‘And They Knew Light’ by Caleb Femi is a post-Grenfell affirmation to take back brutalist blocks and make their voices heard
What does a council estate symbolise to you? The rise of the grime aesthetic has seen council estates become a regular mainstream staple for the cool music video. Charlie XCX, Dua Lipa, Mabel, and more recently Jorja Smith, have all used brutalist blocks to evoke a raw grittiness to accompany their tracks, capitalising on the lo-fi style that underpinned the beloved Channel U era. It is emblematic of a distinctly British urban-ness that pop culture has fallen in love with recently.
However, as music videos go back to the blocks, one image of the council flat has been burned into the psyche of the British public. The charred remains of Grenfell still stand – a new death count was released today. 71 lives. The tower is a bruising symbol of working class pain.
Yet neither of the above really capture what it was like for Caleb Femi, the Young People’s Laureate, growing up on an estate. It isn’t all glamour, and it isn’t all gloom. His new film for Channel 4 Random Acts, And They Knew Light, meets somewhere in the middle.
“Everyone is just using (council estates) as the latest “in” thing. People tweeted about Grenfell for two days and got over it. I wanna take back the narrative” – Caleb Femi
“You know you can be light without being fire, you can still wake them up and be heard without being an alarm. And if they don’t see you, you let them hear you. Because lightning and thunder are the same thing,” Femi recites over the film. Given the current context, his determination to spin images of light and fire into a positive is understandable.
“It’s all about subverting people’s perceptions about estate life because a lot of the time I see all these videos and the portrayal of what it’s like,” he tells me. ”If you look at Mura Masa and that video with A$AP (Rocky) everyone is just using it as the latest “in” thing. People tweeted about Grenfell for two days and got over it. I wanna take back the narrative. In this film, it’s a dreamland.”
The film marries Femi’s poetry with an infectious beat, and dreamy vocals as we journey through the estate he grew up in. We caught up to find out more:
What's happening in the film?
Caleb Femi: The film looks through a slightly fantastical lens on a group of young people on a South London estate who plan and execute their own entertainment. It takes you on a journey questioning your perception and assumptions about young people.
Talk to me about everyone involved
Caleb Femi: The music happened in such an amazing way, I wrote the poem and if you follow my work you'd know I always like to work with music. One of my friends, a brilliant producer called D.A made this beat that I fell in love with it as soon as I heard the first 5 seconds. I explained to him my vision and he was on board. I wanted the track to be enchanting and uplifting I knew that there only one singer whose voice would bring that vision to life; her name is Indigo and I think her vocals are the true heart of the track. As for the film production, the actors are all my mates, I try to work with people I know. People who understand the context and nuances of the work I am making.
It’s all about shifting how people see life on an estate, do you identify with the topic?
Caleb Femi: The estate we shot the film on is the estate I grew up in. I always try to diversify the narrative and perceptions of estate life, I think it's important to take ownership of your narrative especially when you see it portrayed in a problematic way as it often doesn't in the mainstream.
How important do you think it is to publicise working class joy?
Caleb Femi: More often than none, working-class life is treated as a trope, as a metaphor for all types of depressing or violent things. It is necessary that it is shown in its full scope of humanity.