Beyond The Border festival celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and a fresh face there is Duke Al – part of the Anti-Racism Storytelling Pathways team, commissioned by BTB and People Speak Up to work with communities and showcase diverse storytelling voices in Wales. Hari Berrow spoke to Duke.
A poet, rapper and spoken word artist, Duke Al’s work is grounded in challenging stigma and cultivating compassion. Living with obsessive-compulsive disorder from early in life, and then diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 23, Duke Al seeks to demonstrate the complexities of life through his own writing, and as a Contemporary Cyfarwyddion at 2023’s Beyond The Border, he now seeks to empower others to share their own stories.
“I’ll be working with Beyond The Border for about 12-18 months,” he says. “I’m going to be working with users of the Alcohol Liaison Service in Rhondda Cynon Taf, facilitating workshops to try to encourage them to tell their stories, because they’re incredibly powerful and impactful and extremely emotive.
“My aim is to write a spoken word play with their stories, and hopefully help to break down the stigma around alcoholism. People don’t just drink or become addicted to alcohol because they like it, it’s usually down to their mental health.”
At the beginning of the festival, Duke Al will be sharing information about the Pathways programme and his work. On Saturday, he’ll be performing alongside community members in Voices Of The West – a performance devised by People Speak Up, where service users will be sharing their stories and celebrating their journeys.
Duke Al himself had a complex journey into the creative arts, one worth celebrating in and of itself. “I’ve been writing poetry and raps since I was 11 years old; by 13 it quickly became a form of self-therapy. I didn’t start sharing my work until adulthood because I was afraid of the stigma.
“OCD attacks your morals and your ethics and what you love most. When I was very young, my mum was a single mum bringing up me and my siblings. My first intrusive thought was “my mum’s gonna die in a car crash!” I felt responsibility to prevent her death – which is wild, I know, but that’s the nature of the condition.
“I got to 14 or 15, got introduced to alcohol; this became my second coping mechanism, but this time a negative coping mechanism. Moving into adulthood, OCD got worse and worse, and harder to manage. Poetry and rhyme really helped me for nine or 10 years, but it got to the point where I needed professional intervention.”
Following an incident that left Duke Al hospitalised, he received OCD-specific cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure response therapy (ERT); this left him with the space to pursue a career in sports.
“I did sports coaching at Cardiff Metropolitan University. In my third year, I got the opportunity to do volunteering in Zambia for six weeks. I was a strength and conditioning coach for the under-18s hockey team, and a judo athlete named Simon Zulu, working in their Olympic Youth Development Centre (OYDC). Two weeks after I left, they went onto the Youth Olympics – so I actually helped them get ready for that, which is awesome.
“The reason I’m telling you this,” Duke Al explains, “is because there was a leader out there who was doing a master’s in International Development. I asked him how he decided he wanted to do that – when you do a master’s, that’s usually what you want to do with your life, right? He asked himself what makes him get out of bed in the morning, and what he loves; he loves playing basketball, but what makes him get out of bed was making a positive impact on people’s lives.
“I did the same process with myself. I thought, ‘I love coaching, but what makes me get out of bed in the morning is my writing and making a positive impact with my words.’ A year later, I set up my Instagram and started to share my work.”
Duke Al’s connection with the service users in Rhondda Cynon Taf was initially sparked by facilitating one of Cwm Taf Morgannwg’s hack-a-thons, where creatives facilitate discussions between local organisations and community members about what they need on an individual, community-wide and institutional level, then create creative responses to the work taking place. Supporting community performances and culminating in a self-created spoken-word performance, Duke Al’s time with Beyond The Border will carry forward these principles and offer a new voice to those affected by substance abuse and stigma within the area.
So what is Duke Al hoping audiences will take away from People Speak Up’s performance at the festival? “Just that feeling of togetherness – showing that we need community. We need to be able to talk to each other. We need to support each other in any way possible, and if we’ve got people around us who are willing to listen to us and support us, it’s only gonna be beneficial.”
Longer term, his goals are equally clear. “I hope to be able to tell the stories of the service users and do it with justice – raise awareness of the realities of alcoholism and substance misuse, and also show how powerful and impactful the medium of spoken word is. Hopefully, it all shows how important storytelling is within our society.”
People Speak Up’s Voices Of The West show is at Beyond The Border, Dinefwr, Carmarthenshire on Sat 8 July.
More on People Speak Up here
words HARI BERROW