Birmingham’s Steve Camden a.k.a. Polar Bear has made a name for himself as one of the top spoken word poets in this artic zone. His style is one that is yet to be challenged, an approachable, straight forward yet insanely thought provoking, break down of real life, real people, and real caves.
He’s offered fresh thoughts at an ocean of venues including Glastonbury, Shambala, Warwick Words, Radio 4's Bespoken Word, Onetaste and is now touring his piece ‘If I Cover My Nose You Can’t See Me’ around Derby, Birmingham, Southhampton and London. As well as performing with the infamous Scroobius Pip. Nino managed to don some furs and quiz the Bear man himself about hip hop, words, Iorek Byronsen and Gordon Blair.
Nino: Greetings and respect! Could you tell us a bit about you roots and how you got in to spoken word and hip hop?
Polarbear: My roots are in Birmingham. Smethwick to be exact. I grew up in a house full of music and laughing and the occasional fight. I fell in love with hip-hop when I heard Midnight Marauders aged 11 and have been in a relationship ever since. Spoken word was an accident that has kind of changed my life. I had been writing since I was a boy. Mostly short stories. I started rhyming when I was about 18 on the quiet then started taking it seriously in terms of my craft when I reached about 21. I was asked to do a set at a venue in Birmingham and went down rhyming accapella and a guy saw me and asked me to come do a gig for him and when I asked where he said Glastonbury. That was 2005 and it’s been pretty nuts ever since.
Nino: Why the name Polar Bear?
Polarbear: It’s just one word please. Polarbear. When I was a boy I was interested in two things; football and wildlife programs. I got well into Polar Bears for a lot of reasons to do with their character and strength. When I started rhyming I needed a name and everybody was running with aggressive stuff like Murda MC or weed related ones and that wasn’t really me, so I went with my ideal physical form and it stuck.
Nino: Is there any difference from MCing and spoken word other than the inclusion of music? If so, what?
Polarbear: Bravado. The best MC’s have some element of bravado in their rhymes because that’s part of the foundation of the art. Of course there are more interesting and skilful ways to do it than a lot of MCs use and that’s what separates the good and the bad I guess. The content of a great rhyme is important, but for me the form of that rhyme is as important as what is being said. The skill of a sick flow combined with words that sum something up concisely and cleverly is the aim of the best MCs.
With spoken word I think that the content becomes more important than the form. You can be as elaborate or as simple as you like but at the end of the day it’s just someone talking so you better be saying something. People come to listen and it’s more important to connect than it is to impress in my opinion.
Both are important and brilliant when done well and absolutely painful when done badly.
Nino: Who are some of your greatest spoken word influences?
Polarbear: To be honest my influences come in the form of writers, producers or MC’s. I wouldn’t say that I have an influence in spoken word because I never knew it existed until I fell into it. There are people that I like but when it comes to my spoken word work I just look at what I want to say and don’t really watch anyone else. The MC’s I respect all influence my delivery, patterns and flow. The list changes all the time with certain constants.
Nino: Are there any lines by other poets you could quote that have really had an effect on you?
Polarbear: “Like riding BMXs between freight trains in the rain”.
That’s just one of six million brillant uses of imagery from a friend of mine called Inua Ellams. One of the best spoken word artists in the country. John Berkavitch has got too many to quote too. I like people who let me find new stuff each time I listen to them.
Nino: Do you see yourself as philosophical or do you just say what comes?
Polarbear: Without wanting to sound wanky I think that philosophy is just there all the time. The decisions we make everyday and just the way we choose to live. So by writing about real life and about people I’m hoping that a story feels real first and carries weight the more you listen as you find things in it that make you think about yourself.
Nino: If you pre-write a piece, do you ever find you change it slightly when your live, and find yourself altering the idea behind it completely with a few different lines?
Polarbear: Unless I’m making something up on the spot I’m pretty tight on keeping things how I made them. I don’t really share stuff until I’m happy with it and I get pretty nerdy about patterns and syllables and wasting words so the changes come more in delivery rather than the actual words.
