ALETHEIA’S CALLING exists as a musical and philosophical bridge between times and cultures. The EP by Franco-Cameroonian artist and philosopher Dirtsa is 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: Aletheia is the Greek name for the Roman goddess of truth, and also a philosophical concept about the driving force of art, but who or what is the Aletheia being called on the EP?
Dirtsa: That name can be referenced for the divinity of the goddess of justice and truth and enlightenment and such things. For example, like for the Greeks, the term they opposed to [Aletheia] in English is, I think it’s like, opinion. In Greek, it’s called the Doxa. [Aletheia] is a concept of finding your own way. Telling my own story, telling my own truth, that’s how it all links together. To me, it refers to my personal calling around music and writing, but it can be any calling. I worked around that concept and around the idea of leaving the Doxa behind.
And with this idea of going against the Doxa, there’s a very famous allegory in philosophy for the Greeks — [Plato] describing the cavern allegory. Seeing the world like it is can be very scary, [but] poets are the beacons of the people. Another French writer called Albert Camus said that the writer has two callings — the duty of announcing freedom and the duty of telling their truth.
What does it mean for your work to be in opposition to Doxa, or opinion, then?
Let let me be more precise about it. It’s a concept for the Greeks that means following what society says. To them, [Doxa] was more like public opinion. For example, society says says ‘this.’ So everyone is going to do ‘this.’ That’s what happens in the cavern allegory. They are all looking at the shapes on the wall when it’s someone waving things on the fire to make those shapes appear. Going against the Doxa, in this body of work, calls for going against the odds and what could have been planned for me after graduating from university. I wasn’t necessarily predestined to go into music.
The essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” (by Martin Heidegger) uses Aletheia almost interchangeably with truth, but even more so than truth, it applies to being uncovered or the state of not being hidden. So it’s truth, but it’s truth that’s evident and inherent, and creating art then becomes the act of defining that truth.
Yeah, and showing it. For example, from the Latin etymology in French, it’s like ‘monstraré,’ which gave them ‘monsters.’ I feel like what you uncover can have many faces. Are we always ready to see which face it is? This I don’t know.
What evident truth is uncovered by your work of art?
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.
For example, in Greek mythology, when we see illustrations nowadays — it’s a question that we don’t have to make a lot of fuss about it, but still — why is that when we see illustrations of Greeks, there’s never a Black person in it? On the cover, there’s a part of me impersonating this goddess, but it could be impersonated by everyone. So it was an effort on this project to bring such ideas to the philosophical concept of it, the act of uncovering and finding what resonates to you.
What is the mechanic of how your art defines that truth? What is the actual process of uncovering truth through making art?
Working on this cover, I wanted to tell a story and express what it was to come from the point of looking at yourself through the water, as a mirror. On this portion [of the cover] I have three heads because philosophers like Freud [talk about] the three states of our consciousness (the id, the ego, and the super-ego).
We start with a character that is quite frankly a bit lost. Which face to pull? Should I listen to what my subconscious mind is telling me or should I go in with what seems right now so important, but in the long run won’t mean that much? Then [on the cover] the river flows and we get to a labyrinth where this epic battle with the Minotaur happens. Here it was about bringing all those concepts of truth and standing for the things you defend and tackling down the beast. I twisted it here because I wanted him to express the beast we actually keep in ourselves.
I feel the only reason the Minotaur was kept in that labyrinth was because his father wanted to keep him from being seen because he was described to be too ugly. When you don’t give love to a beast, well, it stays a beast. TLike I said earlier, 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.
To me, what was important to incorporate with that scenery is that you can notice around the labyrinth are three statues. They represent what was called the Moirai. They are Greek divinities that are said to control the thread of life, the same thread of life Ariadne is giving Theseus when he goes to face the Minotaur. To me, it’s the continuity of telling my own story and telling how I tried to defeat what was hindering me at the moment. That red thread, I don’t know if you can see it, but it follows me on my arm.
“The Origin of the Work of Art,” talks about how a function of art is to highlight the natural materials used to create it. In order to understand what the artist is presenting, you need to understand the pieces of the presentation, you need to understand the very substance that it’s made of. So what are the pieces that we need to know about your project, in order to understand the project as a whole?
To start off, I’m bicultural. I was born in Cameroon and then I left Cameroon and came to France when I was six-and-a-half. I started getting interested in oil paintings, like the Renaissance. It’s a style that I find very beautiful, and on this project, it was important to let you know that there could be bridges between cultures. So on the cover, I told my creative director I wanted to go with oil paintings [digitally]. The process of creating was to make bridges. For example, the weapon I’m holding is a particular weapon coming from West Central African tribes where I come from. The teeth on what I’m wearing on the right, are lion’s teeth. The lion is a big emblem for Cameroon.
For the back cover, she digitally painted on rock. Playing with textures like that is also a way of showing the dichotomy between those cultures where I come from. When we were children, we could make a toy out of anything. We used to take bottle caps, pierce them through with a stick and put another stick between them, and then you put a water bottle and another stick and you actually get a car. We are able — in Cameroon — to lift our spirits with such simple things. I feel like the dichotomy between the oil painting and the painting on the rock kind of shows that. Even a simple thing like the arch that I’m wearing is actually a symbol that is very heavy in my family and in my Cameroonian roots. We really tried to build bridges and make it for me to be as comfortable as possible sharing and uncovering truth about myself.
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], it 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 seeing 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 trying 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.
On “Gradually” you talk about understanding your impact on the world and that your healing is a slow and cumulative process. How does this knowledge shape the goals of your art?
To me, the impact we have… doesn’t come just like that. When you plant fruits, ideas you‘ve got to give them the time to grow. That is very important. I wanted to be able to create something that would open to many, many ways and opportunities and new interactions too, for it to be a start to something in a way. With my art, it’s about not only taking the time but also making sure that from song to song there’s actually something happening and there’s actually a kind of a process. It’s about the things we do, the things, you never do just one thing.
Life is a bit about finding for yourself activities that will help you excel. It’s about constantly trying. Even when you get there, don’t stop trying, because it’s how you’re learning. It’s important for me to take time with things I care about because the way I work is meticulous. It’s precious. Time is a luxury to have. With time there is a possibility and an opening for progress.