In Conversation With: Jamael Westman.
Hi all! I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas time and the start of the New Year has been kind to you.
At the end of last year I sat down with Jamael Westman, stage and screen actor best known for the role of Alexander Hamilton in the Original West End production of Hamilton, for the second instalment of our In Conversation With series.
We spoke about growing up, the problems with all boys schools, the importance of the arts and how best to support them, disillusionment with current politics, what it means to be black and so much more. It was one of the most interesting and insightful conversations I had in 2020 - and it was a year full of interesting discussions! I hope you guys enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed having it. Would love to hear your thoughts. Anyway, let's get on with it.
Brianna: Hello, you alright?
Jamael: How you doing, how’s it going? I’m very well, how you doing?
Brianna: Yeah, I’m good thank you! Thank you for doing this, taking the time.
Jamael: No of course, happy to. Most def.
Brianna: So, it shouldn’t take too long out of your day. And it won’t be like, super heavy. The only one that’ll be *deep* is I’m going to ask you what being black means to you. But that’s at the end. We’re going to go in easy before that!
Jamael: Yeah man let’s do it! How you been, how’s things, how’s tricks?
Brianna: Things are good you know, can’t complain. As much as things are a bit mad. We’re just pushing on, we’re trying, and that’s all anyone can do innit.
Jamael: That’s it, keeping it moving, hundred percent. That’s the only way we can go. Most def. I was thinking we’re gonna be able to see this year out and next year’ll be different but, it’s looking like there’s going to be covid 2021, or 20 or whatever.
Brianna: It probably will be. I just hope they can get the vulnerable people sorted out. Get them the vaccine so we don’t have to worry about getting them sick.
Jamael: That’s the thing! They’re saying the variant – there’s a new variant that might make the vaccine redundant.
Brianna: Oh for god sake.
Jamael: Which is mad innit! They literally just rolled it out.
Brianna: Just found it!
Jamael: And then they recently discovered a variant that may or may not…yeah. Fuck. Just gotta hope innit.
Brianna: It’s the same virus as the cold right, which mutates so so much. Which isn’t ideal!
Jamael: All the time! Nah, they said the uh, they said the flu will get us eventually. There might be a point where the science can’t keep up with the mutations of influenza. We’ll have to see.
Brianna: We’ll take it one day at a time. That’s all we can do!
Jamael: Most importantly yeah, let’s just take it *sings* one day! Take it slow, don’t stress ourselves out. But yeah man, talk to me, let’s go! Nice one on The Black Project by the way. Power to you, hundred percent.
Brianna: Thank you! It’s grown so quickly, I started it in like July I think, and just over the summer it blew up, it was mad.
Jamael: Yeah man. It is the time. It’s the time for everyone to get on it and awaken themselves to the movement.
Brianna: For sure. For SURE. Okay so, the first question I’ve got.
Jamael: Go for it.
Brianna: Is where did you grow up, and what was that like for you?
Jamael: I grew up in South London for most of my life. Yeah, further south as the years go by, I’m just going more and more into the south. Um, I grew up in Brixton for the first 10 years. Well maybe more like 15 years I’d say. I was in between there and Streatham from the beginning of 2000. And then it became Streatham-Croydon and I just got pushed further out. I think it was gentrification. Now I live in the far reaches of Croydon. South Croydon. So yeah, I grew up in London, always London, always been a London head. What was it like? Ummm, well I guess that is always shaped by what school you go to. The area for sure has a big impact and it did for me, but the biggest impact was the place I was at every day, which was school. So initially, y’know when you think about primary school that was live innit. Those were the days. Those were the best days!
Jamael: Y’know what I mean. There’s no – well, my experience of it anyway – I don’t remember racism or anything like that. I guess you know, people got hurt and we hurt each other’s feelings, but I don’t know how deep it was in that respect. Like the worst thing I remember doing was putting my middle finger up at another kid and getting in bare trouble for it. Y’know what I mean like that was mad, they’d be like “Oh my days!! Miss, Jamael put his middle finger up!” that kinda ting, and you’re like raah okay. Felt bare sick doing it though! So yeah, like that was that, and then secondary school. Secondary school is like a microcosm of society’s problems. Like they just get heightened. I think they get hyped up in school because we don’t - there’s no sense of real consequence, and we’re all just trying to push each other’s buttons. We’re all trying to see how far we can go, there’s elements of power dynamics that we’re challenging. And y’know we’re just trying to impress our friends and have fun frankly, in the ways we did when we were young, but the stakes are a bit higher. And also, real life starts invading in terms of the violence. Violence of life enters the fray. The depravity of life as well in terms of what different people are experiencing, and there’s disparity as well. Kids from wealth and then kids that aren’t, some kids are on the breadline, tings like that. And then race comes into it, sex comes into it, puberty and all them things, and what it is to be a man. I went to an all-boys school.
Brianna: What was that like?
Jamael: It’s a mad ting bro. I just don’t recommend it. At all. It’s the worst thing in the world. It’s just ridiculous. Because you’ve got loads of young men growing up, not really having any sense of what it is to be a man. Or rather what it is to be a human. Because humanity as it were, it has to be found in – you have to experience all of the facets of humanity. And if you’re getting reduced to just a part of it, then that’s stupid. And everything else in terms of women, homosexuality, or just gender in general and identity in a wider scope, is missed out on. I read an article recently, which said unsurprisingly that prescribing gender on people is causing mental health issues. When you think about mental health and male suicides, that comes from patriarchy. That comes from dehumanising male, masculinity mentality. If you find yourself at odds with yourself, or at odds with the world and the tools that you’ve been given are filtered via masculinity and patriarchy – it’s self-destructive. It is destructive in itself. So yeah, all boys, not the one, don’t recommend it. I had to do a lot of unlearning. Fortunately I went to a sixth form which was mixed and just a bit more egalitarian and a bit more open. Still it had its problems, but it wasn’t so harsh as all boys. But at the same time, I guess given what my work is, what my vocation is, what my passion is, being aware of those things, having experienced those things and growing up with those things, I know what I want to address. I know what I want to talk about. I know who I identify with. I identify with a struggle that is universal and I want to shine a light on it. As opposed to not being aware of that shit and growing up kinda ignorant. It’s a double-edged thing innit. You don’t want it to happen at all, but I’m glad I’m aware of it and have a good perspective of it. Some people are still in the trenches when it comes to that kind of thing. So yeah, I’m grateful for it in a sense that I managed to get out and regard it for what it is. So yeah, that’s where I grew up. And then drama school, and drama school gave me perspective as well. The industry I’m in gives me perspective – you mix with so many different people from so many different walks of life and opinions. There’s a sense of openness and a sense of willingness to learn. To learn about each other and our differences and just a little bit more progressive. Not the whole way there, not completely the answer because the arts has a lot to answer for in terms of its ethics, its direction and purpose. But still, I’d rather be here. There’s not really any other place I’d rather be.
