Ben Falealili’s “Put Your Guns Down”.
Ben Falealili is a 22 year-old spoken word artist. He was born in Oakland, California, but raised in west Long Beach. He graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 2007. Ben then went to San Diego State University, where he graduated with a degree in anthropology. He currently works for the YMCA Youth Institute where he helps students with their homework and in the college application process.
Growing up, Ben lived in an apartment with his brothers, sisters, and parents, until he was in the first grade. Later, he and his family moved in with his aging grandparents to help them out. The house was remodeled to fit five adults and seven children.
“It was very crowded but it was fun having a lot of people at home [and] growing up with a big family.” His father really helped to keep their lives interesting. “My dad would always play with us or put us into [organized] sports. He would let me explore my imagination.” Ben feels that his childhood, one where creativity and exploration was encouraged, informs the work he does now.
There was an extensive amount of gang violence where Ben grew up. A lot of his uncles and some of his cousins were in gangs. “They inspired me to not go down the same path.” He wrote a spoken word piece called “Put Your Guns Down” about the destructive violence affecting his Polynesian family, community members, and culture. Although a lot of Ben’s gang-involved family members were often around, his father instilled in him and his siblings that that was not the life to pursue. He kept them busy in activities to keep them focused on a successful path. “He was very supportive,” says Ben.
Although Ben followed a productive path because of his father’s influence, a lot of friends and family did not. A child in the same situation but without any words of encouragement, and without inspiration like the kind Ben’s father bestowed, might find comfort and approval in the gang life. Now instead of being a lawyer, doctor, scientist, or anyone else that helps the community, the child might become another statistic in prison because he got wrapped up in what he saw in his everyday life. Situations like this happen all the time, and who are we to blame a child for embracing their environment? Maybe if all families could envision their children going to college and creating a better tomorrow, we could actually look forward to the future. A child could understand how important his life is in contributing to brighter day. Instead we have youth that go around without a purpose, without goals, without encouragement, and without positive role models.
Spoken word is an artistic expression where storytelling and poetry come together. Ben draws much from his Samoan roots in his work. In Samoan culture, there is not much written communication and most things are passed down orally. Due to this, Ben feels a strong connection with spoken word. In fact, Ben’s grandfather was the talking chief of his village. “I feel like I’m passing down a tradition,” he says.
Ben first started listening to spoken word in his junior year of high school. “This Type Love” by Shihan was the first piece he heard, shown to him on YouTube by a friend. It wasn’t until his freshman year in college that he first performed his own work. “It was new for me, I was curious and I wanted to learn more [about it].”
For Ben, spoken word is more of a serious hobby than a career. Although he doesn’t expect everyone to connect to his work, he has built his own share of admirers. “I get messages on YouTube and Facebook from random people telling me that they enjoy my work. It’s inspired them to write to me, [and] I think that’s really good.”
Ben never really felt that spoken word was his purpose, but it does have an impact. “I just hope people can tap into their creative minds and really just let their voice be heard. I feel that we all have important things to say, important stories to tell, but people are just afraid to do it. I think spoken word is a form of therapy, an outlet for people to get things off their chest no matter what the topic may be.”
He shares with me that his ultimate goal is to help others. “As long as I positively impact one person’s life and can say, ‘Wow I had something to do with that. . .’ It’s not for my own ego but because I had important people in my life that helped me in tremendous ways. For me to do what those people had done [for me], that would be a great feeling.”