d'bi.young anitafrika. Photo: Che Kothari (used with permission)

When I get d’bi.young anitafrika on her cellphone, she is breathless.

“I just finished this fantastic meeting!” she laughs. Anitafrika is on a roll — the kind that’s been 20 years in the making. She moved to London, England from Toronto last September to finish her master’s degree at the venerable art college Goldsmiths. Her dissertation is a new play, Concrete Jungle.

“I’m touring so much now, I’m on the road every weekend,” she enthuses. “I’m 41, my children are teenagers and it’s like 20 years of my work is coming to fruition right now.”

No kidding. Born in Jamaica and landing in Toronto at 15, she’s forged her own frontier and back in a time when words such as “transgender” and “decolonization” were barely spoken of.

She has been invited to Berlin — her first time in the German capital — to conduct a two-day workshop with young people. It’s a kind of method class that sprung from her dub performance roots. The workshop is part of a constellation of sessions and events, from June 13-16, produced by the Each One Teach One (EOTO) organization. EOTO’s clarion call is to empower people of African descent. Afrolution 2019 is a literature festival celebrating African and African diasporic arts and activism.

“This is the best invite to go to Berlin!” she tells me. “To be with radical Black people who are invested in the mind, body and spiritual soul of people, it’s all I could hope for.”

Laying the groundwork while in Toronto, anitafrika has been garnering awards and great reviews for her work in poetry and performance, publishing nine plays, four collections of poetry, a comic book and seven dub poetry albums. She’s also the front woman for the Afro-Dub-Fusion band d’bi and the 333.

Here, she sets out her philosophy of life, art and interaction:

What is the Anitafrika Method?

I’m attempting to give a particular language to an embodied practice. It’s an approach to self-recovery and self-actualization that leads to creative development and the cultivation of leadership that’s grounded in dub poetry. It’s prioritizing the holistic health of the practitioner as a way to generate art.

So, there’s a framework of looking at the world. What I mean is that one can use different lenses to look outward — as a feminist, or through an anti-oppression lens, or a queer lens or a Black African lens or a spiritual lens. I get the practitioner to define each of these by understanding these questions: Who am I? How am I? and What is my purpose?

For instance, for who am I? You would go about answering the question by say, using the lenses of classism and racism and in this way, defining yourself becomes more complex.

During the sessions, I take people through nine principles: self-knowledge, politics, morality, language, rhythms, urgency, sacredness, integrity and experience. Each of these has a set of questions. It’s deeply internal processes of looking at ourselves.

How does dub poetry figure into this?

I use my mother’s name for my last name and for the method: Anita (Stewart). She was writing dub theory at the Jamaica School of Drama in the early 1980s. She wrote about it as a movement that went from poetry to theatre, as a tool of activism. I didn’t know about this paper she wrote when I was growing up. When I was at university for a couple of years, I decided I needed to be on the ground, in the community — that’s when I discovered the paper. Back at the time, I was disillusioned about professional theatre and my own development and decided to go on my own sojourn and there, I found her paper. It took me away from mainstream Western theatre. I began experimenting with the dub method. My mother detailed four main principles of dub and I kept adding to it and over 12 years I developed this into my own method. 

I consider my mother my mentor along with other women like Djanet Sears, Lillian Allen and Ahdri Zhina Mandiela — their work has contributed so much to where I am now. They really laid the groundwork.

You have taught the method in a variety of countries, is there a difference?

People are people are people, no matter where I go. We are social animals trying to make our best way given the circumstances we find ourselves in. It’s been so humbling for me to experience this. Those circumstances are culturally conditioned, of course. This influences our behavior. But from what I’ve seen, when you talk with people instead of at them, they respond with human compassion.

There are certain things that cut through everything. My story—as a Jamaican, Black, queer mother—is the same wherever I go, but what people respond to is to our humanity.

How does this all play out in your teaching sessions?

During these workshops, I am learning how to be with people instead of speaking at them. If you go into a space and assume your own narratives about the people there, you will get a very different outcome. We mistake talking at with having a conversation. As a storyteller, I have the responsibility to the village that has gathered there.

I’ve become less reactionary than I was before. Having these intimacies with audiences over the years and around the world, they have — unbeknownst to them — taught me how to share stories with them. You have to listen while you’re on stage or presenting to an audience. Sometimes, when I’m on stage performing my poetry, I’ll shift and divert according to what I’m getting from the audience.

Much of what I do is about the dynamics of power. This is the issue on our planet isn’t it? How power is distributed. So, it’s the same in every relationship from how you and your partner treat each other to a company abusing sweatshop workers. These  are microcosms in themselves — the interactions we all have.

I use anti-oppression principles, so when I ask, I listen. It’s a space where you feel welcome and that you know you will not be abused or traumatized. And if you do feel that, you know there’s a system within the workshop to deal with it. We all want to feel that we are validated and we have something to contribute. We want to be part of something larger.

The best thing a participant once said to me was, “In your workshop, I felt seen.”

d’bi.young anitafrika has just released her latest book: Dubbin Poetry: the collected poems of d’bi.young anitafrika.  

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Photo: Che Kothari (used with permission)

JUNE CHUA B and W picture

June Chua

June Chua is a Canadian journalist and an award-winning filmmaker who has worked as a writer, reporter and producer with the CBC in radio, television and online. Her documentary, using 2D animation,...