Friday, 6 March 2009

Kojo Comedian - Black History Month interview


Thanks to Man Like Kojo and lovely lady like Afryea.

When I remembered October is the month we celebrate ‘Black History Month’ my initial thought was to write a profile on some guy who is dead and doesn’t have much significance on today. I then came to my senses and though forget celebrating the past whilst complaining "They don’t make ‘em like they used to," when there are plenty of good role models out there that aren’t rated as role models. I went back to the drawing board, put Bashy’s ’Black Boys’ on repeat for inspiration and came up with a shortlist consisting of people who I thought should be classed as modern day role models. To narrow down what was quite a long list of people whom I could get into contact with I decided to discard everyone involved directly in music, but still kept those who are in the business of entertainment.

Many know the name or have seen the face. You may be able to match the name to the face and recite one of his famous jokes but hardly anyone knows the man and mind behind the jokes and Colgate smiles. The 28 year-old, self-proclaimed "Fresh Prince of Hackney" describes himself as, "An entertainer, a business person, someone that likes to have fun, someone that wants to see change in his community and someone who knows how to hide his pain." From last two descriptions I knew I made the correct choice. There were more than just jokes to him and I would be in for a deeper interview than most would anticipate.

Your favourite comedian’s favourite comedian Kojo gave Marvin Sparks his most personal interview just hours before taking to the stage in front of a sold-out audience at the home of comedy Hackney Empire. But this performance wasn’t just any comedy show, it was Kojo’s last big one before he sets out to fulfil his dreams of conquering the Yanks over the ocean.

The ‘thing’ some may call fate played a role in why Kojo chose to become a comedian. Whilst working with kids on holiday camp in the USA, part of his duties was writing skits for the children to perform on shows even though pre-written ones were provided. Then on a trip to a local supermarket he bought a DVD with Martin Lawrence on the cover, which he mistook as a film, but to his surprise it was a recorded stand-up comedy show. "When I first saw him doing that I was like ‘Wow!’ I didn’t know anything about stand-up or anything but I decided that’s what I wanted to do."

The main reason for his success is good old-fashioned hard-graft and upon his returns to London the work begun. Deciding to pursuit this latest career option a bit further, he enrolled on a workshop, which was similar to drama school called The Comedy School with comedian Rudi Lickwood and director Keith Palmer. During this time he honed his comedic skills, learning invaluable techniques such as, "How to make people laugh without seeing you, pacing across the stage and making everyone that’s paid feel apart of your show," which to this day he credits as, "Little tricks which have helped me."

He counts legendary comedians such as Martin Lawrence, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle as influences but: "My first were Curtis Walker Gina Yashere, Slim, Rudi Lickwood, Toju and Real McKoy. Real McKoy was my first real experience of black people being on telly being funny."

I would feel like I’ve short-changed you all if I were to regulate the rest of the interview by drawing numerous quotes here and there, and simplifying what Kojo said. From here on in you're on your own. Enjoy...

Marvin Sparks: How would you describe your comedy?
Kojo:
I hate the word real, but at the same time I think my comedy is honest. It isn’t genius; it’s everyday living. I live life to the maximum, so through living life to the maximum it allows me to have more to talk about. If you live doing the same things everyday then that will show in your material.

I like to challenge myself; I get bored very easily, so with my kind of comedy I think people can relate to easily. For instance running for the bus and missing it. That’s the kind of comedy I do and is something we can all relate to. I like to keep things simple. It’s like with music, if you have a simple beat and you throw a good MC over it then it’s a classic, but if there are too many beats going all over the place you get confused.

Comedy is basically a real-life situation jazzed up. Out of all the jokes that I have done, the realest joke, and my personal favourite, is a joke where I talk about asking a girl for her number, she gives you the wrong number and you can’t accept that it’s a wrong number so you change the digits. Just little things like that are things that we’ve all thought about doing or have done because you don’t want to accept that you got the wrong number.

I’ve got another (joke) where I talk about having a good dream and waking up but wanting to go back to sleep for that dream. When you deliver something like that the audience are just like, ‘Rahh, I thought that was just me!’

