In this CentralSauce featured interview, Brandon Hill spoke to Dirtsa ahead of her debut EP, ALETHEIA’S CALLING. Stream the album below and dive into the philosophical project and conversation.
The hermeneutic circle is a philosophical paradox in two parts. When seeking the purpose of art and literature, a true understanding of the whole cannot be reached without understanding the pieces individually. But the significance of the components cannot be understood without knowing how they fit into the whole. Think of the painter: a landscape on canvas is represented as much by the colors and paints that comprise it, as it is a new creation imbued with duty and purpose by the creator. When approaching the weighty complexity of Franco-Cameroonian emcee, vocalist, and philosopher Dirtsa’s debut EP, ALETHEIA’S CALLING, where do we stand? Do we immerse ourselves in the rich components of the bicultural heritage and introspective motivation that piece the project together? Or do we step back and approach the music as it’s presented to the world as a whole?
Across six tracks of string-laden beats, Dirtsa’s skilled pivots between drill-inspired flows and gentle melodic vocals form the stages of a self-actualizing journey. Following a first-place performance at France’s 2021 Pernard Live Music contest, the EP’s softer songs characterize Dirtsa beyond the fiercely pro-Black poet painted by previous singles like “Underdog” and “Sic Parvis Magna.” The project reflects the philosopher’s prerogative to slow down, embrace love, and mark her progress in a world that piles on the pressure to do everything but.
As far as the hermeneutic circle paradox is concerned, both routes — exploring the art through its components, or exploring the art through its relationship to the world — can only scrape the surface. So instead of asking how we can understand it, ask how the creator understands her creation.
“The writer has two callings,” Dirtsa tells me over a Sept. video call. “The duty of announcing freedom and the duty of telling their truth.” She’s quoting the twentieth-century philosopher Albert Camus, but like any profound thinker, she addresses the old idea through a newer, more personal context. The title precedes the EP with insight into not just the significance of truth but a specific kind of truth. Nestled between 808’s and high hats, Dirtsa’s art is often rich with literary allusions and philosophical references, so it’s no surprise that the thread which ties her debut together makes for a rich and enlightening conversation.
“[Aletheia] is a concept of finding your own way,” she says. The word comes from the Greek name for the Roman goddess of truth, Veritas. An Aesop’s Fable tells how Aletheia (truth) was sculpted from clay by the god Prometheus, before being copied by his apprentice, Dolus (trickery). Even though the copy was nearly perfect, Dolus ran out of time to finish the feet, so when Prometheus fired the two sculptures in his kiln and called to Aletheia to determine which was authentic, the truth prevailed by following the call out from the fire. “For the Greeks, the term they opposed to Aletheia is called Doxa. In English, it’s ‘[public] opinion.’ I worked around the idea of leaving the Doxa behind,” Dirtsa explains. “I wasn’t necessarily predestined to go into music.”
When asked how ALETHEIA’S CALLING opposes Doxa, Dirtsa references The Allegory of the Cave. Penned by the Greek philosopher Plato nearly 2,500 years ago, the famous allegory tells of a society living so deep within a cave that their whole lived experience consists only of ghastly shadows cast on the cave wall by a fire outside of their sight. If one of them were to look on the fire or be brought to the surface and adjusted to the light of the sun, to those still in the cave, they would seem blinded from the context of their perpetually dark reality. The people would be afraid to leave the familiar darkness of the cavern for a life in the sun. “Seeing the world as it is can be very scary,” Dirtsa tells me. “But poets are beacons of the people.”
In a nineteenth-century essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that Aletheia, or the concept of bringing buried truths to the surface and defining them, is the driving force of art. In its opposition to Doxa, ALETHEIA’S CALLING attempts to plunge back into the cave and drag the listener past the fire and into daylight.
“Questions” is consistent with the fierceness I’d grown to expect from the emcee’s pen — she blasts the global injustices modern colonial mindsets inflict on people of color with an accusatory edge — but much of the project encourages enlightening sight by searching within for truths about the self. “Can U” and “Give It Right Back” open the heart with a croon that explores the duality of love. “Whole Lotta” and “Gradually” zoom out on how Dirtsa deals with stress and looks to the future. The anchoring track of the EP, “Leon,” starts by building on the character traits she’s developed on behalf of role models like her father, but ends by detailing the recent passing of a matriarchal figure in her grandmother and the recovery of her sister from a brain aneurysm. Around every corner, the philosopher details her climb up from the cavern so that we might not think her newfound vision to be blindness as she comes back for us.
Even the EP’s cover art is crafted with the layers of allegory you come to expect from Dirtsa’s work. In the bottom right, she embodies the Greek Aletheia but wields a traditional weapon from the West Central African tribes of her heritage. She both challenges the Doxa of a white-washed Greek mythology and demonstrates that Aletheia is a role that can be taken up by any of us. The monster she faces off against is positioned at the head of a trail that leads back to a distant labyrinth, watched over by the three Moiria. In the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, a golden ball of thread akin to the one used by the Moiria, or Fates, allows Theseus to find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the minotaur. But Dirtsa’s minotaur lies at the end of a different thread of fate.