Nino: Where did you start performing spoke word?
Polarbear: My first ever gig was at a venue in Birmingham called The Glee Club. Then I got asked to do the Poetry Café then the third one was Glastonbury 2005.
Nino: Where are your favourite places to perform now?
Polarbear: I like places I’ve never been before. I don’t really go back to places when I’ve performed there. With the exception of OneTaste, which was a night I was involved in in Balham at a venue called The Bedford and I have played many times, I haven’t really played the same venue twice. I like going to places where people aren’t expecting it much more than established poetry venues.
Nino: Do you think more spoken word poets should get out and cipher on street corners?
Polarbear: I can’t lie I do it so rarely now I can’t really say shit to anyone else. Earning a living kind of got in the way of a lot of the fun of hip-hop for me and so it’s gold dust when I go home and just bounce ideas and make stuff up with old crew.
I guess it depends what you’re trying to do. If you are on some MC type flex in the poetry world it’s a bit dodgy really isn’t it? I mean the best RAP is poetry so that’s fine, but the persona of an MC belongs in a setting where they can be tested and to be honest spoken word nights are pretty safe places for an MC who maybe isn’t particularly strong. So no. No is my answer. If you want to keep your rhymes relevant and developing then you need to be rhyming all the time, whether in ciphers or with your boys or on stage. If you want to get into spoken word you don’t need to be a cypher veteran.
Nino: Could you give us a few lines that describe what Polar Bear is all about?
Polarbear: I’m about making sense. I’m about stories and I’m about connecting with people so that they think about themselves rather than trying to impress. I’m not too fussed about opinions either.
Nino: Have you ever thought of publishing any written work?
Polarbear: I’ve been asked a few times and may still do it. I always resisted because I thought the interesting thing about spoken word is that it exists live and immediately and then it’s gone. That’s exciting to me. You put stuff down on a page and that dies. But lately more people have been making me question that opinion so we’ll see. I’ve been writing stories forever so I’d love to get some of my written work published and I’m working on that right now.
Nino: What can we expect from you in the future?
Polarbear: More stories. Some hip-hop. Some spoken word and my own brand of biro.
Nino: Is your poem ‘Jessica’ autobiographical?
Polarbear: Yes. To a certain extent.
Nino: Are many of your poems autobiographical?
Polarbear: All of them. To a certain extent.
Nino: Do you think people regard spoken word poets as more intellectually aware than rappers?
Polarbear: No. I know I don’t. If you call yourself a poet then part of you is saying that you believe you have more skill with words than someone who isn’t a poet. If you call yourself a rapper then part of you is saying that you’ve got something to say. I call myself a writer.
Nino: Does the British hip hop scene need to embrace spoken word more?
Polarbear: Not at all. A scene doesn’t have to embrace anything. If things need to be embraced they come up and they make you embrace them without even realising. I think that the line between the two can be blurry and people worry too much about giving something a name.
Nino: If your poetry was a sport what sport would it be and why?
Polarbear: If my poetry was a sport it would be an epic Desmond Douglass game of table tennis. Simple as hell, yet somehow gripping. Hopefully.
Nino: Have you ever met a Polar Bear?
Polarbear: Only a vexed one in the zoo with no room to move.
Nino: Could you name us an MC who reminds you of a Koala Bear, and tell us why?
Polarbear: Don’t think anyone’s gonna react too kindly to that.
Nino: Is there an MC who reminds you of a Brown Bear?
Polarbear: I’m sure there’s an MC somewhere called Brown Bear who’d be happy if I said him. So him.
Nino: How about a seal?
Polarbear: Well there’s a few carrying excess blubber.
Nino: A penguin?
Polarbear: That’s daft.
Nino: If you were a Polar Bear for the day, what would you do first?
Polarbear: Learn some power moves.
Nino: If Polar Bears could talk, what would you ask them?
Polarbear: What you drinking?
Nino: If you had a pet Polar Bear, (that is assuming you don’t already) what do you think would be an appropriate name?
