Caleb Femi | Spotlight
Spotlights are a 12 part series documenting emerging creatives in London. Our next spotlight is on Caleb Femi, a poet, director and musician voicing his narrative through spoken word. His art film, Wishbone, mixes poetry and dance to elevate the message he wants to portray, beyond what can be communicated with words.
How did you get started in your career?
I started with music actually. My mum used to make me learn instruments, like the piano, the clarinet and the drums. It wasn’t really until grime took off that I felt like I could do something creative that wasn’t being forced upon me. Boys at school would MC in the playground and I started having a go, writing lyrics. It came very naturally to me, where playing an instrument didn’t. There was nothing about the piano that allowed me to express myself, I was just playing a set of keys that were written by somebody else. I wanted to be my own composer of my own thoughts. Writing grime lyrics at the time was something that answered that for me.
When I went to uni, I started writing and performing poetry and things took off from there. It got to a point where I felt that I needed to express myself in a way that fits in with the experience of living in a generation where technology is so ingrained in us. I felt that combing art forms to make something new better reflected the way we live now. I think I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. I’ve got some ideas that I want to push further and make the unexpected.
Would you say your work is influenced by what’s happening in your life?
A lot of my work is influenced by my personal experiences. My community is very important because there’s a narrative, especially in the media, that misrepresents the community that I’m from and the people I’ve grown up with. The media love to talk about youth crime, especially with young boys from council estates. They deliver the story in a way that is very damaging and very untruthful to the reality of things. I’m always interested in reclaiming that and taking it upon myself to tell a story that feels more truthful and natural. This was the purpose in the piece I created at Dazed with Netti Hurley to reclaim the story, especially in regards to the way the media talks about the death of young boys from estates, without humanity or compassion. In 100 years time, which sources are going to be drawn from to conclude how people in my community lived? I don’t want that to just be the media, I want there to be other sources provided so that in 100 or 200 years time people will be able to see the truth about how we lived.
But, moving forward, I want to focus more on creating things related to the imagination rather than real-life. I’m really into sci-fi and fantasy and want to mix things up a bit to create work that’s thought-provoking, but also lets you escape to another world.
Talking a bit about your piece, Wishbone, what is it about dance that bought that extra level of communication?
The body responds to feelings in ways that you can’t describe, only your body can communicate that feeling. Often enough, when you look at people dancing, there’s something that they’re getting out of them, or that they’re living, that doesn’t have to do with language. With language things have to make sense, but a lot of time feelings don’t make sense, you’re not always able to make it into something that is understandable. I think that’s what dance does and that’s my fascination with dance. In a piece that had poetry to capture what can be communicated, what art form fills the gaps? Dance answered that question.
Can we talk about your creative process? Do you have a routine when you write?
I’m constantly in a state of writing or thinking about writing. I’ve passed that stage where I wait for inspiration. If I write something good, it’s good; if it’s bad, it’s bad. I think that’s allowed me to strengthen my skills as a writer because I have to be disciplined. I often write in short amounts and spent the rest of my time thinking about writing. I only sit down to write when I have a structure, I only write for the sake of writing if I don’t know the direction I’m going in. Most of the time though, I know exactly where I’m going with it.
How do you find switching between different roles?
Because of the nature of what I do, I end up in situations where it can be hard to be trusted if they haven’t seen your previous work. It’s tricky turning up as a poet and putting the director hat on if the people you’re working with don’t buy into what you’re doing, whereas if you turn up as a director people often take you at face value. It mostly happens in music. I can fly under the radar because most people assume I’m a rapper, but once they know you’re a poet it get’s sticky - they either respect what you do because of the connotations of poetry, or they can look down on you. I’m currently writing a screenplay at the moment and that’s been the hardest because they don’t understand what I do or what I know about it. I try not to think about it though. Stepping into different spaces is something I’ve had to do all my life anyway, so I just roll with it.