When Deborah 'Debris' Stevenson first heard Dizzee Rascal's Boy in da Corner she immediately connected with it; growing up in Ilford, Essex during the birth of grime, she instinctively felt the record gave her access to "a more profound sense of self". Discovering poetry shortly after, Debris has since travelled the world performing, dancing, teaching and talking to people everywhere from the hallowed halls of Oxford University to the house of Louis Vuitton.
As part of Southbank's WoW Festival, Debris is presenting Gyal in da Corner, her interpretation of Dizzee's debut that takes on the themes of Diz's pivotal debut, but from a female perspective. Stevenson will be aided and abetted by i-D favourites Daughters Of Reykjavik, A.G. the DJ, TrueMendous, Bridie Squires, Emily Franklin and Bamz. The DJs, producers and poets will transform the Clore Ballroom into one big rave, with the aim of uniting those familiar - and unfamiliar - with both Dizzee's debut and the culture of grime itself. "Hopefully there will be an intermingling of academics and grime heads. People from all over the place having a slightly different experiences but in the same space."
We meet Debris, the creator and curator of the show, to discover the relationship between poetry and MCing and why International Women's Day and WoW are still so needed.
Where are you from and what is it like?
I'm from llford in Essex and it's a very interesting place. I work all over the world and being from there has set me up to fully immerse myself in any country, culture or environment I go into. It means I can speak many languages while only speaking English. It meant I learnt to build my own education from things like grime, as opposed to having one handed to me on a plate. All of which I'm incredibly grateful for. After I went to study and live in Nottingham for a few years, I've chosen to come back here to Essex. Home is where I felt I needed to be, in terms of the level of talent that is here, I wanted to be around that.
Do you mean Ilford specifically or east London generally?
I think east in general, although I've never done any work in Ilford, weirdly. I've been a full-time poet for seven years, and I've not worked that much in east London really. That really niggles me, because I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for people I went to school with, the grime artists around me that I grew up listening to, many of whom are still there. Some people break out, they become successful because of the environment they're from and then leave. I actually don't want to be that person.
How and when did grime start to seep into your consciousness?
Around 2001-2002. Through my older brother's Lord Of The Mic tapes; I memorised all of Dizzee's lyrics to his Asher D clash. Every single one. When Boy In Da Corner came out, to hear those narratives so clearly, after listening to crap copies taped off Deja, was amazing. It was really overwhelming. Not going to a great school myself - the only thing my school scored high in at the time was truancy - I instantly understood grime. All of a sudden, your friend's cousin is Kano - suddenly success is tangible. That was hope to me. This is the narrative of my show for WoW. Boy In Da Corner, on a superficial level was my access to cool, as much as access to a more profound sense of self.
It what sense? How did grime help to define your own sense of self?
It was as much to do with the people around me really, my close friends were lyricists, performers. This is the beautiful thing about art in general, it's like the time when we first heard John Agard performing Half-Caste. The whole of my year group school stood up and recited it with him. I don't even know what the pass rate in English was at my school, but we all knew that poem because it was about us. We were in that position and had never seen someone that looked like one of our friends, or our friends father's, articulate our experiences before, and suddenly he's in our poetry anthologies.
It's hard to articulate that moment where you hear something like that. It hits you in the face. You see it in this renaissance of grime; for our generation it's what breaks the rules. You're given the rules of what success is and that doesn't work for you and then you see that you can be creative, creatively successful, because of John Agard or Skepta.
My question in all of my shows is, what if you do everything in your power to overcome every single adversity, to be really successful and then you realise that's not success. I think, who am I? What is this? I'm walking into these white institutions everyday, and as much as I'm doing good, important work, I've lost so much of who I am.
You're putting on Gyal In Da Corner for WoW, which is to all intents another 'white' institution…
I have an awareness of that, and part of the point of this show is that the same content with slight editing should work in a pirate station, in a bedroom, in a rave, in a lecture hall. That's the beauty of the diversity of the content of grime; if you just read out the lyrics of a grime tune, how far is it from being a poem? My mentor on this project, Charlie Dark, said to me, "grime inspired a whole generation of otherwise disenfranchised people to dedicate their life to words." Where's the recognition for that, academically? I want to bring a reverence to it; that's what WoW is about. I love the Southbank Centre; I've worked with a lot of organisations that our blind to their own inaccessibility. The Southbank really aren't. They're aware they can be intimidating and they work really hard to give access to everyone. I've thought about that in terms of the programming; it's all focusing on the female aspect of grime, and crossing genres like Daughters Of Reykjavik; a 16 piece all-female rap group from Iceland. We have TrueMendous from Birmingham, A.G, and Bamz from London. Asher X from Leicester. Bridie from Nottingham.
If you're a grime head you can come and skank out and hear the resonance of the original album. If not, you'll get an introduction to the sound, the literary techniques, the meter. Hopefully there will be an intermingling of academics and grime heads. People from all over in one space having a slightly different experiences but in the same place. I want it to feel really interactive and I really want to push the female aspect.
It's assumed that grime isn't particularly female friendly, and while there aren't many women in front of the mic, there's a lot of loud voices behind the scenes. It's also rarely guilty of the misogyny it's accused of too.
Jezebel, by Dizzee, I mean. I bought the album on my phone, a long time after it came out, and I remember crying at that song. I know people like that. I know people like that; it was such a big problem when I grew up - twanging - getting talked into certain situations. You'd be tarnished as a sket and never get a boyfriend.
Jezebel isn't placing the blame in the woman's hands; it's watching these atrocities happen. It's social commentary. There are poems in the album, love songs really, between the man and the girl. I think Boy In Da Corner gave a lot of insights into male vulnerability. It never feels like it's attacking or advocating ill treatment. It's observing. Outside of that, there are loads of songs dedicated to women; Stormzy, Skepta, Kano. Wiley, D Double E have all spoken about their mothers, girlfriends, daughters...
Why do you think IWD and WoW are so important?
We definitely need it. The reason we have IWD is because women's issues are men's issues too. The more integrated the discussion, the better. I'm in Trinidad at the moment and many girls here are scared to walk down the road. Five years ago I might have said being a woman hadn't caused me problems but now I'm so much more aware of how being a woman has obstructed my life. Young women need more complex, comprehensive leaders to look up to. I think WoW is doing a fantastic job of constructing those leaders.
Debris Stevenson performs Gyal in da Corner, on Saturday 11 March as part of Southbank Centre's WOW - Women of the World festival, supported by Bloomberg. (Clore Ballroom at Royal Festival Hall, 10pm, Free.)
Text Hattie Collins
Image via Southbank Centre