An Interview with Caleb Femi
On 27 November 2000, a 10 year old boy who had recently moved from Nigeria to Peckham in London was stabbed to death. The murder of Damilola Taylor captured the attention of the nation, bringing gang violence into the sharp focus of the media.
In the same North Peckham estate that Damilola lived and died, another 10 year old boy who had recently moved from Nigeria experienced bereavement for the very first time.
“When I lost my friend at 10 years old – the first person I can consider a friend who died – the way I coped with it was to treat it the same way as when a friend changed schools,” poet Caleb Femi says.
“I didn’t process it in the healthiest way. I didn’t get the magnitude of what it meant to miss someone. Nobody was talking about it, unless you were family of the bereaved.”
Now the past Young People’s Laureate for London and a former school teacher, Caleb uses his poetry and art to highlight the very real experiences of young people all across London. And with over 60 murders in London in the first 6 months of 2018 alone, Caleb’s poetry seems more poignant than ever.
“The more I grew up, death became a regular occurrence not only in my immediate circle, but all around me. There weren’t any dedicated avenues we felt we could go to to speak to people. Counselling wasn’t on the cards.”
Even with 12 GCSEs and while studying away at university, a situation many might see as a sanctuary from the gang violence of Peckham, one of Caleb’s close friends died at the funeral of another close friend.
In his recent poem ‘Coping’, shot for Dazed and Confused, he looks at the grief and mourning process for young black boys.
Caleb and his friends learned how to grieve by themselves in their very own ways. “We used to go on pirate radio a lot. Music was a good way of memorializing your friends. And, in the most unhealthiest way, holding grudges. Like if you held a grudge, it showed how much you missed your friend.”
Music, in particular Grime and now Drill, have been frequently mentioned in the media and by leading politicians as a cause of violence on London’s streets. This is something Caleb feels is sad and symptomatic of the medias portrayal of young working class men.
“The media reduces us [the young working class] to tropes. Statistics. An inhuman thing, so that we no longer think that we need to deal with the source of our problems. It’s easy to not speak about lack of opportunities, funding, poor infrastructure, poor education. Instead, it’s made so everyone focuses on ‘look at how they’re killing each other’.
“Growing up in Peckham, it’s really easy to get swept up in this life. You don’t fill in an application form to join a gang. If you grow up and hang around with your group of friends, suddenly you’re known as a gang.”
And beyond that, Caleb says that there’s another big issue being missed by the media and the authorities: “everyone can understand how a soldier is affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Why can’t people understand the same about young black men experiencing violence? It seems so obvious but people aren’t coming to this easy common sense conclusion. It comes down perhaps to a lack of sympathy and a lack of empathy from some.”
Caleb Femi is a poet and author from Peckham, London. He was the first ever Young Person’s Poet Laureate, holding the honour for 18 months, and is a former secondary school teacher. He is featured in the Dazed 100 list of the next generation shaping youth culture.
Caleb has written and directed short films commissioned by the BBC and Channel 4 and poems by the Tate Modern, The Royal Society for Literature, St Paul's Cathedral, the BBC and the Guardian.
Through poetry, through conversations and through spreading true stories of shootings, stabbings and gang violence – all three Caleb has experienced himself – he is trying to raise awareness of the experiences of young men all over London, just like on his own North Peckham estate.
And, while Caleb himself points out that his poetry alone won’t solve all the world’s problems, the opportunities given to him as Young People’s Laureate for London have demonstrated its potential to open conversations.
“Poetry teaches people to find commonalities between each other. It can start conversations and allow people into a world that they might not have access to.”
His own poetry has taken him on a whirlwind journey across the world, to LA, to Berlin, to Singapore, Ethiopia and back to his birthplace of Nigeria for the first time in two decades. The trip back to Nigeria was “surreal. It was humbling. It was a good moment to look at the journey of my life, how far I had come and where I was now.”
But while poetry and spoken word has opened doors for Caleb across the world, it’s still the topics closest to home that inspire Caleb’s writing.
“One of my most fond memories is hanging out with 20 or 30 kids in Mitcham, south west London, who went to the library just for the free Wi-Fi. I talked to them about their place in London, if they felt their voice was being heard or neglected, and what opportunities they had. And to be honest, their situation was dire. But just by talking to them for an hour, I could open conversations and find solutions by working with the Spread the Word team (behind the Young People’s Laureate) to improve their situation. Moments like that are what matters.”