COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- When he arrived at Peterson Air Force Base here last year, Air Force Staff Sgt. Sipho Brannen searched for local opportunities to further his love for the arts.
Brannen, the 4th Space Control Squadron’s logistics flight chief and unit deployment manager, can today be found downtown with his friends, reciting poetry at a restaurant or hosting his own local poetry open mic night on evenings or weekends.
Upon his arrival here, Brannen said he was looking for an artistic venue such as the one he and his friends started in 2011 while stationed in Hampton, Virginia.
‘I Didn’t See Anything Centered on Artist Development’
“When I was looking around at the other open mics in Colorado Springs, I didn’t see anything centered on artist development that was trying to build up or celebrate artists in town,” Brannen said. “Everything was geared more toward slam poetry or more developed artists who just wanted some stage time.”
Instead, Brannen created his own monthly open mic night at a local lounge called, “The Shop Open Mic & Laboratory,” where musicians, singers or poets -- inexperienced or not -- can perform and get feedback from the audience.
About 40 people come to the monthly open mic night and about 10 perform, said Brannen, adding about 70 people are the most attendees he’s seen.
“I’ve had a few folks from my squadron come through. I haven’t pushed it to the base yet though; I’m kind of just seeing how it naturally develops,” Brannen said.
Brannen recites poetry when there is enough time for an extra performer, but he mostly facilitates his open mic night, which is held every first Thursday of the month at 8:15 p.m. When stationed in Virginia, Brannen first recited original poetry at a local restaurant with his friends.
“I got tired of going to the clubs and bars and stuff. I get it, we go out on the weekend and have a few drinks, but this was an unfulfilling experience. So I thought, ‘How can I get more from what’s happening? What can I do with my time?’ Someone said, ‘Hey, why don’t we start an open mic?’ I asked a few of my friends who liked poetry as well. We started an open mic and did that for three or four years.”
Spoken word poetry, photography and videography have become a few of Brannen’s passions since he first became involved with open mic nights. Spoken word is an oral performance art that focuses on word play and intonation and voice inflection
“I didn’t have many poems at first, but it was fun, I enjoyed it and kept going,” Brannen said. “My pieces started off super short; I had these five-line poems. They just got longer and longer.”
Brannen said as he became more confident he had more things he wanted to say through his art.
“Open mics can be like therapy or church group -- where you get people’s real confessionals. They go deep,” he said.
In exploring the surrounding community, Brannen said he has been recruited by groups like People Embracing All Cultures Equally at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs for a video collaboration.
“We’re working on a video project together. I’m one of the people PEACE invited in to brainstorm and come up with ideas. That’s one I’m really excited about,” said Brannen, who is also part of the Colorado Springs Black Arts Movement.
Joining neighboring groups and organizations is more than just checking off a box, Brannen said.
“I think it’s important on a personal level and professional level,” he said. “When you join the Air Force, you’re still a citizen. You’re under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the life that comes with that, but you’re still a citizen at the end of the day. You still have this part of society that you exist in.”
Through his open mic night, Brannen has developed relationships with many people in the Colorado Springs community, including military members from all branches of service.
“A lot of the work I do affects a lot of people on different levels. People will pull me aside and tell me about an event that happened or an experience they had,” Brannen said. “Having those experiences where people are vulnerable with you, getting through a moment that’s really hard or sharing something that’s really difficult -- you get more of those experiences there than in a professional setting.”
Thanks to hosting his monthly event, Brannen said he has more confidence and has also published his own book.
Finding a creative outlet doesn’t have to be through poetry, Brannen said, it can be through music, rock climbing or anything.
“Look at what you’re interested in or maybe even try something new that’s outside of your comfort zone,” he said. “Just do something that’s different, because you never know what you’re going to find with experimentation and getting away from the day-to-day tasks of a military job.”
Beverly Price, 21st Force Support Squadron installation resilience operations director and community support coordinator, provides resources to anyone on Peterson AFB looking to be more involved with the arts.
“Building supportive relationships is the foundation for resilience and ties directly with our wingman philosophy of taking care of yourself and taking care of others,” Price said. “Activating social engagement through music, poetry, theater or exercise helps create those friendships -- those positive protective systems -- which we all need in times of adversity.”
Price works with different arts organizations around Colorado Springs to provide opportunities for airmen at Peterson.
“It’s bringing balance to their life,” Price said. “My whole job with resilience is making sure people balance the four quadrants of their life: social, mental, physical and spiritual. Blending a series of arts programs with our resilience modules introduces like-minded people to one another, which in turn strengthens our community and sense of connectedness.”
If an airman wants to start a group or club on base, such as a writing club that meets in the library, they can do that, said Price, adding she’s currently speaking with different organizations to bring more arts onto the base.