Raised on Peckham’s infamous North Peckham Estate, South East London, poet Caleb Femi’s story speaks to the crucial importance of preserving your imagination amidst the harshness of a system built to trap you.
Caleb’s unbreakable imagination has empowered him: in 2016, he was named as the first Young People’s Laureate for London; he’s directed short films for the BBC and Channel 4; he featured on the Dazed 100 list of people shaping youth culture; and he recently collaborated with Virgil Abloh. His story, which he shares in his debut poetry collection Poor, is a love story. Chronicling life as a working-class Black boy growing up in one of Europe’s most impoverished, notorious blocks, the intersection of class and race weigh heavily. There is violence, pain, and loss. There is policing, which aims to reduce you from bright supernova to dying star. There’s an expanse of concrete, seeking to swallow you up in its vast sea of grey.
But rising above all that heaviness is brotherhood, joy, music, spirit dancing and sweet nonsense chatting. There’s X-Fighter, Ruthless the warrior woman, Tiny Giggler and the iconic generation of Peckham Boys. He beautifully memorialises the manor that made him, as he writes: “I have never loved anything the way I love the endz.” Through poems and original photography, Caleb captures his early stomping ground, connecting its struggles with Britain’s wider, shameful history, namely the murder of Mark Duggan and the Grenfell atrocity. The collection is fine art, super specific in its localised context and yet full of universal human truths.
We spoke with Caleb Femi about the impact of music on his work, the importance of archiving the ends, the education system, gentrification in Peckham and more.
“The whole point of the book is to celebrate the life and times of people in spite of poverty, in spite of classism and of racism.”
COMPLEX: I love that you open Poor with a quote from J Hus, alongside quotes from TS Eliot and Darcus Howe. Should rappers be revered as our time’s great poets?
Caleb Femi: Because of the nature of the society we live in, rapping will always be seen as a reductive form of art—until there are enough white people doing it. It will always be seen as the art of the underclass and therefore, not polished enough. So yeah, I think it’s important to see TS Eliot next to J Hus because there is something that they both contribute to the world of words, to the possibilities of imagery, to the art of storytelling, to the archiving of a whole community of people, and also to general entertainment. I don’t think people talk enough about the entertainment of poetry. When I read TS Eliot’s work, when I read The Wasteland, I was in awe but I was also very much entertained. My 17-year-old brain thought what was happening with the words was beautiful, evoking imagery that I’d never seen before. Elements of it were funny. Elements of it were fascinating. That exists when you are reading. I’m someone who often reads the lyrics of songs, so when you’re reading J Hus, he talks about the harshness of life but then adds to it by painting a surreal image in your head, and then he will evoke some funniness. That same dexterity in his words and his songs and his verses, it exists in TS Eliot’s work as well.
He has a magical quality to his words. Those bars in “Helicopter” about pigs flying and unicorns, I can’t listen to them without creasing [laughs].
Exactly! It’s funny and it’s not only entertaining, it’s entertaining commentary, social commentary. It’s not just hollow in itself.
How much of an impact did music have on the writing of Poor?
I think, generally in our culture, musicians shape a lot of our conversations or reflect a lot of our conversations. And the way that we talk, our mannerisms, our colloquialisms, isms and schisms. When we speak, we often quote lyrics to one another. If we have a conversation, I might drop in a lyric from a rapper or musician and you’ll get it. The presence of musicians or songs shape our lives, whether we’re having a party or whether we’re just talking. It needed to be present in the book as well. I think a lot of the time people see the inclusion of rappers as sensationalism, or feel like it will reduce the quality of their art or how seriously their art will be taken. I don’t subscribe to that. And I think it’s important for them to be included. How can you not include Dizzee, Giggs, Headie and K-Trap? All these people who, in their work, have reflected the life and times that we live in. And if this book is supposed to reflect our life and times, then it also must reflect their efforts in trying to do the same thing. Intertextuality, I learned that in A-level.