I think the greatest comedians are those who can show humiliation and are able to laugh at yourself. I laugh at myself. It’s all well and good me talking about someone in the audience but if I can’t talk about my own sh*t then that’s what draws your audience away from you. I feel as though my audience is at arm’s length; they’re right there and I can speak to them. Even when you come to my comedy club I’m right there. It isn’t like, ‘Oh wow there’s Kojo!’ I dress like my audience, I look like my audience and I always want them to know that I’m one of the people. I call myself the people’s comedian because I think I look like my audience and that is something that Leo Chester said to me.

Marvin Sparks: You’ve done various jobs presenting, both on kids TV and on stage at music concerts. How did you enjoy presenting?
Kojo:
Presenting is something that came as part and parcel of the entertainment business and saw it as the next step for me. I started watching CBBC and seeing a lot of people doing presenting and thought it was the next step for me and not just being known as a comedian, hence this show is not just a stand-up show. I’ve got interviews with guests, friends of mine. It’s not just Kojo doing a stand-up show. I want to shy away from that. I have nothing to prove in terms of stand-up. I’m just going to chat to celeb friends of mine and really find out who they are.

We don’t have a black Jonathan Ross show. And for me I shouldn’t have to say a black Jonathan Ross show, but we need to find out who our artists really are. When you find out who people really are, you have a connection with them. People spend money when they have a connection with you and that’s what tonight is about. We’ve got Giggs performing, Bashy performing, a guy called Dele, Yolanda Brown on the Saxophone. I’m interviewing the AdULTHOOD guys, Fundmental and Jeanette Kwakye. Just a whole bunch of people that you see on TV and think ‘I know who you are on television but I don’t know who you are.’ When you connect with your audience there’s nothing more powerful than that.

Marvin Sparks: I personally feel you are in a position where you could replicate what Richard Blackwood did and have a show on mainstream television and bring through act to the mainstream. Why haven’t you decided to do this?
Kojo:
My thing is that I’m one person and I find myself in a position where if Kojo doesn’t do it then it won’t get done. And that’s across the board of entertainment. I’ve done so many things for other people that I kind of lost time for myself. One thing that I have been happy with is I have been able to help others and still maintain my level. So for me it‘s like, I have a duty to help some people, but at the same time, being realistic, the more I help others is the less I help myself. It’s a career you’re trying to do and you have to know when to do things.

Marvin Sparks: Do you feel mainstream neglects black comedy?
Kojo:
Not black comedy, they’ve neglected black TV. I’ve always said the only time you see black people on TV is when you turn it off! That’s the only time black people are on television and for me it’s like you have to become valuable to them. If you’re not valuable to them then you have no arguments.

Its like our mum’s told us from a young age you have to work harder than a white person. Now you have to work harder than an Asian person so my thing is, know that and deal with it. Don’t use that as an excuse. Both of my parents were in prison from the age of 5. I was fostered but at the same time I’ve been in situations where I could have done things or I could have killed myself. F*ck that!

The idea is now I have to stop it here because it can’t continue. When people hear that they are usually like, ‘Kojo’s always smiling,’ but you’ve got your own sh*t as well. I don’t like making excuses; I like to give you solutions. I could stand here all day and start complaining but that isn’t helping anyone and it’s not helping me. For me it’s about stop making excuses and find a solution.

Marvin Sparks: Aside from comedy, you are also a businessman. Give us the background on how the Comedy Club started?
Kojo:
I was one of 10 comedians who would always be on the Hackney Empire line-up but that wasn’t a true reflection of what the comedy scene was about. There are so many other comedians who don’t get the chance to be at the Hackney Empire; hence why the Comedy Club started. Now you’ve had Babatundé, you’ve had Fumbi, Eddie, Marlon, and Nathan, do you know what I mean? You’ve had all these young people now that don’t want to do Grime or be an MC, they want to tell jokes, and had it not been for the comedy club they may have swayed into being MC’s and the stereotypical stuff.

Now comedy is the new going out - the new raving. There are comedy shows here and there everywhere from me starting what I did. I’ve done my bit it’s down to people to cross that bridge themselves; I can take you there but you have to cross it and have your own path. Some people business right; some don’t. Some are meant to be businessmen, others the artist.

Coming back to what you said about Richard he was an artist - he wasn’t a businessman. For example, I have a TV and Radio manager but I still do my own thing. The best position you can be in when in this industry is the power to say no. I think when you’re in that position you can allow yourself to do what you want. I had to fight to get a show on MTV Base. ‘Fresh Prince of Hackney’ was sold out, then they were asking when’s the next one. We did ‘Young God’s of Comedy’ and we changed it up and that got the highest ratings!

