First Wave Performers Electrify Broadway Stage

Four First Wave performers together

From left, First Wave students Shameaca Moore, Ittai Wong, Kelsey Van Ert and Ashlyn Akins perform “Jury Duty” in a showcase during the New York Knicks Poetry Slam Finals on February 24 at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway.

Four standout student performers from the groundbreaking First Wave Spoken Word and Urban Arts Learning Community at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took hip hop to court on Thursday, February 24, at the New Amsterdam Theatre on New York’s Broadway.

Their piece, “Jury Duty,” was a showcase put on as part of the New York Knicks Poetry Slam Finals, an annual event that is the first program to bring a poetry slam to a Broadway stage.

In “Jury Duty,” freshmen Ashlyn Akins from Southern California, Shameaca Moore from Columbus, Ohio, Ittai Wong from Hawaii and senior Kelsey Van Ert (who performs as Pyro) from St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota, set forth a gut-wrenching and honest tale of hip hop’s journey through America and media by way of a courtroom.

The seven-minute piece questions and exposes hip hop – how we knew it then and how we know it today. “Jury Duty” asks audiences and critics alike, “What is hip hop on trial for?” and “Who is to blame?” This original First Wave piece protects, honors and criticizes the urban art form that has surged in impact and popularity.

“Our partnership with the New York Knicks and Urban Word NYC allows us to showcase the exciting talent and creativity of our First Wave students in the world-class setting of a Broadway theater,” said Willie Ney, executive director of the UW-Madison Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI), which runs the First Wave program. “These young people stand out as leaders on campus and in the community, and their performances are electrifying. This event is a highlight of our year.”

Photos from the Performances

Outside New Amsterdam Theatre on New York's Broadway.Shaquille Henry competes in the New York Knicks Poetry Slam FinalsQueen Tut competes in the New York Knicks Poetry Slam Finals on February 24 at the New Amsterdam Theatre on BroadwayFirst Wave Check Presentation

Each year, UW-Madison awards a full four-year scholarship to the University and the First Wave program to two college-bound New York City students. Bringing together young artists and leaders from across the United States, First Wave offers students the opportunity to live, study and create together in a close-knit, dynamic campus community.

Administered by OMAI, the First Wave Learning Community is the first university program in the country centered on spoken word and hip hop culture. “OMAI/First Wave is part of the Division of Diversity and Campus Climate and is one of a number of unique programs designed to create a vibrant and diverse learning environment at the University,” said Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Damon A. Williams.

“First Wave is at the cutting edge of activities taking place in undergraduate education anywhere in the nation,” he said. “With this one program, we have been able to not only create access and opportunity for an incredible array of diverse young persons, but to do it in a way that champions the arts, critical intellectualism and the culture of the hip hop generation. We definitely saw each of these themes on display during our time in New York.”

First Wave won the 2009 Wisconsin Governor’s Award in Support of the Arts in Wisconsin and was the first university-based arts program in the state to be so honored. The First Wave scholarship is offered through Urban Word NYC’s partnership with the Knicks Poetry Slam Series. Each fall, interested high school seniors participate in Creatively College Bound workshops to prepare application materials for the program. Culminating with the “Reason I Write” Essay Contest, students have a chance to win by exploring the impact of the written and spoken word on their lives.

“First Wave is at the forefront of a new Badger movement of student leaders committed to scholarship, the urban arts and social justice, offering fresh commentary around issues of local and global importance,” Williams said.

Visit for more on the First Wave program at UW-Madison.