An Interview with D’Bi Young, creator of The Sankofa Trilogy
by Corrie Sakaluk
D’Bi Young’s powerful Sankofa Trilogy played at Tarragon Theatre between October 22 and December 4. This interview was originally conducted for The Dialog, reproduced for BASICS at the request of the author.
What were the seeds from which the Sankofa Trilogy first started to grow?
I think the seed was seeing my mother perform when I was about 5 years old in Jamaica, at the Jamaica School of Drama, which is the school that is at the centre of Word!Sound!Powah. My mother was doing a one-woman show directed by Honor Ford Smith, who is actually now a professor at York University teaching community arts. So Honor Ford Smith was in Jamaica at the time teaching at the Jamaica School of Drama, and my mother was one of the students there between 1982 and 1985. I will never forget being in the audience and watching my mom, only my mom, on stage. It was a silent play about a woman living alone in her apartment, her routine and how she experienced her aloneness, and it had such a profound effect on me. That’s one thing that pops up to me.
The next thing that pops up to me is that I watched this film called The Three Faces of Eve, I must have been 8 years old. That film was a black and white film about a woman who was schizophrenic and she had three personalities, and I don’t know why that stuck with me, but for some reasons I’ve never gotten that film out of my mind. That film always comes back to me. So those two experiences were seeds that were planted in my young impressionable mind long ago.
Then, the third thing that I think triggered the trilogy was when a friend of mine, Dave Austen, asked me why I wasn’t writing about blood when some of our most celebrated dub poets, like Linton Kwesi Johnson, have series of poems about blood. So Dave said to me: “as a dub poet you know there’s a legacy of dealing with blood, how come you don’t have anything about blood?” And I think he was challenging me to also talk about women’s blood, he’s such a wise and smart brother. In that moment I realized, wait a second, I don’t have anything talking about blood! This all led to me writing a poem called blood.claat in 2001 that was about bleeding, but took everything into consideration. It’s about menstruation, it talked about blood and violent bloodshed, it talked about the disrespect of blood, and it talked about women’s blood. It basically follows this woman who is talking about the way that her blood has been treated historically, and out of that poem comes the trilogy. Singing the poem: “living in a time where blood is marketable / like the rest of my body / everything is sellable.”
What is the tradition of Dub Poetry all about?
Dub Poetry comes out of Jamaica in the late 70’s and it comes out of a particular socioeconomic reality of working class youth in Jamaica. In a nutshell, it’s a people’s poetry performance grounded in rhythm and political content. The four elements of dub that I was taught by my mother are:
Politics, meaning “of the people”, meaning that the context talks about what’s going on with the people.
Performance, which means that the storytelling is very physicalized and that gesticulation, articulation, and the use of the body as an instrument is crucial.
Language. I would say the language that the form came out in was a nation language of Jamaica. Language was crucial coming out of the colonial system…I mean, I don’ think we ever fully came out of the colonial system but in 1962 Jamaica got its “quote-unquote” independence. A part of the working-class movement was looking at ways in which people were unable to have the language that they spoke on the ground legitimized, because it was not some idea of a standard English. The people’s language was mixed-up English, mixed with some indigenous Arawak, Carob, and Taíno languages, and a little bit of French, Spanish, Portuguese, the languages of the colonizers. And West African languages of course, because enslaved African peoples had their own languages, and what the colonizers did was mix people together so that they wouldn’t be able to speak together, and wouldn’t be able to rebel.
And then the fourth element that my mother taught me about was Music; the use music as a medium for the message.
How have you used the tradition of Dub Poetry in your work?
When i was born in 1977, for the first few years of my life I had the opportunity to absorb this new art form through my mother, who was very young. She had me at 15 when she was going to the Jamaica School of Drama, where there were the early Dub Poets. Oku Onuora who is credited with coining the phrase Dub Poetry, Mikey Smith (who was stoned to death in 1983), Malachi Smith, and Poets in Unity – a group of poets of which my mother was one of the members. I had the privilege to be at my mother’s skirt-tails and while I was very young to absorb Dub. A few years ago I began to experiment with a methodology that would be a combination of the four elements my mother taught me and four other elements that I have observed in my own life as an artist. The four elements that I added were Self-knowledge, Urgency, Sacredness and Integrity, and then I expanded the earlier elements, and made them my own. Performance I made Orality, to look at the entire structure and breadth and depth of the oral storytelling tradition. Music I called Rhythm, so we could look at cycles of life, the way the heartbeat influences everything. Language stayed the same. And politics I expanded to Political content and context to make it more specific. So now those 8 principles, which I call the Sorplusi methodology that are now at the basis of the work that I do, but they absolutely come out of Dub Poetry.