Brianna: So, when did you start getting involved in the arts, was that at school or was that outside?
So I didn’t have a drama department at my secondary. Block about a teacher who in his pride and in his glory, put on plays. So mad grateful to him. He put me in a play when I was in year 8, so I was like 12, 13. It was stand by me, the film with Kiefer Sutherland, River Phoenix, awesome film with of course, stand by me the song. So I did that, then did another play the second year and third year, and I just got hooked really. I mean I guess in school we’re all trying to perform; we’re all trying to grab attention. Well, not everyone is, but I certainly was. In classrooms just trying to be funny and all that shit. It’s enjoyable man! It’s enjoyable when you get the classroom laughing! There’s nothing like it, particularly because school is so oppressive. School is like the stomping ground for learning how to create a character, have fun, entertain. Obviously as I got further into it, I did plays that had – I started realising the purpose of plays. What it could do for people other than just entertaining and making people laugh. I became more acutely aware of its power to change people. Not change people forcibly but like, reveal something to them that they hadn’t seen before about people or about themselves. That’s a much more radical side I guess, to theatre. It can be very provocative. I did youth theatre, did it at the Lyric, at Oval House, WAC (Weekend Arts College) up in Belsize Park, South London Theatre. I cut my teeth in all these places. Then I did it in A – Levels and then my teacher was like the next thing is drama school, so I just thought “Oh, that’s what I need to do.” So whilst I was doing all those youth theatres and amateur theatres, which was the best times, I was tryna get into drama school as well. Got into drama school, went to RADA (Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts) had a…interesting time there. Again, another institution with problems. But it’s interesting when you go in there because you obviously put it on a pedestal. People do right. We live in a country people put on a pedestal, y’know it’s Great Britain, Britain’s *so* great. But then when you’re in it for long enough and you become politicised, you’re like actuaaally…there are some problems that are deeply disturbing. And that is all linked to a history of deeply disturbing problems. Which becomes even worse because instead of facing up to the history, instead of saying “okay it wasn’t me, it was people who came before me, I respect that, but now it’s our responsibility to buck that legacy and say alright we’re done” – people don’t. And I feel like if you’re not doing that then you’re almost even worse. Because you’re aware, you’re way less ignorant, and you’re still normalising it. It’s crazy. So yeah, RADA’s no different. Of course I had the best education in terms of acting, I would argue, in terms of 3 years of contact time only rivalled by contact hours you get as a doctor in training. Met some amazing people, but yeah definitely became more aware again of my purpose as an actor and the nature of being a black actor on stage. So yeah, that was me getting into acting. Would have been interesting to see what I would have been like had I not gone to drama school, cos plenty of people do that, and how one discovers themselves through different jobs and opportunities when they can. It’s super hard for sure, RADA definitely gave me a leg up, and a stamp of approval as it were by an establishment goes a long way. But yeah! That was kinda my journey.
Brianna: So do you think like when you were in all those youth clubs and then RADA, do you think they were welcoming spaces for people of colour, or do you think that there’s a lot of work to do still to make theatre and the arts more accessible and welcoming?
Jamael: For people of colour? RADA whilst it brought in POC, wasn’t welcoming. There’s a whole reckoning that’s happening at the moment in terms of RADA coming to terms with how it’s treated people of colour. But then also like, students in general, there was a level of oppression there as with, y’know, education can be oppressive. And it’s usually oppressive unfortunately, in this country. In the sense of how they teach things, how they treat students, the voice they give to students, let alone if the students are people of colour, or women, or disabled or something else. There’s levels to it, and RADA’s no different. The youth theatres however, in my opinion were not that. I had the best time. Maybe I was too young to notice, maybe things were going over my head, I’m not entirely sure but either way, I had the best times in those places. I felt empowered in those places. Maybe, y’know, it’s different because you’re a kid as opposed to when you’re an adult and it’s not gonna be happy go lucky people just handing you great feedback or whatever. But it was just different. I think because it was less about making money, it was less about a brand, less about how it looked in terms of a PR thing. It was just centred on young people man; it was about the play or the thing we were putting on and devising.
*Jamael cuts out*
Jamael: Having to hang up on motherfuckers. But yeah, it was just a different time, but the problem is – these institutions like RADA might beg to differ – I think they’ll be around, they’re not going anywhere. Youth theatres are going, right, particularly after covid. You can say RADA’s 100% been affected by that, drama schools have been affected by that, no disputes there. But they’re getting in enough money from donors and what have you, particularly successful drama schools with super wealthy alumni and people established within the arts who want to fund it. Whereas youth theatres and places that actors or creatives may forget about if you know what I mean like – that was early days, so my allegiance as it were or my responsibility to that place could be argued is not as strong as it might be to RADA who have a whole PR team, who will message me and say what are you doing next, who have a newsletter saying “alumni, alumni, alumni”. You don’t get that stuff from youth theatres. So they’re more at risk. Covid has completely - when it comes to outreach, which is what youth theatres are, the youth theatres are the capillaries if you think about the human body. Like you’ve got the heart, and then RADA is way closer in terms of the blood vessels to the heart of theatre, and the youth theatres are the capillaries, they’re way further out so they’re going to get cut first. They’re going to be the first ones to go. Outreach is definitely the first to go, like these theatres who need money. The youth theatre don’t make no money for nobody. So that’s the hardest thing. The places that are seldom found or the places that are there for people and not for money, are the places that are the first to go. I mean look what they’re doing to the NHS. You don’t need any more example than the NHS. It’s by the people, for the people, a true socialist establishment, getting privatised the fuck out of. First to go. They’re cutting that down, they’re like nah nah nah, we need to make money off this. And that’s the same with theatre, it’s no different really. Because to them it’s money that makes the world go round, so the theatre needs to make money.
