WRITTEN BY ARFIE GHEDI
I first discovered poet Caleb Femi after stumbling upon his documentary What Did Love Taste Like in the 70s?, a short film exploring music and culture in the 70s with afrobeat and Femi's own poetry layered in with the series of dimly lit interviews. The film was nostalgic and beautiful; it reminded me of my parents and of looking through photo albums of them being black, young, and African in outfits I envied. About a year later Femi released his latest film, Heartbreak and Grime, all while being a key proponent of London's poetry scene.
On October 3rd, he was named the first young people's laureate for London. Femi's work explores nostalgia, blackness, masculinity, music and culture in a way that's relatable and innovative. I spoke to him about his work and process as an artist; here's what he had to say.
Arfie: Out of all the creative outlets that exist for us now, why did you choose filmmaking? When did you realize filmmaking was something you could do?
Caleb: Before filmmaking, I have also been a huge film geek but I got into creating films, especially documentaries because I was tired of watching failed documentaries about my community either misrepresenting it or fetishising it. They were all about crime and gangs or its 'quirky' culture. So I decided to make my own ones solely for me and people like me.
Arfie: A lot of the times when we hear artists of color talk about their craft, they always explain a need to see people like them represented. Do you feel like your work centers around representation, or around something else?
Caleb: My work centres around being, being here, in this city, this country, this world. That covers a whole range of issues and representation falls within that. We all know that the erasure of people of colour is a real and insidious thing that continues to undermine the existence of our communities, traditions and cultures.
Arfie: Who are your inspirations, artistically? Likewise, is there anything that remains constant in your creative process or does writing come naturally for you?
Caleb: As a writer, my primary objective is to make the work serve as theory for me that is the one thing that remains constant in the process. I can only speak of aspirations in regards to filmmaking, I am a huge fan of Bradford Young a cinematographer from the US, his work on the black skin is a revelation; check out a film called Mother of George and you'll see what I mean.
Arfie: Do you think your work has taught you anything about yourself or the way you navigate the world?
Caleb: My work has taught me to trust in myself more as there have been times when I have had to justify much of the choices that I have made within in. Also, it has taught me to be more aware of the wider world and the life that my work takes on after it leaves the comfort of my house. Above all else, I have been taught to accept my failures and see the process in it.
Arfie: Are their creative spaces in your community that you feel you fit into or have you had to mold out those spaces for yourself?
Caleb: I think there as spaces that I can say that I am on the fringe on, especially in regards to poetry spaces however to full thrives as a person of colour the most viable option is to try and mold newer and more conducive spaces.
Arfie: one of my classes, we were assigned an interview with Pearl Cleage as a reading and she said something about black liberation being the responsibility of black artists, do you agree with that? Do you feel as if it is your responsibility to accurately represent those like you?
Caleb: I agree that in a climate where we are deeply under presented there is a big responsibility to represent people like me. I think the caution we have to take on that is that we cannot represent all black people which often artists think they have to do. A black scholar once said, if there are 40 million black people then there are 40 million ways to be black. We have to represent the small slice of demography within the black community that we fall under and encourage other artists to represent the other slices.
Arfie: Heartbreak and Grime, you unpack a lot of hypermasculinity and sexism that young black men are conditioned to adopt, do you think that you, personally, have unlearned a lot of those preconceived notions? Do you see a struggle with including women in your work or in the spaces you occupy?
Caleb: I struggle every day to unlearn many preconceived notions, that is a fact. Misogyny (especially misogynoir), hyper masculinity and sexism has been imprinted in me since a young boyand every day those notions are still in play and still having subconscious effects on me so the process of unlearning is immensely difficult. I think this process will last a lifetime but it is for the bettering of me and our community.
In a way, I think it is important to maintain the delicate line. I am aware of the reality of women being excluding from many narrative but I am also aware of women being included and misrepresented. My biggest worry when creating the H & G documentary was telling the stores of women that wasn't mine to tell. During editing footage, there was around 2 hours of footage which I had to edit down to 10 minutes and the process of editing stories by women was one that I felt that I didn't have the authority, experience or knowledge to shape (what do you keep what do you take out, what are the nuances etc.). Luckily, I began a conversation with a fellow filmmaker who after our conversation on the issue began making a woman-centre documentary based on the same topic as H & G.
Arfie: How has your upbringing as first generation and as a child of Nigerian immigrants inspired your work? We often notice that a lot of artists from the diaspora feel a pressure to romanticize their struggles or the struggles of their parents, do you feel that or would you rather just tell it as it is?
Caleb: I always tell it as it is. Problem with that is that people then tend to romanticise the rawness.
Arfie: What do you think differentiates you from other filmmakers and poets with similar experiences? What is something new you want to bring to either craft?
Caleb: I don't know how to articulate what differentiates me but I just always feel like me. I enjoy the freedom in creating things in my way without the external pressure. I think in hindsight I will know what new thing I brought to me craft, for now I'm just enjoying and maintain the freedom.
Arfie: What advice would you give to young black artists interested in filmmaking?
Caleb: Do what you want and make it interesting to you first and foremost. You are more important that your equipment.
Arfie: How do poetry and filmmaking merge for you? Is one more dominant in your life? Do they take away from one another?
Caleb: Poetry is bae. I see it in everything, even filmmaking. To me, filmmaking is a slow poem and I write the stories using cameras and stuff. Get me.
Arfie: Finally, you talk a lot about the media you consumed as a child in your work, how has that media affected your personality? Also, what would someone have to read, watch, or listen to in order to understand you?
Caleb: You'd have to watch british tv from the 90s and 00s. You'd have to listen to uk music, grime, uk rap, garage etc. You have to watch grime dvds like lord of the mics and risky roads, you'd have to have had MSN and myspace. You'd have to have been from the endz otherwise its a myth.
For inquiries about this article, tweet Arfie Ghedi @awrfie