Toronto
4 min

Dub in the blood

The deeply personal and political work of d'bi young

Credit: Jan Becker

A poster is tacked on the wall of d’bi young’s west-end studio apartment. It reads: “Demand Womben’s Rites.” It’s appropriate d├ęcor in this sparsely decorated space, a summation of the owner’s personality and politics. Her laptop is on the floor, a guitar is propped up in a corner. The sun shines through the skylight and young sits on her mattress, chatting about her life and work.



Young is a dub poet, playwright and actor. Her upcoming concert is a launch for her demo, dubbin revolushun bk 1: blood, and will close out the three-day concert series Latin Canadian Caribbean Cuban Arts Collaboration at Lula Lounge. She hopes to raise the funds needed to finish work on the album (for one thing, it needs to be mixed) and bring her band, Paso Firme, a Cuban reggae group, to Canada this fall for an official album launch.



It is this work that both neatly encapsulates who young is as an artist and allows her the most freedom to express herself. “I always identify myself first and foremost as a dub poet because it’s the space where I am the most multiplicitous and that is okay,” she says. “It is a place that allows me to be all of these things; a writer, a storyteller, a musician. When I talk about dub I can bring in everything else that’s going on in my life and not feel like I’m omitting because the interview is not about that.”



Dub poetry is not someone reading a poem over a beat. It is a way of storytelling that is primarily political and originated in Jamaica in the late 1970s. “It is a poetic, musical, cultural movement that has as its foundation a political, socio-economic cultural analysis of the people who it’s talking about,” she says. In telling her stories, young uses a variety of vocal techniques: chanting, rapping, singing, “everything you can use vocally/theatrically to tell the story.”



She grew up surrounded by dub poetry. Her mother, Anita Stewart, was one of the first female dub poets in Jamaica. She was an original member of the group Poets In Unity and appeared on Woman Talk, the first Jamaican album of female dub poets that came out nearly 20 years ago. (Young says her mother is her main influence, but she also admires the work of dub poets Mikey Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson, as well as Tracy Chapman.) She immigrated to Canada when she was 15 and has spent time in Europe, the US and Cuba. Her first album, When The Love Is Not Enough, was released in 2000. She followed it with Xperimentin Dub With Dub Trinity and Xperimentin Dub In Havana Cuba. All have been independently produced because, as she puts it, “I get to control my shit!” She’s also written two plays (Yagayah, co-written with Naila Belvett, and Selfine Loathing) and acts (she plays Crystal on the television series Lord Have Mercy and recently appeared at Theatre Passe Muraille in Da Kink In My Hair).



She’s been working on this album since last December. It’s a collaboration with producer Pablo Herrera, Paso Firme and Anonimo Consejo, a hip-hop group, all of whom are based in Havana. Nehanda Abiodun, a black activist who is wanted by the FBI on charges of armed robbery, murder, racketeering and federal conspiracy, and Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted of murdering a police officer but who broke out of jail in 1979, make guest appearances. “It’s definitely the most vocal and the most spiritually open I’ve been,” says young. “I’m so vulnerable on it. I think there’s a degree of vulnerability that you have to give in order to say the things that I’m saying.



“I am talking about feminism from a really accessible place, as accessible as a piece like ‘blood,’ which talks about women bleeding,” she says. “Liberation, women’s liberation, is the number one priority for me because I think it is the thing that will lead to everybody’s liberation.”



She also looks at issues such as classism and racism, most often from a first-person perspective.



“It’s these macrocosmic themes [seen through] a microcosmic lens,” she says. “I’m scrutinizing myself and my reality. I’m talking about self-empowerment, self-esteem, not being silenced, giving yourself a voice.”



As strong as her voice is, the words don’t come on demand, which affects the way she approaches her writing. “I’m not a prolific writer. I work in cycles,” she says. (She finished one piece, “Genda Benda,” in the studio.) “I write when I need to write, when my spirit says it’s time to write. I also work really well if I have to write for a specific thing. I’m triggered by incidences, and those incidences are a combination of my life and what I see.”



Of course, because of the nature of her work, she has not only a means of personal expression and political reflection for herself as an artist, but also a way to speak to her audience, to offer something to them.



“I want to communicate strength in the face of fear,” she says. “Because we can’t get rid of the fear overnight, we’re going to have to deal with it, the fear around our sexuality, the fear around walking away, the fear around standing up for people when you know there’s a situation of injustice that’s happening, basically the fear around you not being accepted because of your choices.”



Like all creative types, young feels that she’s made the choice that she has with dubbin revolushun bk 1: blood because of where she is at this point in her life, and she wouldn’t mind staying for awhile.



“It represents a very precious time in my life,” she says of the album, “where I feel like a lot of things are converging and that convergence is beautiful.”



D’BI YOUNG.

$10. 6:30pm doors. Fri, Aug 1.

Lula Lounge.

1585 Dundas St W.

(416) 583-7405.