Meet Caleb Femi, the Young Poet Laureate telling stories of love at the chickenshop

by Zahra Dalilah

Young Poet Laureate Caleb Femi stands in his stature well; widely, and rightly, known as a talented young poet with a well-earned reputation for literary excellence, and a model, a leader for younger poets in turn. In his flat, a few weeks before this accolade is announced, as he gears up to shoot the video for the second edit of the poem Coconut Oil, I quickly come to realise that Caleb is much, much more than that. As we sit back and listen to tester tracks he’s developed with producers such as DA and Eu Sou, he tells me about the ideas he developed as creative director for poet Suli Breaks and extrapolates to envisage how they will inform his future work, whilst bouncing around dates for future EPs and headline shows. Put simply, the man is a creative powerhouse, and we have not yet even touched on what I came here to discuss.

Caleb Femi, the filmmaker, is two-thirds of the way through the completion of a three-part documentary series which explores the intertwining dynamics between Black British love and the music which has reflected or defined it. The first two short films What Did Love Taste Like in the 70s and Heartbreak and Grime are boldly nostalgic pieces which create a sense of home for the viewer familiar with the genres and songs that make up both topics of conversation and background music. There is a clear DIY feel with the first film being shot entirely in Caleb’s flat, on a handheld camera he borrowed, the intimacy of which further reinforces this sense of familiarity. As both films open with a poem written by Caleb, and are interspersed with shots of words in pidgin English and London slang respectively, they present a celebration, not just of the music that has defined our presence as first and second generations of diasporic Africans in the UK, but of the languages that we brought and birthed too.

As Caleb Femi, the poet, outlines his relationship to music it’s clear that it is an integral part of his personal and creative development. Having learned to play with words in the birth of grime era of 64 bar freestyles filmed on phones with 0.3 megapixel cameras he still maintains, “if you give me a beat and I don’t hate it, I’ll write to it”. Reflecting on why he chose to look back on our parents’ generation through music from the 70s he explains “when we were young we went to parties with our parents, they played their music at home [so] how has that influenced [us]?” Taking music as bedrock of Black British culture, in these films Caleb seeks to trace the feelings and attitudes it expressed to understand how lovers interacted.

“My mother says those with no guilt, see no ghost; I think of Georgia’s last words to me, you’re not like other boys, other boys aren’t like you”

Caleb Femi, Opening Poem Heartbreak & Grime

Of course, whilst lovers’ rock, ska and highlife set the scene perfectly for the moment when two people catch one another’s eye across the dancefloor, grime has never quite had that same romantic flair. Rooted in a subculture in which hypermasculinity and misogyny were normalised, the question of what grime taught us about love and heartbreak at a young age is a prickly one.

“As a guy at that time and being involved in that culture” Caleb was prepared to confront “the misogyny, the misogynoir, the hateful perception of black girls, of dark skinned girls” which defined the era, and inevitably came out of the interviews. “The first edit I did, you would think I hate grime [because of the way it was portrayed], and a lot of the boys involved were like ‘aw can you cut this,’ because they were so embarrassed of how they used to think”.

That considered, the film could have easily become a twelve-minute piece on the regrets of adult men who used to lurk around the local McDonald’s and through varying levels of coercion and aggression, force girls to hand over phone numbers.  Yet Caleb strikes an impressive balance in the unwrapping of the conversation, “straddling the line between being nostalgic and being interrogative without being too didactic.”

Heartbreak and Grime will make you shake your head in shame and/or disgust at the things women had to put up with, the bizarre façades which define teen relationships in general and the blatant misogyny that so many of us once drank unquestioningly. Simultaneously, however, flashes of Remi Lyn-Browne’s Nokia 3310, Errol Anderson’s face as he recalls the advent of MSN (“your portal to every postcode”), and intermittent shots of chicken shop counters will have you pining for that golden age of youth.

Returning to those mindsets and moments understandably presents a degree of discomfort: the men who participated should, of course, be embarrassed to relive those days in many ways. But Caleb Femi’s astuteness lies in his decision as a black man, and as a grime fan, to draft and dictate this narrative himself. Grime is now being more heavily embraced by white middle-class audiences than ever before, with prolific figures such as DJ Logan Sama insisting on disassociating grime with blackness (in comments which Caleb describes as “mad reckless”). Staking a claim to this culture and this history with a piece of work evidencing the intricate connection between grime and the hearts and minds of young black inner city kids, whilst warmly expressing love for and ownership over the art form is a bold and important move.

 “What did they say? Those whose feet bled in the name of journey just to arrive and bleed again for stolen mouthfuls of disco funk”

– Caleb Femi, Opening Poem What Did Love Taste Like In The 70s

Caleb’s own awareness of how easily erased from history black people have been in this country is a clear drive for producing these works. A full-time English teacher until last year, Caleb remembers a black pupil who once asked him whether black people had been “invented” in Victorian times. “As a black person in the past you wouldn’t think in 100 or 200 years’ time ‘no one will know that we were here,’ because it’s preposterous.” Yet, not so preposterously schoolchildren are wholly unaware of a black presence in the UK before 1950. Documenting black histories, whether of our parents’ experiences or our own is essential, and the voice that Caleb brings to this tale of love and music is both unique and very necessary.  Furthermore, the conversation around how black boys and girls engage is still a pertinent one. The misogyny and aggression that we dealt with in 2003 is undoubtedly still being manifested outside your local McDonald’s between 3.30 and 6.30pm and it’s our experiences and shifted mentalities that have the potential to present an alternative form of interaction that younger generations can go on to emulate.

Whilst Heartbreak and Grime speaks predominantly from men’s perspectives, Remi Lyn-Browne, featured in the documentary, is currently working on a complementary piece which speaks to the experience of women and is due for release in 2017.

The final instalment of the documentary trilogy which will focus on love and social media in the modern age is due for release later in 2017. Also check out Caleb Femi’s essay in Consented magazine’s first print edition “I’m not a mook: mapping mental health issues in Boy In Da Corner”. Follow Caleb Femi @CalebFemi5.

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Take Back The City community activist and co-founder of Our Fathers and Us, a research project on Black British fatherhood, Zahra’s truest loves include hip hop, Lewisham and theories of revolution. Also a trilingual travel addict, you can usually catch her skipping borders across continents whilst trying to understand the true meaning of diaspora. Twitter: @ZahraDalilah1

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