I went back and watched your TEDx talk from 2017, Roadman Or Man On The Road. You talk about music as a way of rappers managing PTSD—does poetry do that for you?
Absolutely. It allowed me to process a lot of the trauma I experienced growing up; it allowed me to embrace the reality of being broken by these experiences, to process and unlearn a lot of things, un-normalise the severity of things that happen, innit. So writing it down had a therapeutic effect.
Do outsiders appreciate how much trauma young people in the ends go through, and how much of the violence that newspapers sensationalise is young people’s response to that trauma?
I don’t think they appreciate that because they don’t have to appreciate it. It’s about privilege, isn’t it? You don’t have to actually engage with the harshness that another group is going through; you don’t have to sympathise or empathise with them, because it’s not your lived experience. And you are under no obligation to do that. I think a lot of middle-class people, when they see the violence on TV, they hear about the violence, they see the statistics. What they’re being told is that you’re allowed to detach from this reality because the violence isn’t being enacted on thm, and will never be enacted on them. There isn’t a thing where it’s like you could be next, or this is how you’re contributing to the violence in poor neighbourhoods by picking up a couple of tickets every Friday, Saturday night. They’re not linked to it. They’re not implicated in it. So then they feel exonerated and become voyeurs of the whole experience. Even when they do want to sympathise or empathise or whatever, they do it with a God complex that does nothing but reinforce their position in everything.
In a messed-up way, will middle-class people engage with the trauma in a more reflective way by reading your book, than if they listened to Headie One’s Edna or a K-Trap project?
I think they will fuck with the poetry because it’s an art form that has been exclusively attributed to the middle-class. It’s a participatory art form for them. Whether it’s by reading or writing, it’s usually a space for them or they’re the consumers of it, so in that way: yes. But also, it doesn’t do anything. So many middle-class people love listening to Headie One. They’re the biggest consumers of the music. So actually, to answer that question: no. In one way, the art form of poetry is theirs or they feel like it’s theirs, so I’m doing something that is owned by their class. And there’s something about it that feels familiar. There’s an ownership there that they can claim, which serves them. But there’s another phenomenon where they get to listen to UK rap, drill, whatever, and feel like they get an authentic safari tour without actually having to go there, which serves them in another way. Either way, I think middle-class people are generally taught that they own everything, regardless of what the art form is.
We both came up with grime. Everyone was trying to be a grime MC at one point, but was that the case for you?
I used to MC! I used to go on pirate radio stations, one hundred percent.
What were you like on the mic?
I wasn’t a flow MC. You wouldn’t get skippy flows; there was nothing spectacular about my flow. I was somebody trying to tell stories in my verses. I was always just trying to capture what me and the mandem had been up to... My favourite artists are the ones that tell unique stories. If we focus specifically on drill, I think that’s where K-Trap excels: he says stuff that’s unique to his experience and then we believe him. I’m not slyly trying to group myself in with him, I’m just saying that was my vibe.
I was that guy who was always writing bars, then when it was my turn to spit I’d pretend I had a phone call or something. I was a ghostwriter [laughs].
What I love about that is, in order for you to even jump on a mic, you’ve already overcome something. Because every time you spit in a group, it’s an arena. It’s like it’s a duel. It feels like do or die! And if you can get over that, and contribute even if you’re shit, it’s still something to really be proud of.
We had some sick MCs at my school. There was Scorcher, legend, and there was another guy called Killa Kane. He was the beast! He was so good, but life intervened. So many neighbourhood heroes...
It’s mad because all these people are just lost, lost to the ether. No one will truly know the talent that exists.
One of my favourite parts of Poor is ‘The Book Of The Generation Of Peckham Boys’, which touches on that idea.