“When you don’t give love to a beast, well it stays a beast,” she tells me. “The beast, from its French etymology is monstraré — ‘something that you show.’ The monster that you show, if you don’t feed it with love and if you don’t feed yourself with that self-love too, will you be able to evolve? In a lot of ways, when we don’t know how to comprehend things, we tend to choose violence.” A tattoo of Theseus’ thread that winds down her arm may be a reminder that there’s always another way out.
As the pieces of the project come together, they build a whole that’s simultaneously representative of its parts and yet more than their sum. The front side of the cover art is stylized in the oil paintings of the Renaissance, inspired by Dirtsa’s immigration to France, while the back cover is texturized by paint on rock, a nod to the strength in creating beauty from anything around her that she learned as a child in Cameroon.
ALETHEIA’S CALLING exists as a musical and philosophical bridge between times and cultures. It’s a gear turner, a conversation starter, a personal journey of immense proportions, and a spark drifting on the wind ready to ignite inspiration in its own context. I spoke with Dirtsa about the truths she uncovered in its making and the philosophy that drives her work — presented below and lightly edited for content and clarity.
Brandon: What evident truth is uncovered by your work of art?
Dirtsa: For me, it was about acknowledging my feelings, acknowledging my emotions. Around the time I started working on this project, I was really going through a lot personally and I think at some point I tried to cover that actually, rather than uncover it. It’s really this project that helped me with the process of it, and at a larger scale, it then became the process of making music and creating and working on the concept. I came to the idea that I was going to tell my truth.
It was about first acknowledging what I was feeling, then trying to see for myself where I wanted to go because I don’t think I was necessarily following the path that was, well, truthful to me. Philosophy really helped me to accept and even comprehend more things that I was surrounded by, and working on this concept of uncovering and showing, not only finding your way and seizing it but also going against the odds and the Doxa.
Dichotomy or duality is a big part of the project. Previously I was more familiar with the fierce side that you put out on your singles, but you come in on ALETHEIA’S CALLING singing right away. What was the decision to go with a lot of softer songs on this project?
I like the fact that I get to be so versatile, regarding the genres. It was also very important to showcase that diversity, that’s how you bring texture to a project and that can definitely help you tell a story. I tried to put a little bit of everything on this project. It was important to not have it be linear. You don’t expect for the track coming next to be [harder]. You’re kind of taken aback and it’s roller coasters on roller coasters of emotions.
And right off the bat, “Can U” is talking about the duality of love. When you’re asking these questions on “Can U,” does the positivity of love have to exist alongside some of the negative feelings you associate with it?
In order to know and differentiate the good from the bad, and in order to know the good, we also have to know its opposite in a way. A lot of the time things go too fast and we don’t necessarily take the time to reflect on them. It’s about learning experiences. If it’s always the same experiences that you get to live, will you really know what it is, will you really taste it even at some point? I’m not sure, you know? It goes back to what you were saying about opening yourself to different ways, and that’s what I actually tried to do on this project. Different ways of flowing, different ways of writing, different subjects, vulnerability. When you open yourself to those learning experiences, you get to appreciate the present.
I love the placement of “Questions” because it shows you can be that same fierce advocate while also showing the romantic side that you express elsewhere. You don’t have to choose one side of yourself to display. You can be both things.
I definitely think one can be both things. I always had this sensitivity. Since I wanted to come in the most authentic way I could, and hiding that side of me is not even something I thought about honestly. There’s beauty in the vulnerability too, and in the things that sometimes overwhelm us. I think we should all be a bit more alert of the things we are feeling.
In some way does that sort of feel like Aletheia? In the sense that, it’s always been true even if you haven’t felt it, but by expressing it in art, you uncover that truth for yourself?
Exactly, through art and through the work of writing, singing, shaping this project… This was how I uncovered those truly.
What is the source of the stress that you express on “Whole Lotta”?
“Whole Lotta” is a song I’ve written at a time when I needed to replace things in my life. Sometimes developing yourself, growing, processing things that you’re confronted [with], can be such a difficult process. There were some things I was going through and living that weren’t really making sense, but it’s also in the acceptance of the things that hit you and [put you on] to the way of understanding.
It was around a time I was acknowledging and recognizing that for myself, because, yes, it was a very traumatizing experience what we’d been through, my family. My sister had a brain aneurysm rupture and then we went through the grief of [losing] our grandmother together. A lot of things were hitting us and hitting me personally. Two years ago I already wasn’t the same person. I was a much more fragile version of myself. It was hard putting that internal complex into words and shaping it around a sound is something that helped me a lot. Even though, at that time, I went around such heavy things I’m still really proud of it simply because it also shaped me into becoming the person I am today and enabled me to start the work I’m now finishing.
Partway through the song, the visualization changes from focusing on the stress to focusing on visualizing your success in the future. What encourages the change of heart?
