Creative expression can be therapeutic, especially when you’re getting in front of a microphone and sharing an experience with a crowd. Berwick Augustin, founder of Evoke180, the literary and performing arts group that organizes the spoken-word group Wordpoets and the long-running South Florida open-mike night Phirst Impressionz, knows this firsthand.
“I started writing at a time in my life when I was suicidal. It’s an experience to write feelings and emotions on paper and express it because it’s healing for someone else... It can be one person in the room or 100 people. It doesn’t matter because that message for the one person can be life-changing.”
Phirst Impressionz will celebrate its 15th anniversary this Saturday with the theme “Serenity in the Storm.” Augustin explains, “In 15 years, there’s been times when I was like, I’m done. I think I’m going to hang it up. But there's been resilience and consistency over 15 years. Even when things seemed impossible and undoable, we continued to press on in the storm.”
Founded in 2002, Phirst Impressionz began as an open mike in the church that Augustin attended. The venue for the open mike has changed through the years, moving from Miami Gardens to Hollywood to North Miami and finally to the Little Haiti Cultural Center. Augustin says, “In 2002, the art scene was a lot more vibrant than it is now.” He attributes the decline to a variety of economic and social factors, including relocation, family obligations, and violence. The scene was especially shaken by the 2011 murder of artist Will Da Real One.
Though the cost of maintaining a venue has been a challenge for the open mike over the years, Augustin thinks Phirst Impressionz has survived because of a belief in the power of spoken word. “The belief has not died down because art never dies," he says. "Art imitates life, and as long as there’s life, there’s art. There’s a powerful element being expressed that is used to edify people. Words are never going to die.”
Augustin says what sets Phirst Impressionz apart from other opens mikes is audience engagement. Every last Saturday of the month, he chooses a controversial topic and opens the floor to discussion. “We hear everyone’s opinions and outlook on issues. People from different faiths and walks of life come in the name of the arts,” he says. Phirst Impressionz has hosted not only spoken-word poets but also comedians, dancers, rappers, liturgical teams, classical musicians, and visual artists.
Looking toward the future, Augustin hopes PhirstImpressionz will have more stability in terms of space in order to do educational outreach. “I hope one day [to] have a venue so we can do more creative things and allow the youth to tap into their creative side a lot earlier," he says. "I didn’t start writing until after college. If I had started in middle school, who knows how far I could have taken it?”
For now, Augustin looks forward to the 15th anniversary and its poignant theme. “No matter what you’re going through in life, if you have peace within, whatever storm is going around you, you’ll be able to get around it. It can be 15 days, 15 months, or 15 years: Internal peace will drive you to get through.”
PhirstImpressionz' 15th Anniversary “Serenity in the Storm” Open Mike. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 29, at Little Haiti Cultural Complex, 212 NE 59th St., Miami; evoke180.com. Admission costs $10, which includes food.