It was solely for them, as a piece of archiving. To immortalise a group of people who were extraordinary and who contributed to the history of Black Britain. Not even just Black Britain, but Britain in general. In November 2006, Peckham Boys were on TimeOut’s top 10 movers and shakers for that year. I just think that is wild because they’re on it with people like Elton John and shit like that. But no one has talked about them since then, and I just thought someone needs to memorialise them and archive them. These are people who were shaping my life as well. A lot of the people mentioned in the book were my olders; some people were my age, and some were just underneath me. I tried to capture them all.
I don’t know much about the formal and technical side of poetry, but that part of the book felt like the most classical in style.
Yeah, it was. I wanted it to feel elegiac, like a run in the Odyssey—or even biblical. The first bit of it uses the same structure as the start of the New Testament in the Bible. So yeah, that was definitely the intention.
What was school like for you?
In primary school, I was a very switched-on, engaged student. I was capable and excelled in all subjects. There’s this thing about working class, non-white boys coming into secondary school as high achievers and then leaving at the low end of achievement. So I came into secondary school pretty much in all the top sets and regarded as someone who was capable. I went to a very troubled school and not just in terms of the students, more like the ethos of the school. The general management used to cook the books a lot. They would get smart kids to do GCSEs from Year 7, 8, 9. The footfall of Year 11 achievers was low, so they would try and cook it up by getting younger years to do their GCSEs. I went into Year 7 knowing I was doing GCSEs. I did my first GCSE when I was in Year 8. By Year 9, I had five GCSEs. Generally, five GCSEs is the target for every student. So by Year 9, I was demotivated; I didn’t really see any point of being engaged in school. With a lot of teachers, they’d gotten what they needed out of you so that kind of led to my decline in education, my lack of focus and engagement with it.
By Year 11, I had zero interest in being in school, and I got kicked out. But I had already had 6 GCSEs by then. I was meant to do another five or six more... I got kicked out at the start of Year 11, then I came back and did those six and did well in them. So generally, education in secondary school didn’t feel encouraging for me, in terms of stimulation. I felt like it was very didactic, very rigid. And although I was able to excel or to at least be capable within it, it didn’t really feel like it was worthwhile. The connection between educating yourself for life didn’t feel like it was there at school. My education for life was happening on the streets more than anywhere else; I don’t think education considered the conditions in which I had to live in. None of the teachers were sensitive to the fact that a lot of us were coming into school hungry, a lot of us weren’t able to do our homework or revise at home because of the areas we lived in, or because of the households we came from. So in that way, I felt like school was a place where I was being used, there for the benefit of the school’s longevity, and not necessarily for the edification of my own self.
“When everything around you is bricks and concrete, it limits your quality of life. Everyone should have access to open space, fresh air and natural surroundings because, as humans, we need that.”
Were your teachers not representative of your community?
Not really. A lot of the staff came from middle-class backgrounds, a lot of them were white, and they didn’t live in the area in which we lived. So there was a disconnection in that way. They weren’t familiar with the way we express ourselves. Like, I’ll come into school with a scowl on my face, but that scowl doesn’t necessarily mean I’m about to be disruptive or aggressive, which is what they’d usually assume. That scowl might mean I’m frustrated, or hungry, or sad oftentimes. And that was always reduced and cast as a form of aggression. The strain on teachers has always been immense, and they’re often jaded because of the conditions they’re expected to teach under. So that level of patience is often not there. Also, when you’re in school, as a boy you’re not afforded infantilism. You’re not seen as a child. A lot of the time, that’s taken away from you and you’re treated as someone who’s beyond the years that you actually are. Often, I didn’t feel like I was ever considered to be a boy. I was never afforded the sort of patience or mitigation that you would afford a child when something has happened. You’re not treated like a kid at the end of the day. The approach for anything is very much like adult to adult.
So you didn’t have that cliched English teacher who ‘saved your life’ at school?