Brianna: It is a bit mad when you think about it. When you think about how much money the arts bring in, and like, you wouldn’t be getting people into RADA, without those things that stoke the flame and get the fire going, you’re not going to get people going to RADA or the other institutes.
Jamael: Absolutely. Or you will, but those people will be coming from youth theatres that are attached to very wealthy establishments. And those places aren’t the places where you’re going to find a larger, more mixed demographic of people. That’s the danger. WAC arts is an example of that, it does a lot of free lessons for people, but it’s in danger. It does a lot of cheap classes for young people, but it’s in danger of those classes not being as cheap as they were and the type of people working there not being who they are now, and it becoming more of an elitist establishment. It’s in danger of that, and so therefore the type of kids that go through that system are gonna be whittled down to those who can afford it or are privileged enough to be able to. So that’s always the problem.
Brianna: So in the light of covid and all this money being funnelled into other industries and not so much into the arts, what can people do to support an industry that is so important to the fabric of this country really?
Jamael: Support the arts. Support the arts, support young people. It’s all about community at the end of the day. We’re all from communities and it’s about finding out what is your local theatre, your local youth theatre, do you have one. And once you’ve found it, listening to it. We have to listen to each other, but we have to listen to the institutions whose focus in terms of their outreach is listening to the people. It’s a conversation. So keep that open by following – whether it’s on Instagram or wherever – your local theatre. See what their circumstances are. Some theatres were opening in tier 2, now they’re closed down again in tier 3. It’s about young people, what are the local schools doing, because that’s where it starts. In the sense that that’s where a predominant part of young people’s lives are based. Does that school have a drama department? Is it worth making noise about that place having a drama department? Probably. I mean, yes definitely. So that’s somewhere to start. Because drama and the arts do get cut out of these education systems and out of these curriculums. Put them back in. Whilst most of these subjects don’t encourage critical thought, the arts does. It’s always asking you to think outside the box, to question. Most schools’ curriculums just want you to remember the fucking answer and then write it down in the exam. There’s no critical thought, it’s just copy and paste. As opposed to the arts which is like okay learn these lines but then we have to deduce what these lines are saying, we have to deduce what this story is saying, what these characters are doing, what these human beings are doing, how they’re interacting with each other. Which is so vital to just, day to day?
Brianna: It’s life really isn’t it.
Jamael: Life. 100%. It’s all about the day to day and the human condition. From day 1. From when we’re very young, the way you are conditioned, the way you behave as a human being, the way you are stimulated as a human being. It’s like you say about the arts being an investment and the return on investment, it’s the same with people. If you invest in young people, if you invest in a child, the productivity of those young people, it will give you more for your buck. And the arts are the best place to do that. Because it prepares you for anything, absolutely anything. I guess that’s what they don’t want though. People don’t want that. People don’t want – businesses or establishments – they don’t want people questioning how the establishment works. That’s what the arts is there for. And that’s why arts are kinda reduced to an elitist game. Because then it’s like “these are interesting, great thoughts for challenging, but we don’t take that too seriously.” If everyone was empowered the way young people can be empowered through the arts, there’d be a problem in this country. There is a problem in this country! The arts are pointing out those problems. And people with critical thought are pointing out those problems. And the arts are a means of developing that critical thought. So if you want change, if you want productivity, if you want a better society, look to your local theatres, look to your communities, look to your young people. Youth groups are getting closed down left right and centre. I don’t even know if there’s a youth group nearby anymore. Those places used to be the best places. So the last bastions as it were for young people is theatres and outreach.
Brianna: It really is.
Jamael: So find them, support them if you can, listen to them and what they need, write to your local MP and tell them to support the damn place, put the councils funding towards these theatres and these spaces. Of course, we’re in a lockdown. But it’s just a case of keeping it on the radar, it’s an important place to return to as opposed to the local coffeeshop run by pret or McDonalds or whatever. Social media is a part of that, and coming up with ways to connect with people, film and tv is still a place where things can happen. But there’s loads of youth theatres, there’s one called Company Three, and they were doing a huge thing over the lockdown which was online. It was a time capsule, young people recording their time during the lockdown. Each day or each week it was ones about food, another about family and stuff like that. It’s just keeping people engaged. Keeping people engaged with curiosity, and interest in people. We have to be interested in each other. We have to be curious about each other. If we’re not, then all we’re doing is serving a system which is there to use our invaluable capital for their own gain. We’d just be cogs. And we’re not. We’re human beings, we have a lot to say, a lot to question and to challenge. So stay curious man.
Brianna: I think we’re at a really weird time in human evolution where social media has made us equally isolated, and curious and connected, at the same time. Like there’s a whole generation of kids that if you were to sit down with them face to face, they’d struggle to communicate with you, but put a phone in their hand and they’re incredibly inquisitive and eloquent. And I’m on both sides of the fence as to whether that’s a good thing or not.
Jamael: I know what you mean. Sorry, carry on, I cut you.
Brianna: No it’s fine! They’re learning about so many people across the world, like I’ve got friends around the world that I never would have had without social media, but then – I’m probably the end of the last generation that got to grow up without it and gained it later in life. But when I look at younger kids, even like 16,17,18, they’re super great on technology, not so great in a situation like this, face to face.
Jamael: My problem is this. Social media connects you with people like you say, across the world. Amazing. In that sort of notion of networking and I think of like Eywa in Avatar, and the idea of us being part of this great network. I love that, I think it’s beautiful, we realise how universal our issues are and how universal our desire to change them is as well. So you know you’ve got people in your corner, your tribe can be found across the world. That’s beautiful and should not be sniffed at. I mean that’s incredible, no one knew that before, do y’know what I mean like, frankly the biggest social movement that’s ever happened in history, the Black Lives Matter movement where people were moving all across the world for the sake of the same issue and the need for the same solution. That’s incredible. But the thing that social media fucks up, and I would say deliberately does, that feeling of “there are other people doing it” causes inertia. It causes you to go “oh people are doing this ting, so I’m good.” Like you feel affirmed. Someone says a thing on Instagram and you’re like okay cool. I heard what I need to hear, someone else said it for me, I’m done, I can just sit on my fuckin seat. Which is a danger.