Polarbear: Iorek Byronsen.
Nino: Do you think spoken word poets should go write extensive poems on walls, like a different form of graff…?
Polarbear: No I don’t. I think they should go stand in front of walls and talk and see who listens.
Nino: Will you do it tonight and take a picture for us?
Polarbear: No chance.
Nino: What would your advice be to other spoken word poets wanting to get their work heard, i.e. myself?!
Polarbear: Go speak it at an open mic or something. Put on a night. Force yourself onto a bill. If you’re good, word will spread.
Nino: Is it about rhythm or rhyme?
Nino: Do you ever just start creating a poem out loud when you are alone?
Polarbear: I’ve got a two year old son. What do you think? Yes.
Nino: A lot of young MCs and poets use words as a form of release as apposed to physical aggression. Do you think more opportunities for young people to do so might help our current violence issues?
Polarbear: People just seem like they think anything goes now. There’s always been bad people and they’ve always done bad stuff. It just seems like bad got badder. I don’t know if words can stop what’s happening but they’d probably help.
Nino: Have the media loaded more guns than they’ve lowered with all the recent frenzy? How big an issue was weapon use when you were growing up?
Polarbear: I grew up in a place where you knew where to go for trouble and it wasn’t far so you didn’t go there. I’ve seen a gun. I’ve held one and I’ve never fired one. The problem seems to be idiots fuelling idiots and when those idiots have got guns or media control it’s hard to avoid a mess.
Nino: Birmingham is recognised is being an ethnically diverse city. Would you say the different cultures are quite segregated or is it consistently diverse?
Polarbear: I don’t know really. I’m the product of a West Indian and Irish mix and growing up it seemed like people all blended together. There are areas that have always been more segregated and some have become moreso. People have got a real problem with immigrants in some areas and their opinions are getting worse.
Nino: When people of all backgrounds come together on a level, what is it that brings them together?
Polarbear: Need. Need to earn a living, a need to get by and a need to interact I guess.
Nino: Have you ever been in a situation where you wished you had just written a fucking poem instead of lashing out? Do you use poetry in your head to calm you down when you get into trying circumstances?
Polarbear: I don’t really use poetry for anything tell you the truth. I don’t think about poetry when I’m going about my business. I’ve lashed out plenty of times and I think every time a poem wouldn’t have been a better thing to do. In terms of calming down I go with my own favourite joke technique or think about how my cousin started training to be a gladiator.
Nino: Does your poetry have to be emotional to have any effect?
Polarbear: I think you have to mean it. Whatever you’re saying. So I guess that counts as emotional. If you’re writing for other people you’re in trouble. Write for yourself and hope people get something from it.
Nino: Do you think of your work as functional?
Polarbear: Sometimes. There are things that just come and keep me awake at night. Ideas for characters, one liners or a nice rhyme. That stuff is just part of me and I guess lets me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I lead a lot of creative writing workshops and my work becomes functional in that context as it’s giving frame of reference and example to the people taking part. So far I haven’t done anything just for the money and though I’m skint sometimes, I’m alright. Of course there aren’t that many six figure offers going for spoken word these days.
Nino: Are you familiar with any poets of different lingual backgrounds? Do you think Brits are slightly piteous when it comes to giving a toss about other languages?
Polarbear: To be honest I’m not that familiar with poets who work in the English language. I never really read poetry and I feel no great desire to now. I will read anything I’m given and if I like it and I get it I’ll keep going. If not I’ll put it down and move on.
I’ve been listening to hip-hop from across Europe for years and it’s not affected my enjoyment when I don’t understand all the words. Of course there is that british mentality that is ingrained into all of us to a certain extent where we assume everyone else will learn English and that’s something that’ll change slowly. Just think how many people around the world must write stuff in different languages and how many of those works are amazing. I might go night school.
Nino: Can words save the world?
Polarbear: Words can change things for definite. So they do have power. Of course like anything else it’s easier for them to mess stuff up than fix cos that’s just how we work but I mean look at it. We’re still quoting people from hundreds of years ago so we shouldn’t forget that the right words have a legacy far greater than our lifespans.