So now I’ve got a regular comedy show next year. It’s going to be the MTV Base Comedy Jam, a regular comedy show and watch everybody come through that. Then you’ll see people in movies and things like that because we aren’t being seen.

I don’t like to complain; I just like to get things done and I make my noise through my work. I don’t like to sit in a room and complain about ‘Why black people don’t do this,’ I just have to look after what I can and see that it gets done.

Marvin Sparks: You’ve had a lot of celebrity guests come down and support. Who has been there and what were the highlights for you?
Kojo:
We’ve had so many people. The highlights for me keep getting crazy. The first highlight was when Bill Bellamy came down. Then we had Alex Thomas come down - he’s in every damn music video. When Dave Chapelle came down it was pandemonium! It was absolutely crazy. And the same night we had Stan Lathan who works with me now - you know the actress Sanaa Lathan? Her dad. He’s the director of Def Comedy Jam. When Chris Rock came down I saw road man acting like groupies! You know Chris Rock; he’s a hood legend so it doesn’t get much bigger than that for me. I thought that was it. Then we’ve had Damon Wayans come down, and the last couple weeks we’ve had Russell Simmons in the house Russell Simmons coming down is the man who created Def Comedy Jam. He was there because we just finished the Def Comedy Jam tour that I was hosting so he came to see what the UK talent was saying.

I’ve built Corks as a New York style comedy club. All the comedy clubs on that circuit are like the dungeons; you go downstairs, a room packed full of people sitting close together but they have come out to laugh. It’s not about how the venue looks, it’s not about how people dress; it’s about going out, having a good time and going home.

You go anywhere in America everyone knows where my comedy club is. Chris Rock phoned me, Damon Wayans phone me, Russell Simmons phoned me saying: ‘I’ve been told that this is the comedy club I need to go to,’ and that’s because for years I’ve bringing over the underground American acts, so they say anytime you go to London, you have to go to Kojo’s. Comedians fly over to do other shows and say ‘I want to do Kojo’s.’ It has taken me 5 years but I’ve built that brand. When you come to London you go to Kojo’s spot.

Chris Rock came and had a good time and came back to England again, just finished his show in Hammersmith and still wanted to come over to The Comedy Club afterwards but we were finished. It’s been years of grinding and going through bad times but it has been a necessity and has changed our community.

Marvin Sparks: Well it has definitely paid off for you. Plenty of times I and a lot of other people have gone to Corks on a Sunday and the queue stretches around the corner, then got near the entrance for the doors to then be locked because it’s full to capacity.
Kojo: Even this show [A Night With Kojo] everyone said I should have done 2 shows. The Hackney Empire said I could have sold out 3 shows. My thing is, I have never done things necessarily for money. I’m not money-driven, I’m thinking I want to be exclusive. When you hear Kojo you know to get your tickets immediately. I’ve changed the perception of some black people. You know not to go to Cork’s late because you won’t get a seat or get in. You know you have to be on time and that’s something that I am trying to change.

With [A Night With Kojo] 75 people have paid to stand because there aren’t any tickets left. People are saying ‘You should have done a second show,’ I say, ‘Well you should have got your tickets on time. If you got your ticket on time, you wouldn’t be complaining about a second or third show.’

Chris Rock sold out 15 dates in 3 days. 15 dates in 3 days! And you know why? These things don’t come around often. I’m trying to learn from them guys and get the respect that they have and do my sh*t right, because if I do my sh*t right people will respect it.

Marvin Sparks: Another one of your ventures is Kojo Angels. What was the inspiration behind that, and what is your aim?
Kojo:
Kojo’s Angels is an idea I had to help young women get involved in the entertainment industry. My phone has every number that I need to have in this business, nationally and internationally. Half of the contacts I’ve got in my phone I don’t need them, they don’t benefit me but that doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit someone else.

I feel that most of the kids that are doing something bad are doing it because of what they see not because someone said to go and do it. They see a culture and they think that’s what you have to do to go and get it. That’s the reason why I don’t choose to go into schools and sitting down there wasting breath talking to people; I’m trying to get quicker results. I get quicker results by showing and leading by example; how I behave and carry myself when I go out, where I go out, what I eat - you see what I’m saying? These are all things that count. People want changes but aren’t willing to change themselves.

