Get Up, Stand Up Now: Q&A with poet and director Caleb Femi

By Somerset House

Caleb Femi's poem 'On the Question of Freeing the Mandem' is featured in the Get Up, Stand Up Now exhibition. His film 'Coping' is also being shown as part of the Somerset House Studios film programme, This is England. Bridget Minamore interviews him.

Caleb FemiSomerset House

Caleb Femi is a poet and director who has been featured in the Dazed 100 list of the next generation shaping youth culture. Using film, photography and music, he pushes the boundaries of poetry on the page, in performance and on digital mediums. He was Young People’s Laureate for London 2016-18.

Coping (2018) focuses on the challenges of racialised hypervisibility faced by black men whilst also commenting on and portraying a soft black masculinity in a way that humanises and gives way to conversations around mental health.

Caleb FemiSomerset House

Coping by Caleb FemiSomerset House

I'm really fascinated by the title of your poem. It has one of my favourite words in it, ‘Mandem’. But what is Mandem? I feel like it's one of those things that you know if you know, and if you don't, you don't. Do you have a definition?

All right, I'm going to give you several definitions.

First of all, are you Mandem?

Me? Yeah, I'm Mandem.

Okay. I'm ready.

Mandem is a group of black boys from the Ends. That’s definition one. Definition two: Mandem is a group of black people from the Ends, because I also believe Mandem is genderless, as well. And it is, more so. If I say Mandem, contextually the gender is a contextual thing because I consider my close friends who are women to be Mandem. I will also say Gyaldem, but when a guy is saying Gyaldem, often it's not platonic. So it gets a bit tricky. It’s also a community. If I say ‘the Mandem’, I'm talking about the whole community in a certain context.

What community?

Specifically, I would be talking about the Black British inner-city community. I wouldn't refer to middle class black people as Mandem. So it's very class specific as well as race specific.

Coping by Caleb FemiSomerset House

What about ‘freedom’? One of the tricks of your poem, I think, is that sometimes ‘free’ or ‘freedom’ feels like a request, and sometimes it feels like a demand.

When I was writing this poem, I was really thinking about what freedom meant. I felt in Black British culture when people say, "free this or that person," it's speaking of two things. On a deeper level it's speaking about the systematic nature from school to prison and that pipeline, and we’re almost we’re accusing the system of failing people. When we say, "Free that person," we're not stupid, we know that this person most likely has done something ‘wrong’, but it's the conditions that have molded their situation. When I was a teacher, there were students of mine that, by the time they were 17, 18, they had been in prison. I remember doing parent's evening and their parents also lived a similar life to them. Do you know what I mean? And it's very difficult for them to break out of this almost systematic bondage, almost. In another respect, there's this glorification. If one of your friends is in prison, there's a sense of... not pride, but maybe pride. There's a sense of bragging rights, which is very interesting for me, because that's also a very tricky thing to consume and think about. Have we began to internalize prison as this badge of honor? Who has tricked us into seeing prison as this certificate of toughness or coolness? Do you know what I mean?

Completely.

Where has that come from? So I was trying to interrogate that, and also trying to interrogate the wider idea of freedom. In this day and age, who is really free? London is one of the most monitored cities in the world. How many of us are truly able to say that we are beyond the controlling arm of the government? And I also think about generational freedom as well. How many of us are enslaved to our traditions, like the traditions that are bad for us? How many of us are enslaved to the generational trauma that gets passed on from one generation to the other? We think that's some things that we do are normal, and some things that we do are just part of tradition and part of culture. But really, is that truly the case?

Wow there’s so much there.

But that's more of just a side note, an afterthought after writing the poem.

Coping by Caleb FemiSomerset House

So do you sometimes have the thoughts around the themes of a poem after it’s written, rather than before?

Absolutely. I think most of the time that's how it happens. I write a poem, and then obviously I'm thinking about something, and then afterwards I start interrogating it even further, because I've written about it… Which is one of the great things about poems. You start thinking about all these other things.

So interesting. You’re a poet, a photographer, and a filmmaker. Which one came first and do you feel like you prioritize one of those art forms over the other?

Poetry came first, and everything else came second. Poetry has existed in me since childhood, but I don't really see poetry as taking priority. I'm someone who wants to constantly collaborate between art forms; it’s why I made Coping. But writing poetry on the page is where all the ideas start from all the time. I write it on the page, and then it either turns into a film or it stays on a page.

Caleb Femi - CopingSomerset House

Where did the themes in Coping come from?

I think there's a global treatment of young black people, especially teenagers, where we're not allowed to be seen as children. Therefore there's a limited amount of—if any—compassion, that's bestowed upon young people that grow up in violent areas. A lot of young people get talked about in the media like they're adults, and that was a huge problem for me. At the same time, there are a lot of people who talking about the issue of youth violence in a very statistical way, in a very inhumane way. For me, that was problematic, because these are young black people who are experiencing so many traumatic things, and nobody is talking about their well being. Nobody is thinking about how they're coping in these situations. That really annoyed me, as someone who's come from a violent background, and have grown up in these violent areas. I felt that I just wanted to sort of tell a different story, shift the perspective a little bit, and just think and talk about how we cope in such a violent environment. The things we do when one of us is either seriously injured or killed, the ritualistic coping mechanisms that fortify our sense of community, that sort of make us feel that we are able to rely on each other. And in some weird way make us able to be emotional in a space that is often devoid of emotion. Do you know what I mean? Especially amongst boys.

Coping by Caleb FemiSomerset House

I really do. No-one mentions young peoples’ mental health in these situations, and the long-term effects on it.

When I was younger, when my friend died, a lot of us didn't know how to process that. A lot of us didn't know how to be emotional, but there were things we were able to do that allowed us to have some sort of emotional catharsis. Often that is just sitting down and talking, drinking, in honor or in celebration of a lost ones life, you know? And then also, there's a fantastical element of it. I always imagined having this superpower where I could make a new body for my friend and bring a friend back alive again, so that element crept into Coping as well. But essentially, I just wanted to write from a different perspective. Not talking about the issue from a statistical point of view, more for those of us who know what it feels like to be in that environment, and know how things really go down. That's why I wrote it.

Coping by Caleb FemiSomerset House

Interview by Bridget Minamore

Bridget Minamore is a British-Ghanaian writer from south-east London. She is a poet, critic, essayist, and journalist, writing for The Guardian about pop culture, theatre, race and class. Titanic (Out-Spoken Press), her debut pamphlet of poems on modern love and loss, was published in May 2016.

@bridgetminamore / www.bridgetminamore.com


Caleb Femi's 'On the Question of Freeing the Mandem' is featured in Get Up, Stand Up Now at Somerset House, 12 June - 15 September 2019

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