The kinds of communities Myrlin Hepworth spends time in include this one: graffiti artists live-painting at the corners of the Phoenix Center for the Arts stage, a crowd clustered around a circle of young and vibrant people doing dance battles, a taco stand set up in the back of the room.
The energy at this event, which is youth hip-hop dance and DJ group Cyphers’ first at their new home in Phoenix Center for the Arts, is positive and loving, and Hepworth navigates it with camera in hand. He’s shooting B-roll for his music video; he’s also a featured performer here tonight.
When his turn comes, he doesn’t stay on stage long. He performs one song, a melodic rap piece without accompaniment, and dissolves back into the crowd with his camera.
Hepworth is humble in that way—he doesn’t see it as his job to own the stage. His humility shouldn’t be confused with timidity, though. He’s self-assured and confident. He knows he’s good at what he does. He just doesn’t let it define him.
“It feels good to perform, but once it’s over, then you have to remember that then you can’t get wrapped up in it, then it was just a thing that happened, and that’s it,” Hepworth said. “You can’t allow it to shape your identity and put you in a position to where you feel better than anyone. Because I’m not better than anyone. No one’s better than me, but I’m not better than anyone.”
What Hepworth does is teach and perform. He performs hip-hop and recently released a mixtape and music video. He performs in poetry slams and will be representing Phoenix in the Individual World Poetry Slam, which will be taking place at venues throughout metro Phoenix on Oct. 8-11. He hasn’t competed in poetry slams for several years, though, because he’s been busy with his work as a teaching artist.
Hepworth, 28, doesn’t look like the conventional teacher. He wears a graphic T-shirt and three necklaces—a rosario made by his Aunt Carmela, an emblem of a Mayan prince his mother gave him and a round, wooden piece with a maroon tassel known as an ojo de venado, or a deer’s eye charm, which protects against the Evil Eye.
Hepworth’s eyebrows are close-set and intense, contributing to the sense of genuineness that he gives off. He’s worked hard to stay authentic to who he is, he said.
“The only expectation I have of myself is to be myself,” Hepworth said. “To express that as authentically as I can, and from the most correct place—the truest place of my intentions.”
It’s the same authenticity that he brings to his teaching work, which is what truly drives him. Hepworth has had the itch to lead and teach others since elementary school, when as a fourth- or fifth-grader he would include the younger children when he played on the playground.
“I think that it comes from my parents,” he said. “When I was a little kid, I knew what love was. I knew that love was about improving everyone’s experience. Making everyone feel safe. I think that teaching can be a lot of things and can definitely not be loving, but that loving, that type of education that I received from my family and my people, that gave me an opportunity to express that.”
In high school Hepworth worked with AmeriCorps, a program focused on working with kids. After Hepworth moved to Arizona from his home state of Idaho, he got a job at Maxwell Preschool Academy in Mesa. That was when he started performing in poetry slams.
“That’s how I learned how to rock the mic right there,” Hepworth said. “I mean, if you can hold the attention of 30 5-year-olds for more than five minutes, you gotta be somebody. That’s not an easy crowd.”
Hepworth worked in the classroom with Elly Smith, who’s remained friends with him since and sees him once a month. Smith and Hepworth would do a variety of different accents in the classroom, and spent one day speaking in “hillbilly accents” to test an interviewee who was spending an hour in the classroom with them in the hopes of getting hired.
Hepworth also told stories, which he said is an ability that started with his father telling him stories when he was a kid.
“He used to tell these really, really long, very detailed stories to the kids about monsters and their friends and how the monsters grew up and journeys that they were on,” Smith said. “He would just develop these very intense storylines in four and a half minutes, and the kids were all totally engrossed the entire time.”
Meanwhile, Hepworth’s presence on the poetry scene was growing. He brought his poetry to as many different spaces as he could as frequently as possible, and opportunities began to develop for Hepworth to travel to schools and teach slam poetry. Eventually, he was being invited to enough places to teach that he was able to start asking for payment and choosing which teaching gigs he wanted.
Instrumental to Hepworth’s work as a teaching artist was Christopher Lane, who was one of the few people in Arizona bringing slam poetry to schools, Hepworth said. Lane would be invited to perform at a school, and he would refer Hepworth, allowing Hepworth to break into teaching slam poetry.
Hepworth slams and teaches about social justice and privilege. Born to a Chicana mother and Caucasian father, he grew up a person of color in small-town Idaho and experienced racism firsthand.
“You come from a small community in Idaho, I mean relatively small, and you’re a brown kid and your mom is a highly educated woman?” Hepworth said. “You’re not gonna just let kids tell you you’re less. Or that you don’t belong here. Or that your people are dirty. Or that it’s funny, that your culture is funny.”
What Hepworth promotes in response to issues of social justice comes down to compassion. He’s dealt with plenty of people who disagree with his ideas on privilege, racism, classism, immigration, ethnicity, identity—his job, he said, is not to change people’s minds but to present them with the opportunity to learn. In the same way, it’s important to extend compassion to everyone, he said.
“There’s people on my Facebook page who I’ve seen post ridiculously insensitive things about people who go to jail. That’s unfortunate, but I mean, you have to be able to see the humanity in everyone,” Hepworth said. “Just because that can be offensive or it can be disturbing to see someone be so insensitive or so dehumanizing, we can’t in turn dehumanize the dehumanizers. That makes no sense.”
Hepworth also helped Tomas Stanton co-found youth slam poetry group Phonetic Spit. Stanton called Hepworth his best friend, in part because of their passion for educating young people, but also because of Hepworth’s compassion after a relationship Stanton was in ended.
“We’re very like-minded in terms of the work and the passion that we have for the work we do, but the reason why he’s my best friend is because he was very understanding and compassionate towards my broken heart,” Stanton said. “That’s something difficult for men to navigate. When a man traditionally gets his heart broken, it’s not like he runs to his buddies and talks about it.”
Today Hepworth works with all kinds of communities: group homes, prisons, shelters, middle and high schools, rich schools, private schools, colleges, even with groups of 60-year-olds at writers’ conferences.
“What’s inspiring for me is what I see reflected in my students, and that’s a number of common things,” Hepworth said. “It’s about recognizing humanity and providing a space for everyone to express themselves truthfully. … Those stories, they change you. They make you more—they put you closer to the pulse of how humans are suffering from similar things.”
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