Brianna: Absolutely see that.
Jamael: Not that everyone does that, but plenty do. So there’s a danger there. But also, one thing that gets on my wick about Instagram – and you might be able to correct me because I’m not the most familiar person with it – you can’t connect with people in your area.
Brianna: No you can’t. I don’t think so anyway.
Jamael: Which is dumb. Like that kinda defeats the point of community. Community is about the people who are on your road, in your neighbourhood, y’know what I mean? I just feel like there needs to be an element of – not that you wanna know what door mandem lives in or whatever – but the idea that you wanna go in this area or borough of Croydon, these are the people that are on my wave.
Brianna: There’s literally no obvious way to do that.
Jamael: I think there’s something in that. And maybe that’s down to us because it’s not like you can’t do that, like follow this hashtag or something. But you’ve got like Black Lives Matter America, you’ve got like Black Lives Matter London, but I think they need to create groups, pages, forums – whatever it is, just spaces – that’s inviting, wholesomely inviting. A place where you’re like this is the group for this area. Maybe it is Black Lives Matter, maybe it’s The Black Project. You know like you’ve got them, but then you’ve got like Black Lives Matter or The Black Project Lambeth. Do you know what I mean? So there’s units. You know like in the Hunger Games cos that’s what we’re in right now, you’ve got the different districts. So we all feel like these people are across the road, if we wanted to just gather with people that are in your ends and know your struggle. I mean that’s how politics runs, so we almost need something that mirrors the political system via social media so we can all be connected. You’ve got the party system I guess like labour party Croydon or whatever which works. But then some of us feel a bit…. disinterested or disillusioned or whatever it is by politics. Like I feel like Jeremy Corbyn was the last guy.
Brianna: Man. I miss him.
Jamael: He was the last guy that had people’s back. And y’know that was it. Once mandem was gone, and you saw what they did in the labour scandal and the absolute treason. You’re like okay cool; I can’t trust this system. Maybe it’s about starting a new political party or whatever you wanna call it, but it’s mirroring that system, but powered by social media. Like look at what happened in that election in 2017.
Brianna: Yeah man that was massive.
Jamael: And it was powered by social media, and young people, and there’s so much power in that man. There’s so much power with people with loads of followings. Creating communities, creating ground level, grass roots communities, and social media being an engine for that. Saying look, we’re all in this area, we can all meet up. And it doesn’t have to be a whole thing where we take over Trafalgar square, which obviously has its own significance. But just one where it’s like “oh you’re local let’s hang out”.
Brianna: Just like building a community, which is essentially what I wanted to do when I started The Black Project. I grew up first in Birmingham or like, just outside, then just outside Croydon, and then when I moved down here – I live like, by Hastings now – I had no community. I was pretty much the only kid in the school that wasn’t white. There was one kid in the year above me. So I went from being surrounded by everyone, to being on my own. And I was like, I don’t want any kid to have to have that. Because it’s shit. I want to build that community myself so that – like you say – people can be like “where you at, lets hang out.”
Jamael: Right, like you could just turn up. You could just turn up in a place, wherever it is, Hastings, Brighton, you go on your Instagram and type a ting, and it’s a welcoming invitation to those people who are of the same mindset. You can meet up online or every month we meet up in x place. It’s a type of mobilisation that is the next step from what Instagram offers. We do mobilise in times of crises, but that’s y’know, that’s not enough. When I think about groups of the past, The Black Panther movement, mans was meeting up all the time. And the times haven’t changed. They’re just as pertinent, they’re just as violent, as dangerous as they’ve ever been. So, the mobilisation has to be there. And as you say, communities. So what The Black Project is doing and what you’re doing is incredible, and a means of getting people together. And talking a ting, and being affirmed in a different way. Coming up with a thing to tackle, and it doesn’t have to be huge, something local that you can work together to create change. That’s what it is, and then it builds. But any artist, any activist will say it starts with community, and social media can definitely be harnessed to create that.
Brianna: Absolutely. I think it’s a learning process. I think people are getting there, I think for the first 10 years of social media people were literally just using it to tweet what they were having for lunch and not really engage.
Jamael: Right right.
Brianna: But I think people are getting there.
Jamael: I think people have got a lot to get off their chest. Just as individuals innit. Y’know what I mean like just as a person with our own insecurities, our own flaws, our own quirks,
And joys it’s amazing on a very personal, intimate level, to be affirmed in that way. On your tik tok or your Instagram, you just see someone who feels the same way as you. It’s not a big movement ting or a political ting, it’s just a “my man did a video to this track and they were dancing and having fun and it was beautiful.” And I think there’s something amazing in that. To be affirmed and connect in that expressive and humane way. But I think it’s the next thing. Because you have to realise that all these feelings of being affirmed or finding people expressing our feelings, it’s part of a wider thing. Like we feel great about it because we know that the world, we’re living in doesn’t generally encourage it. So we’re like “Oh my god thank god someone else is expressing themselves the way I want to express myself.” But if we realise that yo, that kinda catharsis, that kinda bottled up feeling into “wow I feel lifted” that exists, if we realise that’s something we’re all experiencing because it pervades all our lives, then it would be something we could tackle. The little wins are great on a personal level, but we need to build on that. Like think about music, think about Black Music, it’s in the face of oppression. And the music and the messages and telling people we need to do something, it becomes about activism. That’s the next ting innit. And we’re in a state of, we’ve seen what activism looks like. We’re now seeing changes in these institutions as a result of George Floyds, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain. Activism is where it’s at man. And within activism, music, dance, expression, all those things. But it has to be centred on activism, you’ve got to be an activist. And that’s a learning thing, finding a way to develop that and how that can be done.