Nino: Have you ever written a poem in a very strange place or situation?
Polarbear: Not really. I’ve had great ideas while I’m caught in the most messed up situations, but I usually write on the train or the bus or in the middle of the night in the dark in my bed.
Nino: How would you feel about making short films to go with your poems? Would the visuals detract from or enhance their meanings?
Polarbear: I’ve played with ideas and made some and have had people make films to go with pieces and even written work specifically for film. I think that if done right and for the right reasons it can be really exciting. And of course if done badly it’s pretty shit.
Nino: When you were a kid, was poetry cool?
Polarbear: When I was a kid poetry was limerics and cussing. So in a weird way yes. Poetry in the sense of, ‘can’t come out tonight lads. I’m reading wordsworth’ no of course it wasn’t. It was more that we had no exposure to any really that we were aware of than having a negative opinion of it.
Nino: Do you think the hip hop community need to focus more on words rather than beats and actions in order to stay positive?
Polarbear: I think that anyone making music and / or writing lyrics need to do it for the right reason. And by that I mean because they feel like they have to. It’s just what makes sense. Positive or negative, good is good and there’s an imbalance of not good over good stuff at the minute. There’s loads of amazing stuff being made we just need to make more.
Nino: Could you give us a few lines in response to immigration?
Polarbear: Man, I’m only here answering these questions because a woman got on a boat fifty years ago to come to this country to earn a living as a nurse and about the same time a man arrived to work in a factory for 30 years and buy a house so I can’t really say anything other than everybody deserves a chance.
Nino: How about the first lines that come into your head in response to human trafficking?
Polarbear: Man. What happened to the jokes questions. Human Trafficking is perfect testament to the fact that we’re just as evil as we’ve ever been.
Nino: Gordon Brown?
Polarbear: You mean that Gordon Blair fella?
Polarbear: Ignorance is embarrassing.
Polarbear: A misunderstood art. The most power of any of us and so often abused.
Nino: The internet?
Polarbear: Me and the interweb have got a love hate relationship whereby when I need her she’s amazing and when I don’t she really gets me down.
Nino: Is there a heavy relation between drugs and the use of weapons?
Polarbear: There’s a heavy relation between the provision of drugs and the use of weapons. But the crucial factor is the presence of an idiot.
Nino: Do you want your words to hurt or heal?
Polarbear: I just want my words to connect.
Nino: Do you think if hip hop practises were all banned in public places, it might actually have a good effect on the rooted hip hop heads, or those going slightly astray; if we all got forced further underground?
Polarbear: If anything is banned it becomes cooler. It becomes more extreme and ultimately becomes more twisted. Man they can’t ban hip-hop, if they couldn’t mass produce absolute shit and call it hip-hop the pop music industry would be dead by now.
Nino: It has always struck me as odd how, for example, five takeaways selling the same produce will open on the same road and all remain existent but hardly successful. In the same way, are there too many MCs about these days? Do too many get their hopes us that somehow they will make it when millions haven’t and is it just a load of hopeless wonder?
Polarbear: I believe that if you are good enough. You will rise above the lame ones. Whether that means someone finding you or it means you reaching a point where you have to speak out. Everyone and their dog rhymes now. Every man and his nan makes beats. It’s all so accessible and easy that people have misconstrued availability with ability. Just cos you can build a tinny beat in Logic doesn’t mean you’re a producer and just because you can spit 16 angry bars about your street and fat girls doesn’t mean you’re an MC. Terms don’t mean what they did. I’m no old school vet, but I know that a craft is a craft and plenty man have got no idea. I guess you can’t blame em though when you look at the examples all shiny on the telly and that.
Nino: Any final Polar Bears motos or shoutouts?
Polarbear: Shouts to Birmingham in general. Defenders of the Future Funk, Urbanian Quarter, Farsides and anyone doing it right.
Why say in 10 lines what you can say in just 2 /
And why say in 2 lines what you can shut up and do.