When 14-year-old Caitlyn Clark of Benicia, California, was asked to perform with rhythm and blues singer John Legend at his recent Los Angeles show honoring the legacy of Marvin Gaye, she penned a poem inspired by the seminal 1971 album, “What’s Going On.”

But after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Caitlyn threaded those events with a bit of the late singer’s still-timely lyrics. Tying together the deaths of young, unarmed black men, including Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and Brown, she explores the nuances and complexities of seeing such shootings discussed in the news and on social media.

Caitlyn combines vivid imagery – describing how grandmothers “hold sorrow beneath their fingernails” – with stark facts, noting how police in Ferguson responded to largely peaceful protests with more gear than her father carried as a soldier in Afghanistan. You can watch her powerful performance in the video above.

The Off/Page Project, The Center for Investigative Reporting’s collaboration with Youth Speaks, recently launched a callout for youth poetry related to the events in Ferguson, and we’ve received submissions from across the U.S. Given the relevance of Caitlyn’s poem, we wanted to highlight her work, which touches on issues of race, urban violence and increasingly militarized police forces.

We caught up with the defending Bay Area Teen Poetry Slam champion to discuss what it’s like to perform before a crowd of nearly 18,000 at the Hollywood Bowl, the issues influencing her poetry and what she’s doing locally to address those issues.

José Vadi: How did performing for John Legend come about? Were you nervous performing at the Hollywood Bowl?

Caitlyn Clark: It was a little nerve-wracking the day leading up to the flight out there. It kind of hit me, like, “It’s a sold-out show, and the capacity is 18,000 people.” So I was a little freaked out because it’s the biggest crowd I’ve performed in front of in my life, especially since I started (performing) slam (poetry) this year. When I got there, everyone was really nice. The staff at the Hollywood Bowl was super awesome. So it was fine the day of the event during sound check; I was just kicking it with the L.A. (youth slam poetry) team Get Lit they had their own performance and Chinaka Hodge and Marc Bamuthi Joseph were there, so it wasn’t as terrifying as it would have been if I had been alone.

Vadi: You mention the media coverage of Ferguson in your poem. How did you follow the events, and what did you think of the media’s portrayal of both Brown’s shooting and the aftermath?

Caitlyn: I first initially heard about what had happened in Ferguson via Twitter. It just came up on my timeline, and I started looking into it and I read some articles that were online. At the beginning, when news of the shooting first started appearing on the Internet and such, there wasn’t much coverage on major news sites, and most of the coverage was really one-sided.

There was that one post by some news outlet that used, like, the world’s worst photo ever of Michael Brown, and so that kind of triggered the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which was a really cool and eye-opening thing to look at. It was cool to see, but it was also very sad that we would have to create something like that just to get people to notice the way that major news outlets are portraying people of color in the media.

Vadi: Are you writing more poems or doing anything else related to Ferguson in the future?

Caitlyn: I have been trying to put together a chapbook recently, so I’ve written poems on this topic and topics similar to this. But I haven’t really done any actual activism in my community or surrounding communities trying to organize. My major way of speaking on this issue is through poetry because I’m not really sure how to go about making actual significant change other than just talking about it and saying what I have to say.

But I also feel a little hesitant to start actually working towards any type of resolution to racial profiling and police brutality, because I feel like it’s kind of an issue I’m not 100 percent eligible to speak on because, as an Asian American teenage girl, it’s not really something I’ve ever faced in my life. Sometimes I feel like it’s not my place to completely dominate the scene and be like, “This is what I have to do, and I’m going to organize it myself.” So I like to help out and use poetry to bring these issues to light, but I feel like it’s not really my place all the time.

Do you have a poem inspired by the events in Ferguson that you’d like to share? Learn more about our campaign and how to participate here. For more of Caitlyn’s poetry, watch her earn the title of Bay Area Grand Slam Champion during this performance at the Nourse Auditorium in San Francisco earlier this year.

Read Caitlyn Clark’s poem below:

What’s Going on?

When my father returned home from Afghanistan,
he told me about dust
the way it swallowed a country
and caked on to the windows of his B-hut
He said that it was better that way
so you could imagine yourself to be somewhere else

but not all of us have this luxury
some of us cannot help but witness the war outside of our bedrooms
not all of us can imagine ourselves anywhere other than Fruitvale station

because dark boys
are taught to make heaven out of this unholy skin
and forget the way that their grandmothers hold sorrow beneath their fingernails

and he said that it was better that way
that you could imagine yourself to be somewhere else

and so did Fox News
and CNN
and the United States Congress
they imagined themselves to be somewhere else
somewhere where the gunshots are less loud
less disruptive during the funeral of that last dark boy

they imagined themselves to be somewhere else
somewhere where the difference between them mattered

they tried to turn the sirens into lullabies
and sing us into forgetting
that this country allows
Zimmerman and Mehserle and Elliot to sound the same

where headlines like “Is Michael Brown the next Trayvon Martin?” remind us
that there will always be another black boy
to be the new face of your “progress”

where the Ferguson Police Department carry more gear
than my father did in Afghanistan

and I imagined myself to be somewhere else
somewhere where writing about this makes a difference
because guilt is a burning city underneath my skin
when I write poems about experiences that I have never had
and knives that have never been dragged across my own flesh
when the suburb I live in is made out of the ashes of this chaos
and the best I can do is tweet about it

and still, my father asked me
“What’s going on?”

because he spent too much time staring at the dirt-covered windows
that we are calling the law

and I ask myself
“What’s going on?”

because I am tired
of watching men unhinge their jaws and swallow my sisters
and I am tired
of pretending like there was nothing I could do to stop them

the same way Marvin asked us
“What’s going on?”

because he wore a bulletproof vest on tour
as if it could become skin that looks less like a target

we cannot afford to live like this any longer
we cannot walk with our heads bowed like master,
like we haven’t ran fast enough from the time
when people of color were considered property to march on

not all of us have this luxury of creating heaven out of tear gas
some of us cannot help but fall victim to war
not all of us can imagine ourselves anywhere else than in our own skin

and it is important for you to know that I should not have written this poem
because the boys and girls in this poem are not me
and I have seen their breath taken out of them so many times
I do not want to make revolution out of the sons and daughters that we lost
instead, I want to make revolution out of the sons and daughters that we still have left.

José Vadi is the project director of the Off/Page Project, a collaboration between The Center for Investigative Reporting and Youth Speaks. Since the age of 19, José has served as a poet mentor for Youth Speaks, the nation’s leading literary nonprofit. A two-time National Poetry Slam champion, José has coached several college and youth slam poetry teams to national competitions, including the 2008 and 2010 Bay Area Youth Speaks teams featured in the HBO documentary series, Brave New Voices. He was the recipient of the San Francisco Foundation’s Shenson Performing Arts Award for his debut play, A Eulogy for Threeproduced at Intersection for the Arts under the curation of Marc Bamuthi-Joseph’s Living Word Festival. Since 2010, José has served as the editor and curriculum developer of The Bigger Picture, an anti-diabetes multimedia campaign sponsored by UC San Francisco’s Center for Vulnerable Populations.