When I was working on that song, I wanted to make it clear that at some point you need to take a step back and just (takes a deep breath) and that’s where this pause [in the song] comes from. Then the atmosphere and point of view changes and you get into that spirit of self where you back up. As I was writing, I was listening to the beat, I was just like, ‘okay, I’m gonna just breathe and you are all going to breathe with me.’
And “Leon” takes it even further to a deeper emotional place. What’s the story behind that?
It is one of my songs that focuses the most heavily around the brain aneurysm rupture incident and the passing of my grandmother. With that song, this whole EP becomes almost a library to enter into uncovering your truth. I wanted to make the song an allegory for my family because I feel like what we’ve been through together has to be documented. It helped me so much, but secondly, I feel like it was… When I think about it, I have such graphic images in my mind that I think I just tried to translate as best as I could to song.
What I wanted to do with calling this song “Leon” is to impersonate into that father figure [from the movie “The Professional”] my [own] family figures and role models. You will always listen to it being narrated through a story. At first, we start with Léon and I talk about my father and the things he’s teaching me, and then we get onto that chorus where it’s pretty much dedicated to that father figure and the parental figures I have around me in my mom and my dad. I’m a little bit disclosing what it was growing up seeing my dad balancing work with family time you know? Then we get to that second part of the song where it’s about my sisters and the women around me in general, and how hard it was for us to witness this incident [with my sister’s aneurysm], and this is where the graphic images come into my mind. I still remember when I was called from university classes and had to go to the hospital and see her in that state. This is what I’m portraying on that second part of the song — the story of the things I’ve seen and what we’ve been through.
How is your sister doing?
She’s not recovered [fully], but she’s pretty well actually. Still has some post-op, but there are some things that came back regarding her mobility and stuff like that. She came out of it really strong, like even stronger to me actually. She has a very positive way of seeing all of this, and it’s just a great example to have around me because then there wasn’t just this accident. When you get out of such an experience in your life, it’s about starting again, saying goodbye to the person you once were and getting to know the person you are now. It’s still really hard, but she keeps a very positive mind to it all and it’s showing me the importance of never giving up.
And that’s really the essence of “Leon” — the things that you learn from family members and the character traits that you’ve gained from people close to you. What else have they helped teach you?
Patience, for example. They are bringing me to the vision of being able to be kind and loving with yourself. I tend to be very demanding of myself. My father tells me to fight every time and fight for the things I believe in, and I believe in myself actually. But despite that, one thing that’s very hard to manage is that little voice in your head. I am someone who fights, but this song is not like ‘kill yourself to the task.’ It’s about listening to yourself. At times you have to know that giving [in] is the best thing for you because you will actually be able to be redirected. It’s making sure you give yourself the chance to go to the final goal.
As “Leon” is about the things you’ve learned from the people around you, then “Gradually” is sort of the things that you’ve had to learn for yourself right? What kind of truth have you uncovered that no one else could have shown you?
Simple things like listening to what I wanted to do for myself. Taking the decision to fully give myself and commit myself to making music has been one of the hardest decisions I may have taken, honestly. It was just shifting so many paradigms into my mind. This is something that no one could have given me. Sometimes when I get lost, I go to my family members for advice, especially my sister since we live together. At the time, [she] couldn’t make that decision for me. I had to really take the time and almost speak to myself, get in tune with myself and really make that decision for me.
There are things we have to see for ourselves. “Gradually” is about telling you that no matter what you’re going through, take a step back. This can be so hard to do. When I’m writing the songs, I feel like most of the time I may also be talking to myself and comforting myself, but I do hope that at some point more of us could be able to exchange and debate on it. But when I do this work at first, it’s about first off uncovering the things I’m feeling.
And that calls back directly to Aletheia as a philosophical concept, being how art works to uncover truths that are there. How has creating art helped you uncover some of these things that were there the whole time?
It’s about allowing myself to feel things and be the most honest with myself and try to make sense of what is there. Using art is a way to make some clarity around the things that I don’t understand. Art is a way of feeling free. You don’t have any strict box when making art, you can be totally free to express the things you want however you want to. My process of creation is about alleviating something that has been on my mind too long. Or like philosophical concepts or problems that we happen to see in society. I like satires too, you know.
But, I’m not trying to come up as the judge of anything. I feel like my work and what I do and what I take pleasure in doing — sharing my music — but I’m not the judge of what you are going to think. I’m not here to put a gun on your temple and tell you to think like this or like that. My work is to bring this message forward and to be as authentic as I can. It’s a meet me halfway kind of thing. It’s about working on concepts and presenting them or working on things that I’ve been conflicted about and presenting them for us to have a debate.
When I get into that zone, it’s such a freeing feeling. When it’s just these [thoughts] in my head, it’s just mushy and not very pretty, but when it gets into words you actually have that opportunity to make it have a certain tune to it. It always helps me deal with how I’m feeling. No matter how long I wait to pick up my pen or my phone to write — because I give my soul the time to process too — I know that when I come back, I get to be free again and make sense of those things I might have been ignoring.
The writer has two callings — the duty of announcing freedom and the duty of telling their truth.” – Dirtsa for CentralSauce