Culture

'Sorry, We’ve Already Got a Black Act': The Insidious Racism of UK Comedy

For years, talent agents and promoters have discriminated against comedians of colour. Now top acts such as Dane Baptiste and Ava Vidal are speaking out.
HF
illustrated by Helen Frost
10 September 2020, 8:15am
Black comedian performing at a standup night

“We can’t put on a Black act two weeks in a row.”

“It's just a little too urban for middle England.”

“The jokes were only your typical Black stuff, really.”

Stand-up act Nabil Abdulrashid has heard it all during his ten years on the circuit. Talent agents, promoters and club owners across the industry haven’t minced any words in telling Abdulrashid – Britain’s Got Talent 2020 semi-finalist and the youngest Black comedian to perform at the Hammersmith Apollo – he isn’t good enough.

“And every Black comic I know has had the same experience to some degree or another,” Abdulrashid says. “Outside of comedy, these agents would not have the balls to be as brazenly racist. But nobody is looking over these guy's shoulders to make sure that they're not being racist. Nobody is doing anything!”

While a renewed Black Lives Matter movement spurred equality pledges across the entertainment industry, the comedy business has seemingly choked. True, column inches have been filled pondering the acceptability of Blackface in noughties sketch shows, but existing systemic failings in UK comedy are still overlooked. And, as Abdulrashid fears, this means old prejudices will enjoy an encore as live venues reopen post-coronavirus.

For starters, there’s the widespread attitude that every Black comedian will perform the same material. It’s a bigotry that, as writer and stand-up Ava Vidal has observed, sees promoters avoid booking such acts altogether.

“It’s not common for comedy nights to have two Black comics booked,” she says. “I mean, once I was told by a promoter, 'oh, we've got [comedian] Joe K on next so be careful that you don't go on and say the same stuff!' He's Ghanaian and proper Christian. We have absolutely nothing in common except being Black. It’s that kind of stuff that happens everywhere in the industry.”

Abdulrashid agrees: “If you're a Black guy and you talk about your experience, racists all over the industry will say, 'oh, we've heard it all before'. But you fucking haven't! We're all different. In the US, Dave Chappelle talks about being Black and so does Chris Rock. Are they the same? Imagine if there was a white middle-class comedian and it was said ‘all he talks about it being middle-class’. It doesn’t happen. So why is it okay to say 'oh, he only ever talks about being Black?’”

It’s a bigoted one-liner Abdulrashid says he’s received from plenty of promoters: “One time I was told by Mike Fox [the promoter behind Bromley’s FAT Jesters comedy nights] that he liked me, but I made the ‘UKIP-y’ people in his audience feel uncomfortable.

“He asked me to do less of the ‘Muslim stuff’ and said I reminded him of ‘Muslim activists’. I asked, ‘What do you want me to stop doing? Saying I'm a Muslim? Or being a Muslim? Or having a Muslim name?’ He replied: ‘I advise comics like this all the time. Like, a guy the other week did a rape joke...' He was actually comparing my identity to rape.” When contacted by VICE for comment, Fox says he only offered advice on the order of Abdulrashid’s set.

While clubs may be uncomfortable with acts discussing race on stage, they may be more at ease with confusing two completely different dark-skinned comics. Dane Baptiste, the writer and star of BBC Three comedy Sunny D, was once barred from a venue after being mistaken for another Black comic. “When I proved [who I was] they were like ‘yeah, but you protested your innocence aggressively’,” he says.

Dane Baptiste performing stand-up in Nottingham

Dane Baptiste performing stand-up in Nottingham. Photo: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Comedy clubs aren’t the only places Baptiste has been turned away from. After being considered by one agency, he was rejected on the grounds that they “already had a Black act” on their books. “I didn't feel particularly dejected by it,” Baptiste recalls. “I have been used to insecure white people since I was a seven-year-old child. I'm aware that I intimidate them.”

However, as Vidal knows, getting signed doesn’t end the discrimination. After joining one agency, she soon learned that, for a Black act, earning “mainstream appeal” essentially means keeping your head down: Don’t say anything too serious. Accommodate the assumption your audience is racist.

She recalls one member of her former management team saying: “Let's be honest, Miss-whoever-from-Sussex doesn't want to see a Black face on their TV at 6 PM on Saturday evenings.”

However, Vidal was never going to follow this narrative. She made politics a focal point on stage. She wrote about it off-stage. She even became a journalist for the Telegraph. And the more she spoke out, the more opportunities were handed to less-experienced white talent at her agency. After several arguments – in which Vidal says she was accused of “spoiling it for herself” – she was dropped completely from the organisation.

“I was constantly accused of having an attitude problem,” Vidal says. “I was just left thinking ‘If you really wanted me to do mainstream sanitised comedy then why hire me?’”

Ava Vidal speaking at a Refugees Welcome rally

Ava Vidal speaking at a Refugees Welcome rally. Photo: PjrNews / Alamy Stock Photo

Although currently representing herself, she still knows how management can silence even the biggest Black comics. Vidal says she knows a “very successful” UK act that has received warnings from their agent after calling out racism on social media. She says the comedian in question has even asked to post “the stuff that they wanted to say” from her own accounts.

With such discrimination, there’s little wonder Baptiste decided the only way to break into the industry was to help form a new agency, UTC Artist Management, in 2013. It’s a strategy that paid off almost instantaneously: in 2014 he became the first Black act to be nominated for the Best Newcomer award at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. This was soon followed by slots on the likes of BBC’s Live at the Apollo and Mock the Week.

“If I was to subsist on their narrative, I'd believe that every single White Briton outside of the M25 corridor is a xenophobic racist, when nothing could be further from the truth,” he explains.

However, there’s good reason to think Black comics will enjoy the last laugh. Although COVID-19 has devastated the comedy business – up to 78 percent of UK clubs are set to close within the year, according to a Live Comedy Association report – the fallout could see many acts sidestepping the old agencies altogether.

With fewer venues to play, performers may have to adapt their material online, an arena with limited interference from promoters. And it’s there they’re free to build up a global fan base before moving to mainstream media. Many could follow the route paved by social-media-star-turned-Channel-4-powerhouse Mo Gilligan, who is now represented by Baptiste’s UTC Artist Management.

“There’s a power of oppression that the industry has had for a long time. And the democratisation of the internet is definitely changing that narrative,” says Baptiste. “Even though there are people in the UK who appear to be successful, they cannot travel anywhere else. They have no success outside of Britain and Australia because of the amount of relatability to their material. Nobody in America really cares who Michael McIntyre is.

“On a global scale, if you're a cisgender heterosexual white British man, you are in the minority. Whereas me, I'm in the majority. And in the end, it’s my narrative that more people will relate to.”

Dane Baptiste’s Sunny D is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.

@thomasaling