I did. Definitely! I wouldn’t want to lie. I had Mr. Jones, who was very much an advocate for creativity in the classroom. He was a brilliant English teacher. He was also a drama teacher and brought a lot of that dramaturgy into the English classroom. He would read in the most captivating ways. He would put on accents, make it funny, make it engaging, and that really helped demonstrate how literature can be such a live thing. And then I had Mr. Silver... There was a point in school where there was an influx of Australian teachers. He was this Australian white guy, who just had a different perception of life in general. He came into our school as someone who had seen a different possibility of life and he was the first one who made me excited about the prospect of university because he came in and told us these crazy stories about university. He would tell us about and show us pictures of places he travelled to, or people he met and their stories, and that widened the world for me. No one else really challenged us or tried to expand the scope of our horizon on an intellectual level, but also where we can picture what the world looks like beyond South London.
Did the education system place more limits on you, rather than expand your possibilities?
I would say it definitely placed more limits. Because when you’re in a history lesson or an English lesson and you’re reading about things that have happened in the world, other stories, other narratives, other cultures, it always seems very exclusionary of someone like me. You learn about science, biology, chemistry, physics, and you’re never taken into the possibilities of how you, as a Black boy, can engage with or contribute to that. Like, when we’re looking at physics and biology, how can it be reapplied to my community? What’s the immediate effect of these theories that we’re learning about? When we were looking at Shakespeare, or some historical thing, it was always something that I was outside of, an observer. If you want to be a writer or a poet, who were you reading in school? Dead white people. Well-off white people. You don’t then see that you can do this—you’re just observing what they do.
You went on to become a teacher yourself. How did that compare?
I was able to draw from a lot of my personal experiences of school and that was a helpful tool. I could be a lot more patient, understand nuances in the classroom, pick up on a lot of unsaid things from students, be more understanding. It allowed me to tweak the approach of my lessons to make the work more accessible for the students. I taught in Tottenham, in Gladesmore. You know the vibe. There was a lot of Black and non-white kids, so it was like teaching in a school that I grew up in. But there were new things that I didn’t foresee. One was actually how hindering and insidious the curriculum was. Before the Gove era, there was still a space for creativity and imagination. By the time that I started teaching, Gove’s new policies had changed the curriculum, which was more rigid than ever. I found it very difficult to teach, or to foster a space that encouraged imagination, and that frustrated me a lot. And there were a lot of racist undertones and classist undertones in the curriculum. I’m trying to decolonize the curriculum for the students, but the exam questions that they get asked aren’t, so they have to then learn in that rigid way. It’s one step forwards, two steps back.
The racism I felt among the staff, too... I was given a lot of tokenistic assignments. I was given the ‘difficult classes’ or I was given the ‘troubled kids’. There wasn’t necessarily an expectation to improve their attainment, it was more like just look after them and find a way to make them docile. And also the assumptions that get made about me, the way that I’m also marked as a teacher, was through the same racist lens that a lot of them marked their students. We’re all doing quality control of our marking, bringing samples, and I noticed there was a distinctive difference in the way that I would mark Black kids and the way that other teachers would mark their Black kids. There was contention there. I would argue that I could see the students were meeting criteria in their own way. A lot of teachers would never see that. The Blackness of that student that would hinder certain teachers from seeing what was there.
You touched on the lack of space for imagination in schools. How important is preserving your imagination when you’re growing up in harsh circumstances, like the circumstances you describe in Poor?
I think in any circumstance, humans need imagination in order to survive and to thrive. Any advancement made in a community is by someone who has imagined the possibility, who has imagined a future and then finds the tools in order to make that imagined future real. In that same way, you need it as a young person, you need your imagination. It allows you to imagine what tomorrow is going to be like, what ten years, twenty years later could be like. The immediate benefits of having an active imagination is it allows you to process the conditions in which you live, whether good or bad. It allows you to escape some of the harsh realities that you might live in. For example, the block I grew up in was notoriously one of the worst blocks in Europe. However, I would look forward to every Monday morning on the block, because the detergent they used smelt like bubblegum. That transformed the reality of that place to me. On Mondays, it didn’t feel like such a difficult place to live—it felt like one of the most magical places to live because the whole place smells like bubblegum. And if it smelt like bubblegum, then everything felt bouncy. The floor felt like it was bouncy and new; that made me want to run and jump and play. That put me in a great mood, regardless of the fact that I was living in a tiny one-bedroom flat with seven of my family members. So imagination in that way provides escape. It provides a way of improving your quality of life despite the poor standard of living that you might live in, you know?
