. “If you put a muzzle on it, it’s going to silence them not to speak or express their feelings. It’s yours; it’s your creativity.”
Lionel and Rajah hope to drop a mixtape as New Genesis by the end of summer. It will include an anthem dedicated to Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico.
“We have the poetry, the rapping, and since that’s what we were given, we’re going to make the most of it and put power to the one thing we have,” Rajah says. “They can never take away what we’re going to say. They might not like it, they may censor it, they might ban it, but they have to hear it first.”