You’ve spoken a lot about the essential role of mentorship in your life. What advice would you give to artists seeking the gift of mentorship?
Over the years, being mentored by artists in Jamaica and in Canada, I began to understand deeper the importance of mentorship. Mentorship is crucial for us to develop and grow as human beings. The beautiful thing is that at any given time in our lives we have the potential to mentor, because we have an understanding (or an inner-standing) of things that we’ve experienced. To share those experiences with someone else, from a considered place, is mentorship. When we look at our life experiences form a considered place, when we look at what we learned and what was most challenging about the situation, in that moment we have the opportunity to mentor someone. So if at any given time we can mentor, at any given time we can also BE mentored. Which means that our mentors don’t have to be in university or have letters after their names. We can be mentored by anybody in the community. How do we find mentorship? Look around at the people amongst us who inspire us. You can be inspired by your children, your best friend, by a colleague, by somebody on the street. Once you identify who you find inspiring, and WHY you find them inspiring, then you just go to them and you ask them questions! That’s mentorship. That’s what mentorship is for me. That’s why I can say I’ve been mentored by everybody. We don’t have to look so far and wide. We must look to the people around us who have something to share. Look to your community, because they must have something to share about what they’ve experienced in their lives. That’s what I do, I am constantly asking the people around me questions, and when they talk I listen. I actually LISTEN. That’s mentorship.
How are you feeling with this run of The Sankofa Trilogy coming to a close?
I’m feeling so emotional. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow I feel like I’ve been raised on one path. I feel like I am on the same path I was when I was 5 years old looking at my mother on stage. And that path is the path of a storyteller. I feel like I have always been a storyteller, and that I will always be a storyteller, and that is my life’s calling. So to be 33 and to sit with that is really emotional because there’s nothing to aspire to…there’s no house to buy, no car to buy, no “what now?”, or “if only I could..”. I must just aspire to continuing to learn, and continuing to grow, and continuing to ask questions. It means that I am what I am. It means that I am, period. I am. Which is what I’ve been taught is the whole point of this thing called life. To be able to BE. It means that I could die in the next moment and it would be quite ok because I’ve done what I’ve come here to do. I’ve achieved the goal of redefining success for myself. My success is being able to have the privilege of speaking with my community about life, art, and love 24 hours, 7 days a week, every moment. That’s all that I do. Raising my children is a part of that, hanging out with my friends is a part of that, that’s all that I do, so that’s the whole thing. That’s what this run has brought me. Revolution constantly in the making, constantly in the now.
We’re on a global tour so I’ll be travelling for the next 12 months to India, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa.
I’ve got a new album with a lot of the poems from Word!Sound!Powah! launching in Toronto on December 5 at Lula Lounge, in Montreal on December 6, and in Ottawa on December 9.
I’m teaching a Sorplusi methodology workshop on December 7 and 8 at Nightwood Theatre for anyone who wants to have a taste of what it’s like to use the 8 principles in their creative process. http://www.nightwoodtheatre.net/index.php/artists/masterclasses
The Sankofa Trilogy is being published by Playwrights Canada Press, and we’re producing DVDs of the plays so anybody who didn’t get to see it can watch it. It’s not the same thing, but it’s just another way to send it out into the world, and give it longevity. We’re also looking at the possibility of expanding Word!Sound!Powah! into a Dub Opera, and casting out all of the roles.
The next thing I want to write about is non-renewable resources, like diamonds and gold, but I also want to talk about coltan, the stuff that’s in cellphones and computers. It’s going to implicate all of us, it’s going it implicate every single person, all of us. That’s the next play I’m writing.
These are all things to do in the same direction, as opposed to goals to get to; it’s a part of the process. Some of them happen, some of them don’t happen. They’re not things that have to be achieved….it’s more that hopefully, Insha’Allah, we have more time to do more work for the people. Instead of approaching it like “these are the things I would like to do”.