How fundamental is poverty to the stories you’re telling?
I think, in every story I’m telling, poverty is fundamental. It’s a driving force within it, an invisible hand almost. But beyond that, I think the whole point of the book is to celebrate the life and times of people in spite of poverty, in spite of classism and of racism. It’s a love letter. This book is a love letter to that community, and all the lovely times we have and the joyous times, the crazy imaginations and folklore. And how we prosper and thrive, despite poverty. It also questions the idea of being poor—what makes someone poor? What makes a community poor? Is it a financial stipulation? Is it poor in health? Is it poor in family and community? Is it poor, in happiness and joy?
When you’re from the bits, you’re rich in other ways. I think that is true. How does it feel to be sharing work that’s so deeply personal?
In terms of my artistic career, I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve. I’ve always exposed very personal things that I go through. I think one of the worst things you can do, as an artist, is hide your vulnerability because that is at the heart of why we love stuff, why we love music, why we love poetry. It’s because we see our vulnerable selves reflected within the work. So it’s a little bit of a cop-out as a writer to then try and omit that sense of the personal in your work. That’s when things end up being washed with this like commercialised, faceless stuff, which limits how much we can really appreciate the human experience.
I remember your tweet from a few months back saying the one thing you were anxious about is that the mandem appreciated the book. How have they responded to it?
The ones who’ve read it so far have given me the seal of approval. It honestly was the biggest thing for me. I just didn’t want people to feel let down; I didn’t want people to feel disengaged with it. So yeah, they were the only critics I really cared about. Whatever this book does in the future is secondary to how the ends receive it.
A key theme of Poor is how the physical design of the ends, the North Peckham Estate, directly impacted its residents. Tell me more about that.
So, the North Peckham Estate: 65 stories, 1,444 homes. It spanned a few miles—you can walk about two miles from one side of the estate to the other without ever coming out, because each block was linked by these corridors, these hallways. And then on the block as well, you had laundrettes and you had corner shops and you had all the amenities that you kind of need to live. So you don’t necessarily need to leave the estate. The estate becomes its own self-governing, standalone space from the rest of the city. When the people within that are poor, where they have low income and they don’t have access to public health services, they don’t have access to mental health services, they don’t have opportunities to rise up from the poverty that held them down, then the space is going to be hellish. The reality of it means high crime. When a space is designed that way, what you’re doing is keeping people in a mini prison, ostracising them physically and telling them they’re not part of the city, that they are physically othered.
POOR IS RELEASED TODAY. The excitement is on a next level. This is my baby, this is my love letter, this is years of grafting, this is all I have & I place it in your hands, be delicate with it & ENJOY it. So much more to say but for now, Takbir. https://t.co/ehC42VCxBk pic.twitter.com/o1VtGwmX0c— Caleb (@CalebFemi_) November 5, 2020
The space is cramped and how much green space you have access to is limited. All of that moulds your moods and your mental health; it moulds your perception of yourself.
When everything around you is bricks and concrete, it limits your quality of life. Everyone should have access to open space, fresh air and natural surroundings because, as humans, we need that. And the state of the space in which you live tells you how much you’re worth. It tells you how the world sees you, and you start to digest and internalise that. Your perception of what’s possible becomes narrower and narrower. Then when you look at the consequences of that… Grenfell, the biggest fire disaster on a council estate. There are countless estates all over England that experience fires. It’s not something that’s new. And then when you see Grenfell happening, and you see that there is no one who takes the blame for it, no one who is penalised for it, it tells you how cheap your life is. The value of their lives does not equal their middle-class counterparts, who because of the design of our cities, live across the road. There are homes in Peckham that are worth £5 million. Grenfell happened in one of the wealthiest boroughs in Europe! That you’re constantly reminded of your position in life and how much you’re valued by the state is all down to design, down to architecture.