Brianna: Activism is so important. We’ve all got to be active. Okay on a lighter note! How was lockdown for you?
Jamael: Oh yeah, way lighter! Lockdown was hard at times, ups and downs innit. Had a little bit of anxiety, but also really grateful to be with my family. I took more greater gratitude for having family and people I connect with. I felt much more connected with people in a way, knowing that this is a thing we’re all going through in different ways. Because there’s a thing where we go on like it’s okay, things are fine, carrying on carrying on. Which we are. We’re keeping on keeping on. But also, it’s like nah man, we’re all in pain. A lot of us are in pain. And that – whilst it’s not a nice feeling – it’s not a bad thing to know that other people are as well. And it’s okay. It’s okay that that’s a feeling we have. And in another sense, it’s okay cos we now know what is not okay. We can collectively go “there’s a problem.” And we can objectively point out that problem, much better than we could before. Sometimes it’s all a bit mixed, a bit “are we all on the same page”, some people are doing good one day and some people are doing bad, and we’re not on the same page. I feel like during this we all got on the same page. At least a handful of points over this time. And we know who the problems are. We look at the government and we’re like, they’re fucking us. And young people more than anything else.
Brianna: Mmhmm, absolutely!
Jamael: Older people sometimes feel complicit or like there’s nothing they can do about it, some young people feel like that as well. But so long as we know that we can either do something about it and speed up the process of change, or we just wait cos like. These motherfuckers’ll go eventually.
Brianna: Eventually they’ll be gone!!
Jamael: They’ll be gone. And people know that, that change has already been affected in places in America right. Young people have had much more of a voice, people with more egalitarian mindsets have had much more of a voice. So incrementally it will happen, but I think, we can’t wait. That’s the only thing, we can’t wait. So every day, positive tings. That’s what covid’s taught me. Life is precious. Life is so precious. But it’s that thing of like – someone said something yesterday – it was the idea of you can go anytime. You never know. So rather than waiting for it, waiting for things to happen, live the best life you possibly can right now. Get rid of the inhibitions. Whatever you feel like when you’re drunk on a dancefloor, just take that shit without the drink and put it into your day-to-day man. Trust me. This culture is toxic and infectious and can make you a shell of who you truly can be. That’s okay, we have good days and bad days, but ride those bad days because it makes you appreciate how good the good days can be. So I think hopefully when we come back out of this proper, if we come out of this proper. We should. Hopefully. But we all should appreciate each other way more.
Jamael: We’ll appreciate being in each other’s company way more. And it’s okay if we feel a certain type of challenge in terms of connecting with each other face to face, which young people will feel even more because they’ve been so heavily indoctrinated into social media and stuff, unlike us who are kinda catching up with it and being consciously aware of it as a process. That’s cool because when we’re out of this it’ll be like nice, let’s re-engage, re-address this thing that we’re uncomfortable with, because when you’re uncomfortable that’s when you learn, that’s when you grow. And if that involves connecting with another human being then cool, let’s rediscover that. What does it mean to be face to face with another person and in their proximity, let’s learn that again. Which in terms of my job and what we do in acting, that’s what we’re exploring all the time. And it’s something people take for granted, contact and how vital that is. Covid is a huge reckoning, and a huge tragic time but frankly it just exposed the tragedy of the world already. As it is.
Brianna: Yeah. Oh absolutely, I’ve felt this from the start.
Jamael: Things just became a little bit clearer that these mans don’t care about us y’know.
Brianna: It couldn’t have been more obvious like the fact he had so many cases already and then was like “How about I put a scheme in so you can go and eat out for cheaper” like, nah people are dying. Actual human beings are losing their lives.
Jamael: 100%. That just exacerbated the problem, eat out to help out. Idiot. That mans rich you know! Rishi Sunak is a rich man bruv, he is rich. I didn’t know, I thought – and maybe it’s my own prejudice – but I thought mans hustled his way, he’s had to work hard.
Jamael: Nah, mans got a billionaire father-in-law, like get out my life man.
Brianna: Billionaire father-in-law? Nah, I can’t.
Jamael: Serious money! This mans little cronies were selling off contracts to their bredrens.
Brianna: Innit like the whole NHS Track and Trace thing.
Jamael: £22 billion.
Brianna: Insane! £22 billion and it didn’t work. And then they couldn’t feed children whose families couldn’t afford a meal because it was gonna be too much money.
Jamael: Why is Rashford becoming like an icon. Mans shouldn’t have to be doing that. He should not have to be doing that.
Brianna: That’s how I felt about – what’s that guy’s name, the one that walked up and down his garden – Captain Tom Moore. Everyone’s like applauding and I’m like nah. Nah he shouldn’t have to at 99 years old or whatever he is.
Jamael: But that’s how they work man, that’s like some classic middle of world war ting. I think they did that one time when Russia was fighting in the war and one guy in the factory was doing like heavy work and they turned him into a hero like bro. We shouldn’t be doing this. We shouldn’t be in a war, stop tryna turn these mans into heroes as if we should have heroes, we shouldn’t have heroes. We should have a government that works for the people. And not having people to scrounge off other people to spare what little they have so others can eat like. It’s fucked.
Brianna: It’s insane. I started a thing with TBP called The Food Parcel Project where I was just sending parcels of food across the country. And it’s insane how many people can’t afford the absolute basics. Bread, milk, cereal. We’re like the 6th richest country in the entire fucking world. And people can’t afford food.
Jamael: And what’s mad is the culture of blame. Blaming poor people, blaming people in poverty for their poverty. Like the job that they get is under minimum wage, under a living wage, they can’t live off this. It’s mad. It’s MAD. And in the face of it you can either get sucked into it, which I definitely have moments of. Being sucked into cynicism and being like you know what, every ones just a selfish ting. And then one can become selfish and be like, I’ll just take care of myself and sort out my little acre. Or you can go, no you know what, I’m not gonna be sucked into that mentality. I’m going to be a positive force. Which you are demonstrating with The Black Project, amazingly. So that’s where we’re at man. They don’t care about us. And there’s people that think they do. There’re some people that really think they do. The ones that think they’re gonna make Britain great. It’s like they don’t know that before the transatlantic slave trade, the way the British were treating their own people? Mans was getting hung! Getting quartered for stealing a loaf of bread. The way they were treating them. Send man over to Australia cos you’re a prisoner. They sent them into the wilderness, plenty of them would die before they even got there. America, the first settlers, the British were like “go, go out there, we don’t want you here.” They don’t care.