So with this project, it gets a group of girls together who all want to do different things. A lot of people think that they are models but there are some that want to do hairdressing. Entertainment is a big word now. There are hairdressers, make-up artists, stylists, PR and journalism. These are all things that I have connections to so what we do is we get 15 girls together and we do work shops with them. We have people like Kanya King coming, June Sarpong, Angie La Mar.

It’s an 8-month project where we get the girls together and show them success. When you keep seeing success that’s all you know. Angie La Mar once said to me ‘If you hang around with 9 broke people, your going to be the tenth.’ Best believe that! If all your friends have got kids, you’re going to have a kid. And it’s vice-versa if you hang around with 9 rich people you will be the tenth. That’s how it goes because that is all you know. So for me it is important to get these girls in that environment. If you take them out of bad areas and show them something they never thought they’d be able to see. They’re going to MOBOs - and they’ve got a table - they’re going to all these premiere’s.

That is why I think Run’s House is the greatest show that has ever been on MTV Base. It’s not showing family that is dysfunctional like every other reality show, it’s a family that you think to yourself ‘Wow, I want to be in that family!’ When I was growing up, I wanted to be apart of the Cosby family; the generation after me wanted to be in Fresh Prince family because they were successful black people. Don’t show me all this foolishness about guns and killings and all that; that’s reality. I need something to escape from reality so this is what we try to do with the Angels.

They’ve probably got friends that don’t want to do what they want to do and that’s what holds a lot of black people back. I wanted to play football, but you have some people that want to be [selling items] or play Rugby, or they may want to do something else. But sometimes people think majority wants to do this so I may as well go and to do this, then I go and lose my dream. So what we do is take them away from their personal environment and put them around people that inspire each other and then we get amazing results.

Marvin Sparks: Along the way you have won many awards. Which ones have you won?
Kojo:
I’ve won ‘Special Achievement’ at Ghana Acts Awards. It’s a Ghanaian award for people who live here in the UK. The ‘Special Achievement’ award was for being a comedian and doing something different. I won Best Newcomer at the Black Entertainment Comedy Awards in 2002 I think it was. Then I went on to win Best Comedian 2005 and 2006 and they were the last time that the awards happened.

Marvin Sparks: Which one is the most important to you?
Kojo:
Most important for me is; you want to be the best at what you do, period. And the best thing for me was winning [Best Comedian] 2 times in a row. I’ve always said to myself I don’t want to be like everyone else, I have to think outside the box. I had missed out on the Real McCoy and all the other stuff, so I think when my generation of comedians came in we had to do more.

If I was in Richard Blackwood’s era all I would have had to do is be funny then I could go on TV and then I‘d get a deal. That’s how simple it was for Richard; I can’t do that. I have to go and do shows in raves and in front of kids. You can’t stay in the comedy circuit because its this big [makes a small space between thumb and index finger].

Now I headline the mainstream, I go and do the Jongleurs, the Comedy Store, I do everywhere. They are most of the shows that I do now and then I’m at my Comedy Club every Sunday. For me it’s doing the shows that count now, I don’t have anything to prove to the black community nor do I have to prove anything to the mainstream. Now it’s just time to pick the right shows and make the right moves.

Marvin Sparks: Proudest achievement to date?
Kojo:
I’ve done a lot of things and worked with a lot of people but the greatest thing for me in my Comedy Club because to this day it’s still the same reason. All I wanted to do was have somewhere to perform every week. I didn’t want it to be about girls, I didn’t want it to be about raving and partying and all that stuff, I didn’t want it to be about TV necessarily; it was just ‘When I want to see Kojo I want to go there,’ and that’s my signature spot. I think through that you’ve got a whole comedy scene now. A new comedy scene.

People that never saw Real McCoy or A-Force and those kind of shows that used to come on. People don’t know that. This new generation of comedy-goers are now knowing when a jokes too easy or if they’ve head a joke before. They are challenging the comedians a bit more; they’re coming out regularly now.

I remember I took the Comedy Club idea to Choice FM and they said ‘Nah. It’s nothing like what we do, we’re not interested,’ now they have their own comedy club. I book the Comedy Club. People called me saying, ‘Choice have stolen your idea,’ I replied ‘No they haven’t. That’s not my idea.’ I just saw a gap in the market and filled it. Now everyone’s doing it.

I wanted to have a club that I could perform at every week and make people laugh. And ’til this day 5 years later that’s exactly what the Comedy Club does.

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