North Peckham Estate has been redeveloped since, right? How is gentrification impacting the area?
It’s largely been knocked down. In fact, there are gated communities there now. Peckham is one of the most gentrified areas in the city. The process of gentrification is such an unstoppable machine, isn’t it? For me, it’s the loss of landmarks, places that meant a lot to me growing up, where I’ve got memories—all of that’s gone. People as well. Obviously, communities aren’t the same anymore—people have moved out. Like that one auntie who used to live over there isn’t there anymore; that man who was bless when I was 10 because I used to kick the ball into his garden and he didn’t mind throwing it back, he’s gone as well. Also, the weirdness of being in an area that you’ve grown up in but people are making you look like you’re mad for being in that area. Like, what you doing round here? This is not your ends. I think that’s one of the most infuriating things, where I’m looked at in a suspect way for just being in Peckham and walking down the road. The visible repulsion on the faces of gentrifiers is one of the things that gets me the most. Why are you looking at me like that? You’re the one who’s come here, like, and now you’re policing me. The culture in this community has always been one way, and now you’ve come in and you’re trying to destroy that.
One of my favourite poems in the book is ‘Community’. That felt like you were sending for the gentrifiers.
On the one hand, it’s a critique to this sense of ownership that mandem have over their block and their ends. And adding a different lens to that, like this is not about hostility, this is more about love for your community and trying to protect your community from harmful outsiders. And then also commentary on gentrification and understanding what existed before you came here, the people that live here who you choose to reduce to inconsequential residents who inconvenience in your life.
‘Survivor’s Guilt’ also really resonates with me. Do you think we can make peace with that feeling?
I think we can make peace with it. It doesn’t necessarily alleviate it, but I think it is possible to make peace. I certainly have done that, but it’s a tekky one, innit. Even with making peace, you don’t want to forget. I don’t ever want to forget the truth of the fact that I’m not special. None of us are special because of where we are right now. And when I say that, we’re not more special than the people who didn’t make it. A lot of it is just different sets of influences, different sets of decisions. We were fortunate enough to end up on a different side of the consequence. We’re not smarter, and we’re not more special. We’re not more deserving than our counterparts who aren’t here.
The photography in Poor is beautiful, and it’s all your own original work. How does it relate to the poems in the book?
What I wanted to do is reinforce the imagery surrounding the poetry. When people are reading this, I don’t want them to see mugshots in their head. I don’t want them to see all the negative imagery that they’d usually consume in one way or the other. That’s the only bit of imagination I wanted to police, by injecting images to counterbalance the images people see on the news of distressed Black people. Poetry is about capturing a particular point of view. It’s about capturing a particular lens—it captures a particular perspective. Photography is doing the same thing. That’s why they complement each other so well.
Before we wrap things up, we need to speak on what’s happening in Nigeria at the moment. As someone who was born in Nigeria, what’s been the best way for you to engage with the #EndSARS movement?
It’s something that I’ve been aware of for so long now, since probably about 2015, even way before. But, specifically, when talking about SARS, I’ve been aware of it for about five years now. I’m always here to amplify the voices of people on the ground in Nigeria, donating money to look after protesters and helping with their legal fees and things like that. I’ve found that’s been one of the more effective ways for me to contribute to that conversation. And that fight in general, because police brutality is a global problem—it exists in one way or the other, in every single country. I think it’s critically important for us to realise that it’s not just Britain, America, France, and all these other Western countries that suffer from police brutality. The first country that does away with this structure of policing might trigger change elsewhere.