Black female comedians have a complex relationship with Britain. We have our fair share of talent here: Ava Vidal, Angie Le Mar, Lolly Adefope, Gina Yashere and London Hughes, to name a handful. But, as with any industry, our comedy scene usually sees black female talent fall by the wayside. For instance, veteran comedian Yashere recently jumped ship to the states where she is now a host on The Daily Show. “If I’d sat in England waiting for someone to give me a TV show, I’d still be there, being the token black face on Mock The Week,” she told The Guardian. Similarly, Hughes has been vocal about the difficulties of being a black female comedian in Britain several times, recently decrying the lack of a “Lenny Henry equivalent” for black women in the UK.
But now, a new generation of black British women are eschewing the traditional routes into comedy. Anisa Farah, a content creator from London, is part of a growing wave of black female “Instacomedians” utilising social-media platforms to disseminate their own viral videos. Focused on the black British experience, Farah’s work parodies media central to the culture and gains global traction doing so. Her reimagining of popular online-debate show BKChat in January this year garnered over 180,000 views on Twitter alone. A spoof of black British “hood films”, such as Kidulthood and Bullet Boy, was also watched over 100,000 times on the platform; not bad, considering she just started this year.
Farah had been sitting on her ideas for years, previously auditioning for various acting roles and even taking a course to secure a place in the media. After being unsuccessful in winning any parts and learning little in her class, she taught herself how to edit online and started creating and putting out her own videos.
“Girls are not really out there,” Farah says. “There’s so much that’s happening now right now in Britain and London – everyone around the world is watching. The fact there’s all these guys doing it, all these big names, I’m just like you know what? I’m just going to have fun with it. The same way these guys can put headphones on their heads [something done by many male comedians when impersonating women] and and take the piss out of us girls, I’m going to do the same with the guys. But it’s all banter.”
Farah is right: black British culture and comedy are certainly having a moment and it’s dominated by men. Thanks to viral comedy pages such as Im Just Bait and The Wall of Comedy, young black comedians are finding fame and success away from the usual channels and crossing over to the mainstream at an unprecedented rate. One of the first to make the transition was Kayode Ewumi, who created the massively popular spoof #HoodDocumentary YouTube series, which was picked up by BBC Three. Within a year he had written his own BBC Three sitcom Enterprice and was awarded BAFTA Breakthrough Brit. Now, he’s starring in new ITV2 spy spoof Action Team.
Like Ewumi, Michael Dapaah gained international fame with his character Big Shaq from his mockumentary web series, #SWIL. After an appearance on BBC Radio 1Xtra's Fire In The Booth, he went viral with his song Man’s Not Hot. It wasn’t long before he shot an accompanying music video, which clocked 35 million views in less than two weeks; the song itself made the Top 20 and went platinum. Tom Moutchi – known as Tommy Xpensive from his Vine videos – is starring in BBC Three sketch show Famalam. Mo Gilligan (also known as Mo The Comedian) uploaded his first video in December 2016 after eight years on the stand-up comedy circuit. Now he has his own Channel 4 show, a sold-out national tour and won Best Comedian at the UK Entertainment Awards in November last year. And, of course, there is the Chicken Connoisseur, real name Elijah Quashie, whose life changed when his tongue-in-cheek chicken-shop reviews went viral. It secured him his own Channel 4 show, too.
Anisa Farah, a content creator from London, is part of a growing wave of black female “Instacomedians” utilising social-media platforms to disseminate their own viral videos
It’s hard to think of any black women making similar content that have reached the same heights. There are some that are fast finding prominence: Very Vee Brown, for example, has over 50,000 on Instagram alone, and has become a fan favourite on Snapchat through her use of filters and voice alteration. She has managed to get guest posts from Stormzy and invites from Rihanna to hang out but, like other black female comedians online, the comedian is yet to make the jump from our phone screens to our TV screens.
Like her male counterparts, Farah hopes her videos will help her secure the mainstream acting roles she struggled to secure before she started making videos.
“It wasn’t working before, but when I was being myself it happened to just explode. So, I want to go somewhere with this. The goal is obviously to buy my mum a mansion, get out the hood,” she laughs.
Initially afraid of trolling, Farah says the support has been overwhelming – she’s even found a fan in television presenter Maya Jama. Rhea Ellen, another rising star on the social-media comedy-circuit, has courted her fair share of controversy along the way: a video entitled Women Are Trash (riffing off the popular social-media put-down) saw her fighting off detractors on Twitter. But she, too, has been inundated with praise and new fans. Despite only starting her channel late last year, Ellen has seen her subscribers skyrocket in recent months and is still balking at her newfound micro-fame.
“People message me and are like ‘thank you for replying’ and I’m like are you joking?” she says. “Are you kidding me? I’m not a celebrity. I’m out here with my nine to five. It’s not that!”
The same shock is expressed by Tye, better known as Face In The News, one of the best known faces in social-media comedy. She found popularity through short, viral skits, has amassed over 40,000 followers across Twitter and Instagram and, despite her ubiquity, still struggles to grasp the huge response to her videos. “I don’t think I'm anything special,” she says, “so it gets overwhelming at times, because I can’t understand why people show me love [for] low budget handheld recorded skits. I just feel blessed.”
Tye started making videos in order to “rant” about everyday things and soon introduced different characters, accents and impressions that saw her become more popular than ever. Similarly, Ellen’s videos were spawned from her ranting social-media posts. She was disillusioned with her retail job and would frequently upload rants about the customers to her Snapchat. It wasn’t long before she was encouraged by her viewers to upload them to YouTube, on her channel aptly named Rhea’s Rants. Unlike most of her peers, however, Rhea didn’t start with ambitions of being an actress or making it within the media, only recently considering taking her act further.
“I think my talent or creativity is not caring,” she tells me. “It’s only recently I’ve found my lane. I just used to look up to everyone like, wow you guys can sing, you can rap, you can draw – and I’m just here chatting rubbish,” she laughs. “My talent has become just talking.”
Although she’s still cautiously optimistic about her channel, Ellen says she one day dreams of hosting a Wendy Williams-style topical show.
The ascension of these women is uncommon; the majority of black women who are able to mirror the meteoric rise of their black male counterparts are usually beauty bloggers. Last month, YouTube beauty guru Patricia Bright was on the cover of Glamour magazine, while another pioneer, Jennie Jenkins, recently collaborated with cosmetics brand Black Up to create two highlighter palettes. From rising stars such as EstareGrams and Lydia Dinga, black beauty bloggers continue to go from strength to strength in Britain, as the accessibility of the internet continues to catapult them to heights they would likely have struggled to reach before.
Perhaps this is why the new wave of black funny women refuse to be boxed and categorised into any particular genre. “Comedians” morph into “personalities”, “hosts” and “influencers”. Grace Ajilore, who has built a steady and committed following over the past two years making videos that range from relationship advice, advice on how to “slay” your wig, and beauty tutorials – but she made her name with side-splitting anecdotes and second-to-none banter.
Ellen, like Farah, is still reluctant to call herself a comedian. Both of them emphasise it was initially more about them laughing at their own jokes than anything else and neither expected much more to come from it. Before Rhea’s Rants was born, she tells me she already co-owned a make-up channel on YouTube with a friend. But she has found the response she has gotten to her ranting videos far more fulfilling.
“I get messages from people saying I’ve made them laugh, I’ve made their day,” she says, in audible shock. “Whereas when I did my make-up channel, it’s kind of just like ‘where did you get that from’ or ‘I loved your eyebrows’. For me to change someone's day I’m just like little old me? I’m just here being an idiot!”