In October of 2015, 22-year-old actor Kayode Ewumi uploaded a video to YouTube called "Hood Documentary". The short film follows deluded, hopeless – but strangely loveable – aspiring grime MC Roll Safe as he guides the viewer through "the hood", AKA a small area of south London.
Dressed like a young Eddie Murphy in Delirious – leather jacket and a bare chest – and acting somewhere between David Brent, MC Grindah and Chris Eubank, it seemed implausible that anything about Roll Safe could be real. Still, that didn't stop many "Hood Documentary" viewers from believing RS actually existed.
Of course, that was partly why Kayode and his best friend, Tyrell Williams, dreamt up the character.
"It's based on a world that we've seen," says Kayode, who plays RS, when I meet him at London's Young Vic Theatre; he used to work here as an usher until his newfound notoriety made the job a little tricky. "Everyone knows someone like RS, no matter what context [it's in]. He's that guy in the hood convinced that he knows everyone and everything."
Granted, not everyone knows a Roll Safe, but we've all met someone who thinks they're much better connected than they really are. The girl at school who was convinced she was related to royalty. The guy at work who strongly reckons he can get upgraded to first class every time he flies BA.
"Hood Documentary" started on Vine; Kayode's cousins persuaded him to make an account after he'd inundated them with videos on WhatsApp. His seven-second Vines – him mimicking his Nigerian parents, or playing any one of a vast array of characters, RS included – started to gain traction. A friend then showed Kayode a few episodes of BBC shows People Just Do Nothing and The Office, and they decided to make a show of their own.
Three months and millions of YouTube views later, "Hood Documentary" has spawned countless reaction videos and memes. A month after its release, Kayode appeared in character as Roll Safe on BBC Radio 1Xtra's "Fire in the Booth", notching up more than 3 million views and making his appearance the third-most watched YouTube video in 1Xtra history, surpassing well-respected UK rap and grime acts (and Ed Sheeran).
Roll Safe's "Fire in the Booth"
With all the hype and hysteria, it came as a surprise to many when Kayode announced he would be putting the character on hiatus. In a statement posted to Twitter in December, he said: "For now the #HoodDocumentary will take a break as we pursue other genres and explore our creativity."
Surely this was all a bit premature? The life and times of Roll Safe had only just begun, before being snuffed out in a single tweet.
Really, though, we shouldn't be surprised: Kayode retired from stand-up comedy aged 19, after two shows. His approach stems from a Dave Chappelle quote, which he paraphrases as: "Once you get it, get out."
I ask if this is a mantra he's determined to stick to.
"Have you seen Jungle Run, when they go and have to get the golden coins?" asks Kayode in response.
Jungle Run, in case you haven't seen it, was an ITV children's show similar to The Crystal Maze, in which kids had to complete tasks such as collecting coins and bananas hanging above a swamp while standing on lily pads. The children would then run as fast as they could, or risk being trapped in the jungle forever.
"You see – that's the same with me," Kayode continues. "Once you get the coins, get out of there!"
Though he may have retired the character for now, social media isn't quite so ready to let go.
"In a way I admire that RS is carrying on without us," says Kayode. "Before, I was a bit cautious about being known only for RS. But now I say to myself that I know I'm an actor with an ability and a gift from God, so versatility is something I will always embrace."
Needless to say, Kayode is self-assured. During our conversation he says stuff like "everything I touch turns to gold" and compares his relationship with co-creator and director Tyrell as "a Leonardo and Scorsese-type thing".
However, while he's clearly confident in his ability, he's also realistic: he knows he can't just rely on the success of Roll Safe and is keen to prove he's capable of more. He's determined to avoid being known purely as a comedian, or even a comedic actor; he simply wants to be known as an actor, and a serious one at that. From as young as 15 he was performing youth theatre at The Young Vic, before going on to study theatre and practical performance at university, graduating last June.
I steer the conversation back towards Twitter and Vine, digital platforms that Kayode has been noticeably absent from so far this year.
"Mate, they were a massive part of the success," he exclaims, "and I pay a lot of homage to that – but I don't want to be a slave to it."
Kayode isn't the first British actor to find success online. Performers like A Squeezy, Don't Jealous Me and, a favourite of Kayode's, Tommy Xpensive have been making comedy similar to "Hood Documentary" for years, but never gained the same level of exposure.
I ask Kayode why he thinks this is.
"Because I wouldn't pin ["Hood Documentary"] down on that genre of black British comedy – it's more than that; it's not generic," he says. "No matter if you're Asian, white, black, people find it funny."
But not everyone "gets" Roll Safe's humour, I point out.
"It [appeals to a] much younger demographic, you're right, but I think it's much more than the 'urban' demographic," he replies. "Tyrell went to university to study creative writing and journalism. I studied theatre and professional practice, so the way we write is from what we know."
Interested in Kayode's reference to People Just Do Nothing, which started as a YouTube series before being picked up by the BBC, I ask him why he thinks there hasn't been a character like Roll Safe on TV.
"I guess because some networks are afraid to commission work of black origin, because they are afraid they're not going to make their money back – and I find that absurd," he says. "But there are so many people who are not bothered about being on TV. As black creatives we are doing it online, so why go to a network that might try and change it into something different, instead of us keeping it online and keeping it fresh?"
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