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After just half an hour of speaking on the phone, it feels as if I have heard DORCAS SEB’s whole life story. At just 24, the multidisciplinary artist has made a name for herself through poetry and theatre productions and releasing a debut album for good measure. A self-confessed workaholic with a story to tell, the story we bear witness to today is a story of how one young Black female creative announced herself onto Liverpool’s creative scene to address societal issues through a kaleidoscope of artistic output.
“I guess I just sometimes react to what’s going on in the world,” she announces casually, before admitting it runs deeper. “I think that these are political conversations that I have in general; I think it’s in me already. By the time I go to write, it’s already there bubbling within me waiting to get pushed out.”
Such politically charged soliloquies eventually escaped and reformed into a debut album, Vice Versa, released in 2018, which explores streams of political consciousness. Her original plan was to release a few feel-good songs, but as soon as she began writing, she knew she needed to expand the concept into an album which speaks to the bellwether moments that hallmarked 2020. “I couldn’t help but highlight some of the division going on; political tension, what that means and what it means to be a Black woman in the world.”
Over lockdown, the Congo-born artist released Deep Calleth Unto Deep, an eight-track investigation into racial injustice through a package of gospel, song, poetry and thought – the title taking its name from Psalm 42. Here was Dorcas responding to the external living environment: the global Black Lives Matter protests were at their apogee while she was working on the spoken word album, to which she found it difficult to react. “I didn’t want to be in a space which was going to tempt me to be really angry. I felt angry and I feel like I have the right to be angry, but I just didn’t want that anger to go to the place of hatred.” Poetry and protest are so often entangled, but she decided to turn to the former to help her come to terms with the emotions inside her.
But if Dorcas’ poetry and songwriting has enabled her to react to the here and now, acting has allowed her to explore and amplify the voices of those she is yet to encounter in the physical realm. One of her most recent acting projects includes the BBC commission, Buttercup. Co-produced with local theatre company 20 Stories High, the solo performance weaves spoken word, poems and memories to share the story of a young woman finally making her story heard after being subjected to sexual abuse as a child in Kinshasa. Although Dorcas was enthusiastic about the project, in the beginning she held reservations about taking it on. But after meeting with the theatre company and seeing the extent of their research, she just couldn’t say no to giving the story a platform. The initial idea came from the project’s associate producer Odile Mukete, without whom, Dorcas is keen to point out, Buttercup and the issues it raises would never have reached the audiences it continues to connect with.
But, if so much of Dorcas’ output has been shaped by her individual experiences, an equally large part of her consciousness has been influenced by an upbringing surrounded by five other siblings active in the creative world. “I remember my siblings always going to these sort of projects and me being like, ‘What the hell, why am I staying at home?’” she laughs, before sharing a juxtaposing memory of sitting at home with her sister braiding her hair while writing poetry. “It was about the First World War and how sad it was for this one guy to come home to nothing. See? Even at 10 I was political!”
At that time, Dorcas’ brother and sisters were attending the Liverpool Young Writers Project, run by literary festival Writing on the Wall, and invited her along. Despite being too young to attend, she was nevertheless welcomed with open arms. But it wasn’t just the opportunity to share her creative vocation with others that made her time so memorable. “I think, mainly, the reason I actually wanted to be there was because one, I got to write and socialise and meet new people but two, they always gave us biscuits!”
As the writing cohort grew up together, they developed a collective passion for music, with Dorcas opting to explore rap and spoken word as well as singing. “I kind of got worried about the music industry and how that was going to affect me because nobody I saw on TV looked like me. The people on TV were quite sensual and I didn’t want that pressure on myself.” Although finding impressive success in music – supporting Akala, Lady Leshurr, Sway and Lowkey – the constraints the industry brought forced a return to dancing, something she had always wanted to pursue before she started writing
After taking a short break from music, dance and writing altogether, Dorcas joined the youth theatre aged 15, a decision that gave her licence to probe a range of creative exploits. “What I liked about 20 Stories High was that they allowed me to be musical without it being like a musical. They allowed me to just sing, rap, or do poetry, which is everything that I do already. So, I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool’.” At 17, she dabbled in acting for the first time in her sister’s show and was fully committed to it after feeling empowered sharing other people’s stories.
The result is an artist confident in her arsenal of creative communication which both shapes, and is shaped by, her external environment. “It’s just like I can’t run away. I feel like I can’t get away from any of them, they just always follow me. If I’m not doing one thing, I’m doing the other, and if I’m not doing that then I’m doing the other.”
Like so many creatives managing several projects at once, lockdown came as a blow to Dorcas. But it also brought something of a revelation about her working habits. “I was a self-proclaimed workaholic, but I didn’t realise that until lockdown came.” In the end, she realised she needed to take advantage of spare time. “I was trying to understand who I am when I’m not working because the lines are so blurred within the creative industries because you love your job. There were times when I hadn’t visited my mum in ages because I was working, but I didn’t see it as a problem. I was like, I will see my mum at Christmas or at church on Sunday. I learned the beauty of saying no in lockdown, so I grew in that way.”
During lockdown, Dorcas balanced her time between working a customer service role and writing Buttercup. “Sometimes I had my work stuff in front of me and then my laptop so every time I didn’t get a call, I would quickly write on it. I sometimes think, ‘How did I actually do that?’ It was stressful.” But by understanding how to say no to projects, Dorcas was able to reflect on how much she was just saying yes for the sake of it. “When I get approached with a project, what I tend to do now is ask myself, ‘Is it too much for me right now? Does it fit my values? How important is it to me and is somebody else pushing this message already? Is there something we can try to be actively speaking about so that one subject doesn’t get saturated?’”
One thing Dorcas feels passionate actively speaking about is the value and opportunities community projects bring to young and disadvantaged children. “I feel like I have a responsibility because I grew up in spaces where I was mentored in writing from 10 years of age, and I had the opportunity to perform and make music. Those opportunities have helped me have the voice I have and be the creative person I am today.”
Alongside her album, Vice Versa, Dorcas launched the #MicWorthy community project, which helped young people from Liverpool come together to discuss problems within society and to create and perform pieces from the discussions. “When I look at the opportunities that are in Liverpool, there aren’t as many compared to other cities. [But] I’m starting to see the growth in the number of opportunities for young people to develop their skills. Especially at the time when I made [#MicWorthy], I worked really hard so that they could develop the skills to perform and have their work documented because I had that growing up. I feel like we should step in since what happened with the funding for youth services and act where the government can’t be bothered.”
As our conversation nears to an end, I can’t help but feel inspired by Dorcas’ passion for her work and the sheer amount of creativity she holds. Her joyous personality is rubbing off on me as we joke about the future and her plans to help develop artists and discover more stories based in Africa. “I’m intrigued about things like age because I change my mind all the time, but I definitely do see myself doing that, not in the near future but in the future. We can do a reunion when I’m 40!” she laughs. Let’s see if she has the time to fit it all in.
Buttercup is available to view on BBC iPlayer.