‘She’s funny – for a woman. But I don’t like Jo Brand.’
These were common refrains I heard from men in my 20s when the phrase ‘woman comedian’ was as tolerated as ‘female scientist.’
To be honest, I love Jo Brand’s humour and not purely out of admiration for her simply standing up, I stuck up for her. Not that she needed my cheerleading.
But in a time when The Boys are still getting money for old rope and older gags, it seems The Girls are still there hustling and the inequalities of the comedic playing field remain unfunny.
Just back from her second critically-acclaimed Edinburgh Festival show, ‘African In New York – Almost Famous’, Njambi McGrath, an African woman living in Ealing, has plenty of material to work from.
Voted 1 of 5 top female comedians to watch by Fabulous Magazine 2012, she has appeared on BBC World New Year’s Comedy, BBC Radio 4 Saturday Live, she was nominated ‘Best Newcomer’ at the Black Comedy Awards 2012 and last (and maybe least) has performed for the England rugby team.
Smart and engaging , her delivery is straight, direct and no-nonsense. ‘How many more white male stand-ups can we listen to chatting about masturbating?’ says Njambi, whose comedy draws from her history, her background, her travels and extended family.
So – when so many women face crises of confidence after having children – how did she end up here, a comedian and published author?
An unfair dismissal tribunal 4 days after the birth of her second child saw Njambi at home with children and, like so many women, wondering how to keep her hand in the workplace while raising little ones. A short time later she found herself running NCT workshops, presenting to a rather disengaged group of young fathers, and she started to crack jokes. Someone told her to put pen to paper and write something down.
‘It is all about confidence. Teaching ante-natal classes gave me that confidence because people listened to me, they laughed and I realised I had something to offer to them.
‘But my first show was shambolic. I had no time to prepare and had never spent time analysing comedy as a subject matter. So I watched lots of female comedians. Quite a lot of whom were just filthy and I wasn’t comfortable doing that.
‘The best advice I had was simply, ‘talk about what you know.’ That set me on a path to talk about me and my challenges as a black African woman….amongst other things.’
Despite her successes Njambi found she wasn’t getting booked. But it wasn’t just her. We took a look through line-ups simply stocked by young, white male comedians, where the only person in a ‘minority group’ was a ginger-haired man. I ask if she can separate race and gender on this, ‘Yes, to be honest I thought I was not getting booked was because I was a black woman. But I think they did it to me purely because I was a woman.
Promoters are simply not willing to take a risk. They just put on what they think is funny and safe – which is not necessarily the same as the current audience.’
But hard work on her craft has reaped recognition. Now with a huge reservoir of material, sustainability and staying power, its just a question of getting the right people to listen.
Check her out here.
THE BAKER’S DOZEN
- What is – or has been – your greatest struggle (either personal or professional)? This is a really difficult one to answer because there are many little struggles, but I feel being a black woman will always limit or disadvantage me in so many ways. Some of these are subtle whilst are other manifest lager. I choose not to let it defeat me and so I am always looking for ways to push myself further.
- What did you want to be when you were growing up? I wanted to sing, and I joined the choir, unfortunately I can’t sing to save my life. I also wanted to be an air hostess because growing up in Kenya it was always such a glamorous job.
- Best advice ever received and from whom? Never doubt yourself when venturing into something new. Years ago, whilst trying to become a model, the old photographer asked me what I wanted out of life. When I told him I wanted to retrain but feared I was too old he said, ‘Think if you spend the next 3 years retraining, in 10 years you will be doing exactly what you want to do. If you don’t, in 10 years you will still be unhappy regretting why you didn’t make a change.’
- Who do you most admire? I have one unsung hero and that’s Winnie Mandela, she dedicated her life for the struggle of the people of South Africa, all the while Mandela was in prison. She had to raise her children in desolate exile and be harassed by the apartheid government and yet it is Nelson that took all the glory.
- What keeps you up at night? I work in the gig economy and its insecurity is always a worry. I am constantly worried about where the next job is coming from.
- When were you happiest? I am happiest when I’m away on holiday with my family but other than that when I have had a brilliant gig.
- Favourite object you possess? I have some curios that were given to me by a friend in Kenya many years ago and his name was Julius. He said take these with you and decorate your home and when you have children and a husband, tell them I gave them to you. The next time I went to Kenya, a friend told that she read that he died and had seen his funeral arrangements advertised in the newspaper. I have never got rid of them and I treasure them greatly.
- Which words or phrases do you most overuse? OMG! Be careful, don’t use your phone when crossing the road (to my children)
- What is the most important lesson life has taught you? Never rejoice or laugh at those who are lower that you. You never know when tables will turn. In the comedy industry its true to say you might refuse to engage with a newer comic because you think they are beneath you, next you see they have their own TV show.
- What is your guiltiest pleasure? A nice glass of prosecco and tropical holidays.
- What change do you hope for in your lifetime? I hope that my book/books will be read and appreciated all over Africa. I also hope there will be more tolerance in the world.
- Please recommend a brilliant female-led brand or business you have used recently. I have been signed by a female owned publishing house (I can’t say just yet until they make an announcement). I am very excited about this.
- Who might help you next? Oprah 🙂