Brianna: And they never have. Mans have never hidden that they don’t care.
Jamael: They’re using black people and immigrants as a bounced off wall. They’re like “At least I’m not Black” or in this new era “At least I’m not Arabic or Muslim.” If we weren’t here yeah, you think what? You think everything would be nice? I just don’t understand that, it’s so crazy. They think that if we weren’t here things would be fine. Nah, the system itself is set up for the few, and not for the many. And they’re part of the many, I don’t know what they’re thinking otherwise. “Oh I’m white and straight and dudududu” like no. Just so woefully misinformed. It’s wild.
Brianna: And on the flip of that it’s like in a way they’re aware of it because the moment that you start talking about white privilege, they’re like “but I’m working class, I’m not privileged” and it’s like okay if you know that, if you know that your class is intrinsically tied to the way you’re treated in this country, why do you think if we weren’t here you’d be better, and your problems would go away.
Jamael: Word. Word word word word. It’s crazy. It’s crazy that a problem arises and they’re like oh yeah, it’s these people who make up less than 1% of the population, it’s them that’s fucking up our shit. I don’t know, it’s weird innit. It’s weird because it’s like, it’s so obvious. But for them it’s just…yeah. But that’s why we’re here. Educate, Innovate, Elevate. That’s it. Keep it moving. They’ll hear it eventually. They’re seeing it happening now in live time. In real time they’re seeing the people they think care, messing shit up for them. It’s that thing of like, it’s not a problem till it turns up on your doorstep. Well it’s turning up on more people’s doorsteps now than ever. So, y’know, we keep it moving. We keep telling the truth. We don’t let them get to us, we support people that continue to tell the truth, we create communities and networks. Change’ll come. Change is coming, it’s happening.
Brianna: As we speak, change is happening.
Jamael: Yeah man.
Brianna: So was it during lockdown that you filmed Ice Cream and Doughnuts, or was that something you’d done before?
Jamael: Yeah it was, it was actually – during a section where it wasn’t so bad. Which I don’t know when that was, it’s just been bad the entire time.
Jamael: But we managed to create a little covid bubble, or rather a covid free bubble, and yeah, did some work by the seaside. Which was great, it was amazing again to just be around people, and to explore a script that’s around love, honesty, and yeah, around the idyllic setting of Worthing. The sun was shining, it was a blessing to be out there. And I hope it comes off well, it was a fun time doing it.
Brianna: Do you have any idea when it’s going to be out? Or are we still in post?
Jamael: Ahh not a clue, postproduction has begun, so some time next year (Note: next year is now this year, 2021)
Brianna: Cool! Well, I will keep an eye out for it and promo it as much as I can. Like you say, we gotta support independents, the youth theatres, from the ground up 100%.
Jamael: Yeah man, anything that celebrates humanity, celebrates people. People getting it right, people getting it wrong, and just saying you know what, it’s okay. It’s OK. So long as you’re learning. And that’s kind of present in every bit of art isn’t it. People making right and wrong decisions and learning from them. That’s it. It’s not a binary of good and bad. Even the villain has their reasons, I don’t agree with them, but I understand why. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. So important. I know that in some way everyone got taught that Atticus Finch thing in To Kill A Mockingbird. Fuck me, if there’s one little bit of like, something, in that, it’s that. (You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it. – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ch.3) But y’know, people feel like they haven’t got time, can’t be listening to that. Or they feel like “People should be listening to me, put themselves in my shoes.” Which is probably how it’s been misconstrued. “I’m not meant to put myself in your shoes, you’re supposed to put yourself in mine. I ain’t got time to put myself in other people’s shoes.” But y’know, that’s what theatre is for, that’s what the arts is for. That’s what it feels like Black culture has always been about. In the face of, well, at least since it’s been in the face of the oppressive whiteness. It’s always been liberty, empathy, humanity. So with the arts it feels like it fits like a perfect glove.
Brianna: It absolutely does. On the back of that idea, you went out to the states right, you were going to be doing Hamilton over there?
Jamael: Yes I was, yeah.
Brianna: Do you feel that the arts in America is a better fit for Black people, or do you think the UK scene works better?
Jamael: Well it’s certainly more - you can be more successful. There’s a much greater presence of Black people in America. So therefore there’s a much greater potential to earn money as a Black person in America within the arts, more roles, more diverse roles. For sure. Still has its problems, but there’s just more money in America, more opportunity in America, I wouldn’t dispute that. But at the same time, basing it off of having done Hamilton to a degree – people are people, and everyone deserves liberation, all across the world. But when you’re from a place and you see Britain and you’re like, that’s where I grew up, you kinda wanna provide the stories for people you grew up with. You wanna tell their stories and shine a light for them. Because they’re who you grew up with, your ride or dies, your birth is my birth, your death is my death peoples. So whilst there is more opportunity in America, that’s part of the reason why I’m going there is to gain somewhat a bit of a foothold. But then to turn the lens back on to Britain. Because y’know, Britain had it’s own Black Panther, Black Power movement, Britain has it’s own racial issues, that are not exactly the same as in America but there are plenty of parallels, but they’re still problems. As has been articulated and is present in the history of Britain. So yeah, I mean in terms of the glove fitting, I guess you more opportunities. But in terms of pointing out things you’ve grown up with and the glove fitting in that sense, I think most Black British artists will say, yeah actually my experience as a Black person in a political sense, is in Britain. As a human being I grew up in Britain so it’s Britain I want to shine a light on. Because I know Britain well, or at least I know my part of Britain very well.
Brianna: You hit on there your experience as a Black person, so coming the end of the chat, what does that mean to you? It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, so what does being Black mean to you?
