- 'It's been a battle to express my personality': Munya Chawawa, Instagram's finest satirist
RAPPERS in England walk around with chains on their necks – in Zimbabwe if you’re a rapper you walk around with a loaf of bread on your neck because it meant as much. Jokes.
But no jokes.
Any time there’s an incident that highlights the racism in British public life, Munya Chawawa will have skewered it while it’s still trending.
The lightning-fast British-Zimbabwean sketch comedian has recently lampooned PureGym’s 12 Years a Slave-themed workouts, the white outrage at Sainsbury’s Black History Month initiatives and the complaints to ITV over Black Lives Matter protests on Britain’s Got Talent, within hours of them making headlines.
His rapier satire has earned him half a million Instagram followers and a nomination at this week’s Mobo awards, and he landed a major label record deal for his character Unknown P, a posh drill rapper.
Young, Black, bold and political, the 27-year-old’s unwavering confidence and humour are being celebrated at a time when few Black people can speak about racism or critique the government without receiving swathes of abuse.
He created the character of racist newsreader Barty Crease after attending a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest and seeing the media characterise it as violent.
“There’s nothing funny about what happened to George Floyd, but there’s something very maliciously comical about how the press is treating this pain,” he says.
Nevertheless, critics have said he straddles a fine line between confronting white viewers and trivialising racism.
We meet in a Mayfair restaurant pre-lockdown, where Chawawa’s signature caterpillar eyebrows seem to enter before he does. He is quickly becoming a celebrity, but says he’s “trying to be an anti-influencer. I joke about my hairline and my eyebrows because I’m a human being.”
His self-confidence was forged at school in Zimbabwe, where “we were encouraged to be proud of our personalities”, he says. “At school one day the teacher was like, ‘Right, we’re having a self-esteem lesson today’.
“I learned to not have any shame attached to being expressive. Then when I moved back to England, I felt many layers of my personality being sheared off. It was like your status was proportional to how discreet you were.”
Chawawa’s family moved to the UK when he was 11, due to growing political and economic instability in Zimbabwe.
“Rappers in England walk around with chains on their necks – in Zimbabwe if you’re a rapper you walk around with a loaf of bread on your neck because it meant as much,” he jokes.
He landed in the east on England on the cusp of his teens.
“Where can they take me to grow up where I won’t instantly join a drug cartel?” he says, imagining his parents’ thought process. “Norwich. The biggest risk to your health is being run over by a reversing cow.”
As a mixed-race boy in the small village of Framingham Pigot (population 153) Chawawa grappled with new notions of class. His mother, who is white, had started working as a PA for the parish’s landowner, and he took up a role at a silver service catering company.
“When the Queen came to Norwich, these are the people who served her. The lower end of the clientele were millionaires and the top end was royalty.”
He wanted to become a comedian or TV presenter, inspired by his uproarious grandfather; in the meantime, he waited at opulent weddings, polo festivals and even a swingers’ party.
“I didn’t even know what it was. I was like, why is everyone putting their keys in a hat? The next thing I know, I was being pulled into a jacuzzi with these men eating caviar.”
His experience at university in Sheffield was more intimately jarring. “The white people there expected me to be a typical Black guy, but I didn’t know [Black] culture because I hadn’t grown up in a place like that in England. Meanwhile, I didn’t necessarily know how to relate to white people. I still to this day do not know the hook for Sex on Fire.”
He admits it knocked his confidence.
“My life up until this point has been a battle of being comfortable enough to express my personality shamelessly, and I think the only reason I’m on that journey is because of what Zimbabwe has done to me.”
Chawawa now exists in complete antithesis to what Britain expects of its Black citizens – the polite fake-humble meekness that we are expected to perform is stunting, but seems completely unfamiliar to him.
Learning the absurd affectations of the rich inspired the character of Unknown P, the name a riff on famous drill rapper Unknown T. Drill sees mostly young men retelling the harrowing details of gang life, drugs and violence, and like grime in its early days, has seen a crackdown by police with some artists being criminalised simply for performing their songs.
“It was literally as formulaic as them saying, ‘If you listen to one drill song, you will walk outside and kill a person’,” says Chawawa. “I really don’t think that we should be demonising this form of expression.”
One Unknown P freestyle begins with a shout out to “Martin and Tabitha, currently in the pen for tax evasion”, before bars about Roger Federer, olives and fox hunting.
“If you watch the character, and you feel like this is so cringeworthy and it makes your skin crawl, that’s what I want you to feel,” he says. “Because that’s how I felt. I wanted people to feel the emotions I felt when I was around these people who were alienating me with their wealth and their status.”
He has just released his debut single, titled Piers Morgan in mock tribute to a man he calls “this holy grail of middle class-ness, the ultimate mark of success to Unknown P”. But does being a comedy rapper risk ignoring the serious issues essayed in drill? He furrows those eyebrows and creates a diamond with his index fingers and thumb.
“My measuring stick was to see how drill artists respond to it – I see them enjoying and commenting on the videos. Unknown T likes the character and he said to me it’s allowed some people to discover his music. If what I was doing really was offensive and trivialising real issues, I think there would be less of an embrace from the music community.”
The TV industry hasn’t felt so communal, with Chawawa having spells at production companies “where I have been the only Black person, and I’m starting to think that we have to be the change we want to see”: he’s hoping to start his own.
“Maybe we stop having to force our way into an organisation that’s made up its mind, and just make one that’s more aligned with our world, with a team that understand our type of humour – people who understand what I will be saying when I’m making jokes about jollof rice.
“I don’t make comedy for any degree of fame,” he adds, and yet he does want to be known. “I learned a word today, ‘indelible’: a permanent mark that can’t be erased. I want to be indelible.” – Guardian ■