Caleb Femi: A new age poet

Caleb Femi is not your usual poet. He has revitalized poetry over the past couple of years in London by addressing what’s happening around him, in a way the youth can relate. Poetry is no longer seen as ‘boring’ or ‘old’ but as something very relevant and important.

Some of the U.K.’s and America’s most exciting poets were performing at Inua Ellams’ Rhythm and Poetry Party in the venue Ninety One on Brick Lane, London. Jamilla Woods, who has worked together with Chance The Rapper, was a last minute replacement in the line-up and delivered a thought provoking piece of poetry addressing the use of the N-word. Another poet from Chicago, Kevin Coval, spoke about the duality of his city and the duality within himself. And even though these were brilliant pieces of poetry, it was when Caleb Femi took to the stage, that you could feel the momentum shift. Maybe because Caleb’s from London himself, but you could feel there was more to his name than only his appearance. Even though his appearance might’ve been an indication to this, as he didn’t look like a poet at all. He was wearing a fashionable silk shiny sweater, of which the glance would slightly reflect the flashes of the cameras. He carried himself with such a calm and cool demeanor, and you could tell he knew exactly what he was doing.

But most important of all, his poem was right on target, as he spoke about a new phenomenon in the current state of hip hop. In today’s rap game, rappers are launched to internet fame quicker than ever. It seems almost as if the number of followers they have on social media and the ludicrous lifestyle they lead to go with it is more important than the music itself. Even though the average person might not be impressed when they see rappers go out of their way to do some of the most ridiculous things to gain attention, it is the shock-value on the internet that creates a lane for these rappers to stay relevant.  It is this internet reaction that Caleb addresses in his poem through a specific example. Some rappers became notorious for committing crimes and ending up in jail. The internet glorifies these actions by the phrase of ‘free…’, whereas the dots replace the rapper’s name and they mean the wish for these rappers to get freed from jail. Caleb revolted against this idea in his poem by wishing them freedom, not from jail but from this on reputation driven mind state.

Caleb was born in 1990 in Nigeria and moved to London when he was 7 years old. It was at the age of 8 that he first discovered his love for words, through music. “I remember listening to Grime artist Giggs and for the first time in my life I really was able to relate to what was being said in a piece of music. Giggs would speak about things I could see happening in my own neighborhood and I felt as if I was a part of his world. I knew that the feeling I got from that experience was something very special to me so I kept looking for it”. When he got to High School, Caleb decided to give the microphone a go himself and started a band with a couple of his friends. He continued rapping until he discovered the power of poetry. “I felt as if I could compose the words better without a beat behind them. As if their significance had  quadrupled, and every bit of attention from the listener was fully focused on their meaning.”

From that moment on, Caleb kept writing poetry and was mostly fascinated by topics as displacement, cultural assimilation, gang culture, love and sex, as well as explorations of the past and past selves. Given this very broad field of interest, it would be a mistake to only think of Caleb as a poet, as he started to develop an interest in filmmaking, photography and theatre as well. “I saw the possibilities that lied in the field of visual communication. Sometimes, an image can describe a feeling in a way words can’t. But if you combine the two, I discovered you get a very powerful medium.” This is why his latest work, ‘Goldfish Bowl’, is a theatre piece, as it is one of the most important stories Caleb will ever tell, his own. “I lived in a part of London where there weren’t many resources for the youth. We wouldn’t have any money to go to events, so I just stayed in the streets with my friends. I had known them since a young age and It was only normal for me to defend my friends when something bad happened to them. Before I knew it, I was caught up in real gang activity at the age of 17 and a gun was held against my head. Luckily the trigger jammed and I could escape, a second bullet hit my leg. It was in the hospital when I realized that this was not where I wanted to be and I had to remove myself physically from the danger.” The play goes on to show how Caleb went to college, got his masters in English and became an English professor.The main theme of the play is the process of growing up, of finding out who you really are.

Apart from his solo career, Caleb is a part of SXWKS, a multi-medium platform that focusses on the abandonment of societal restrictions and the pursuit of purpose. The collective represents all kinds of artists; from poets, singers and musicians to photographers, graphic designers and illustrators. Together with this group of unique talents, Caleb made the documentary ‘Heartbreak and Grime’, in which poetry, monologue and visuals combine for an explanation of how love was seen through the eyes of the youth when grime came up. And let’s say it doesn’t portray the most romantic view of love.

Fast forward to today’s day where Caleb is one of the most promising poets in the U.K. and he’s racked up a lot of awards to show for it. In 2016, he was the first black man to win Young People’s Laureate of London, an award counting for 2 years. He is also featured in the Dazed 100 list of the next generation shaping youth culture. He 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. He has won the Roundhouse Poetry Slam and Genesis Poetry Slam.

All this goes to show that Caleb Femi is well on his way to become an iconic figure in Britain’s cultural scene. Not only is he on the forefront of the upcoming poetry scene, he is also seen as a person that the youth who comes from the same background as him can look up to and realize that their dreams can be achieved if you work hard for them.