Jamael: Blackness is being whoever you want to be. Blackness is freedom, frankly. Although it historically doesn’t feel like that, it is because of that attack on our freedoms, that blackness shines in all its facets. Where whiteness – not white people necessarily – but whiteness is as representative of elitism, of exclusivity, of oppression, blackness is the opposite of that. And in instances over history has included more than just black people as it were. But yeah freedom, liberty, expression – humanity man. So yeah, despite the historical attack and labelling of brown people as black people, black has been owned by us. And every day I celebrate myself, and my brothers and sisters in our ownership of that in whatever way they see fit, for the benefit of each other. That’s it. But then black doesn’t always have to be excellent, you get me?
Jamael: I think we’re just trying to get to that point where we can bust through the whole labelling ting. We’re taking black for now but we’re saying well black can be whatever we want it to be, because we can be whatever we want to be. People connect with that. You can be white and connect with that, but you recognise your responsibility and what we’re trying to do, you recognise why we do what we do. So black is freedom man, who knows what it’ll be as time rolls on. Some people don’t even call themselves black no more, some people just be like “I’m a spirit. Call me what you like, I’m a spirit, I’m above this, I’m beyond this.” That’s like an Afro-Futuristic typa ting.
Brianna: My dad is like that.
Jamael: Yeah like, I’m beyond these words now. I love that. I love that. My head is there, and that’s where blackness got us. It’s got us to the point where we’re like okay, these mans are tryna stay in this little realm, or whatever this is, this little back and forth ting. Some of us are trying to go to a new place. And blackness has allowed us that, blackness, the struggles, the joys, the progress of people to have been labelled different names. From y’know, the n word, negro, ethiop, whatever it is. And blackness is owned in a different way now, people use the n word in a different way now, it’s an ownership ting, like we can call ourselves whatever the hell we like. It’s the same ting as when we’re like protesting and people are like “You man are looting doesn’t that like dampen your thing.” No bro. That’s real, that’s just expression, that’s humans feeling in the world you’ve created. Looting. What a word. What a word to use. Anyway, yeah man. Blackness is freedom. Blackness is freedom to choose who you want to be.
Brianna: That’s actually beautiful. I’ve never thought about it like that. Like a two sides of a coin ting. That whiteness comes with a history of being oppressive and on the top of the power dynamic, but there’s always an opposite to that. Always an opposite to everything, and freedom is that opposite. We truly are freedom.
Jamael: Yeah man! And white people grow up and are like “oh but it’s not my fault” and white guilt and whatever, but it’s like nah, just recognise, you didn’t create whiteness but if you play to it, then you’re causing a problem. You’re taking on that legacy. You know what it is, you’ve seen it, so just read it up. I didn’t create the racial constructs, but shit, I’m black. Too late now. You hate but you love to hate it.
Brianna: And they do love to hate it! They love to hate it.
Jamael: And it exposes them! It exposes their whiteness and their relationship to it. And then they’re trying to understand it and that’s hard. Because they’re trying to understand a thing they can’t connect with because they’ve been shying away from the humanity of it all. And as a mixed-race person there’s another element to it. I accept my privileges as a light skin person, there’s no dispute there. But I know what I’m here for, I know what my purpose is. Which is to acknowledge that and what comes with it, and then to rep my blackness man. Because – one person put it this way – if a ship was leaving at the end of the world and there was a whole civilisation leaving to go to the moon or mars, and it says white people only, we’re not getting on that.
Brianna: Nah, exactly.
Jamael: Y’know what I mean?
Brianna: Yeah totally.
Jamael: I’m not getting on!
Brianna: I was having this conversation with my family, and they were saying like they can’t understand – or they couldn’t understand the concept that you’re mixed but you identify so much stronger with the Black side of that. And it’s like what you’ve said. I know I’m mixed. But to people who have no time for people of colour, I’m racialised as Black. So in that situation if it’s only white people getting on, me being half white ain’t gonna get me on the boat.
Jamael: Word. It’s also like, growing up when you think about yourself as a child, I have found more – humans experience oppression. We’re all oppressed. We live in oppressive societies. Growing up you’d align yourself to the things that makes you feel more yourself, allows you to feel more joy, gives you more connections and more humanity. And that’s not even a conscious choice of “I’m gonna go over there because that looks fun.” It’s kinda just like, I feel joy, or I feel pain – I’m gonna choose joy but I know that this is based off fighting a pain that I want to avoid. And through that you find yourself, realise what you’re here for. And then you look at the structures of capitalism and how that wouldn’t have succeeded if it were not for the Black bodies. Even doing Hamilton, Hamilton would not have succeeded without Black bodies and Black culture. This world lives off Black culture. I think recently in America, Black music as it were, or hip hop, whatever you want to call it, it has surpassed country music as the top selling genre of music in America. And the change we want to see is found, historically as we’ve seen, in Blackness. But shit, I’m just me. It just so happens that in terms of history of blackness, I connect more with it. Is it a choice? Maybe, but I think not. Not really.
Brianna: Nah I don’t think it’s a choice. Or at least not our choice.
Jamael: I didn’t choose to be born this way, it’s luck, chance. There’s plenty of mixed-race people that don’t particularly feel that way, and that’s for them to figure out. We can be whatever we want to be, and I think blackness allows that. Historically whiteness hasn’t allowed that to be the case. I mean even blackness has got things to learn in terms of transphobia, homophobia. Y’know whilst we know it does incorporate those things, and at the centre of so many movements has been black trans people, there’s people within the black diaspora who are not privy to that yet. They’re not awake to that yet. Black people have got things they need to catch up on. But Blackness? Blackness is. I don’t know. It’s like how we regard God innit. God in an unlimited way. And I think that’s sort of what Blackness is tying itself to in a way. You can look at God and go well “God said this, God said that, God doesn’t allow this, God doesn’t allow that.” If you believe, God is everything. Everything. You can’t point to it because all of us is within God. How can a fish point to water, it’s everything. So everything, is everything and Blackness is a part of that. It’s hard to get into because it’s almost theological. But it’s all incorporating, all encompassing, when you consider historically what whiteness has been. And when you juxtapose it with that, you can tell.
Brianna: That was deep. I said at the start it would be deep, but that was *deep*.
