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My Cultural Life: Caleb Femi

The poet and film-maker on what he’s reading, listening to and more

caleb femi interview
Aiden Harmitt-Williams

Nigerian-born poet Caleb Femi has stirred hearts and minds with his evocative, almost mythical depictions of the north Peckham estate in south London where he grew up. After winning the Roundhouse Poetry Slam and performing at Tate Britain in 2015, he became London’s first young people’s laureate the following year.

A prolific filmmaker, photographer and former English teacher, he has written and directed short films for the BBC and Channel 4, and penned poems for Tate Modern, The Royal Society for Literature, St Paul’s Cathedral and The Guardian. His landmark debut collection Poor (Penguin; £9.99) places Peckham at its soulful centre.

My all-time favourite artists are Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, Bon Iver and Digga D. Their work speaks to me – they’re all poets in their own right. I mean, Frank’s Thinkin Bout You? It’s a classic.

caleb femi interview
Frank Ocean
Visionhaus

The record that makes me instantly happy? Fuck The World or Rehab (Winter In Paris) by Brent Faiyaz. Both give me a sense of euphoria and joy. He’s one of my favourite R&B singers – he can put me in a good way even on my worst day.

At the moment I’m listening to Lex Amor and Youngs Teflon, who both have sick EPs out right now. It’s a vibe every time I turn on Lex Amor’s new Government Tropicana or Youngs Teflon’s Call Of Duty 3. They both have such a unique style of music that I know will hit on a diasporic level.

I’m currently reading Bolu Babalola’s anthology Love In Colour and Black Futures by Kimberly Drew. Both are dope Black female writers whose work is not only stunning but sets amazing examples of what young Black writers in the UK and globally can achieve.

My go-to film recommendation is Beasts Of The Southern Wild. It’s a tremendously eye-opening and riveting film that should go down in cinematic history – I often forget that it was made in 2012! It fuses fantasy, humour and suspense, and films like this have had a huge influence on my point of view in filmmaking. I strive every day to make art that will stand the test of time.

caleb femi interview
Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

One of my favourite quotes comes from the Caribbean: ‘Those who can’t hear must feel’. I love what it stands for, and the importance of wisdom.

I unintentionally collect film cameras and rare film stock – they’re a great example of how craft and imagination turn mechanics into an art form. A democratised and deeply personal art form.

My current obsession is Japanese bathrooms. If a substantial amount of money came my way, that would be my first design project.

My favourite place in the world is South Africa – I return almost every year. It’s a beautiful country with good weather and good people. My spirit is always drawn there. Next on my list is Senegal or Jamaica. I’m looking forward to the food and connecting with creative communities.

caleb femi interview
South Africa’s capital Cape Town
Eric Nathan / Alamy

I’m secretly manifesting Poor on Barack Obama’s reading list for 2022. I’m dreaming and thinking bigger for 2021 – through my writing, my idea of success and possibilities continue to grow. I’ll be working on more films, TV shows and books.

I’m looking forward to the arrival of aliens. I mean, how else can 2021 top last year?

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration April 2021

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