Jamael: It’s very deep, Blackness is super deep. I mean it’s super deep, and there’s something interesting in that when you think about the middle passage and the origins of Blackness. Like yeah it’s super deep, we’re talking about our ancestors man. There’s that thing that’s like I am my ancestors wildest dreams. We all are. We’re their wildest dreams. It’s super deep man. No pressure innit. Just live your best, knowing that every day you’re living the life your great grandparents, their ancestors, enslaved Africans, the ones that tried to prevent their African brothers and sisters from being taken on ships along the coast, couldn’t even dream of. Fam. It’s levels. So deep. I don’t know if deep is even the right word. It’s so affirming.
Brianna: Like when I think, my surname is a slave name, we don’t know where in Africa we were from originally. But to think somewhere down the line my ancestors were in chains, and I’m sat here in first world England talking to you, like that’s insane that we got here.
Jamael: Crazy. It’s crazy. Hey. They’re just setting us up, they’re setting us up to be the best we can. They did it for their children, who did it for their children, who did it for their children, who did it for us. And we’ve got to do it for our children, the next generation. Returning us back to the very beginning of this ting, we’re doing it for young people. Because the change that we want to see, we have to accept we might not see in our lifetimes. And our children and younger generation might not see it in theirs – but we have to try. Knowing it’ll make it better for the people that come after us and so on and so forth.
Brianna: We have to. There’s a saying that’s something like “We can sit in the shade today, because someone planted the seed of the tree.” And I think about that quite a lot. Everything we’re doing now – I might not ever get to sit under the shade of that tree, but someone will.
Jamael: Yeah. And it’s gonna cost us a little bit man, shit. It cost us to get here. Even being birthed out of wombs, that shit was painful, it was traumatic, that was already a hurdle. So what’s a little more, let’s live it.
Brianna: Okay let’s go a little more surface level to that deep conversation we were having. Something for me that’s important about being Black – food. I don’t think there’s any other group of people on the planet who love food the way we do.
Jamael: Ah it’s essential. It’s absolutely essential. Food is not surface level, it’s very very deep. When you think about young kids, they learn about who they are, where they are, through the food they eat in the early moments. What palettes they develop, identity. Food is huge man; nah it’s not surface at all. Food is essential. It’s essential for life first and foremost, but then like. The taste of food man. Come on. Come on. Why do you think the Caribbean became so important to the colonists and the slave masters and tings? Cos of the luscious, luscious greens and tings. And in Africa. Come on there’s plenty of banging food there. But in terms of the Caribbean which is my heritage – is it yours as well?
Brianna: I’m both! I’ve got Nigeria and St Kitts.
Jamael: A little bit of both yeah, when you think of the luscious fertile lands yeah, in a way from us being transported to the Caribbean, look at all we created. There’s a history to food man, I’m sure someone’s done a book on it probably.
Brianna: Oh almost certainly. And if there is, I want to read it.
Jamael: Yeah man. It’s not surface. I’m with you every step of the way, I love food. Just on another ting, I love food innit.
Brianna: So you’ll probably have a good answer to this question, which is: What is one recipe you could not live without.
Jamael: One recipe I just could not live without. I just need it in my life. So I’m tryna be on a vegetarian ting these days, tryna go down that road. I love my lentils, I love my akee. I love my plantain. Let me just say plantain. I wouldn’t be like, eating that shit every day, but I would need it. When I need it, I need it. But is there a whole meal. Funnily enough most of these meals have got meat in it, I’ve only recently stepped away from it. So I guess I’m only just starting to discover the vegan and vegetarian options. Umm, yeah man let me say plantain with a bit of rice and peas and some cauliflower jerk in there, with some spinach up in there as well. A little veggie patty in there.
Brianna: That is soul food is what that is. Food for the soul.
Jamael: What’s yours?
Brianna: Mine? People don’t normally ask back, so I don’t have an answer prepared.
Jamael: Nah that’s the thing, I’m thinking of bare foods right now and they’re not even all just Caribbean. Like chickpea tagine? A good soup, a red pea soup, I could boss that up. But it’s got a bit of meat in there so gotta take the meat out nowadays. But what you saying? Are you a meat eater?
Brianna: Yes and no. I only eat chicken but even that I’m like, trying to cut down on.
Jamael: Would you eat that new, you know they’ve got that like scientifically made one. I think they make it from an embryo. Like it’s chicken, but from a lab.
Brianna: If it tastes like chicken, I’ve got no issue eating their genetically created meat.
Jamael: Yeah, that’s what I’m on too. I thought it was interesting cos I thought well, no chickens are getting harmed. But apparently, it’s making people still want chicken and then it’s like, is that a problem too? I guess, because it doesn’t slow down the process or the demand. But then businesses. I don’t know, it’s a whole other economics lesson that I haven’t had. But I love a bit of cornmeal porridge, I have that in the morning. That sets me up. Akee and salt fish, but then it’s the fish. I love that though. I love fried fish as well tho. It’s hard.
Brianna: It’s really hard being a vegetarian after you’ve eaten meat for so long.
Jamael: Right! Oxtail, jerk chicken, all the different tings man. Onion, lentils and rice with a bit of salt fish as well. I guess that’s my next mission if I’m honest, is to really go in on – which there are plenty of – recipes that are vegetarian or vegan friendly.
Brianna: Yeah same. One of my good friends is Indian and she said that quite a lot of their meals are vegetarian based anyway, they’ll just add meat in if they want meat. So I think that’s where I’m gonna start because, they got flavour. And I need the flava.
Jamael: That’s the ting. And I know that the meat isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to flavour, but yeah. Have you had jackfruit?
Brianna: I haven’t! But I’ve heard very good things about it.
Jamael: Yeah put that down because it’s like a perfect substitute.
Brianna: Apparently it’s like pulled pork, if you cook it a certain way you can make it taste just like pulled pork.
Jamael: Yeah exactly, that’s exactly it. The way it breaks up is nice. Yeah man.
Brianna: Well thank you for your time, it was cool to talk to you.
Jamael: Appreciate your time as well Brianna. Most def.
Brianna: Have a great rest of your day!
Jamael: You too, have a blessed one. Lovely, lovely talking to you, most def.
Brianna: And you.
Jamael: Aight, peace.