How A Black, Muslim Comedian Broke Britain’s Got Talent
A lesson in how to survive mainstream life
Back from Turkey to the UK for family reasons, I find myself engulfed in a passionate prime time contest for the heart of the British nation. Nabil Abdulrashid, is a Londoner, a Muslim of Nigerian heritage. He has been in comedy for more than 10 years. Before the March Lockdown he entered the British consciousness with a bang. A punchy, hilarious routine won him a coveted Golden Buzzer in the first round of Britain’s Got Talent 2020. It fast tracked him to the semi finals. As you can imagine, not everyone was happy with this.
Nabil‘s comedy dares to challenge the unspoken rule of prime time success for people of difference (ie. non white). You must be gentle with the lighter skinned public to avoid press pulverisation. Do this, keep a jolly smile on your face and you may get to be a runner up in whatever talent show you are in.
Before Nabil got his taste of mainstream loathing, on the same show, the dance troupe Diversity had performed a striking routine. Ashley Banjo, choreographed a piece of performance art devoted to the message that Black Lives Matter. Did the world tilt on its axis slightly as British families watched it over their Sofa meals and cups of tea. It felt like it did. For a moment.
Then it was back to business as usual. The TV regulator Ofcom was inundated with more than 20,428 complaints about the episode of BGT, according to latest figures. Complaints ladies and gentleman, where a DANCE was deemed too political.
What struck me was not the reflex flick of thumbs on dial pads. It was the Instagram message Banjo revealed he’d been sent by a viewer saying:
“We, the Great British Public will only support you if you entertain us and do not say anything about racism.”
Too much to say here right? Black and white minstrel shows come to mind. Silenced people of colour entertaining ‘the great British public’ for sympathy and second place.
White fragility anyone?
The amount you are facilitated to rise in the mainstream entertainment world is in direct correlation to the amount you negate or hide your colour and/or Muslim identity. The way we are made to do this is often buried in professional advice. An executive director may say ‘Wouldn’t you like to appeal to a broader audience? When you’re ready to do that, we’re here for you!’
As a Muslim I have consistently faced a choice, the same I saw Nabil facing on that vast BGT stage.
He could take the ‘blue’ pill:
Thrive in their world: Hide his faith, beliefs, culture in return for the chance to reach moderate to substantial mainstream success. Or, as so few feel able to, he could swallow the red pill and: -
Survive: Stay true to his message, in full knowledge of the coming storm. His comedic work linked to his identity and therefore listed as ‘controversial’ — too much of a ‘risk’ for prime time viewers.
Nabil took the red pill.
According to a 2017 survey of Muslim Americans. more than six-in-ten U.S. adults (63%) say that being Muslim hurts someone’s chances for advancement in American society at least a little, including 31% who say it hurts their chances a lot.
A new poll came out last month, commissioned by Hope Not Hate. It revealed that almost half of UK Conservative party members (the government’s flag wavers) believe Islam is a “a threat to the British way of life”. The poll spurred anti-racism campaigners to demand the Conservative Party face up to “widespread anti-Muslim prejudice in its ranks”. It hasn’t.
The same Yougov poll found:
Fifty eight per cent believe Islamaphobic conspiracy theories about “no-go areas” in Britain where Sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself spurred on Islamophobia in 2018 writing in his Daily Telegraph column that Muslim women who wear burqas are similar to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. From all of us in this minority group a big thank you to our dear leader for that.
Authenticity is vital to impact the fragility ceiling
Nabil opened his final set before the British public, saying: “They complained because we said black lives matter — thousands of complaints. To be honest I’m shocked that many of them know how to write.
“They sent in thousands of angry letters. Hopefully if I annoy them today they can progress onto words…”
He was seething. Without a week of pernicious phone calls from the press and death threats from trolls his entire set would have been different, lighter. Nabil Abdulrashid had his choice of material — in a vital moment for his career — impacted by racism and prejudice.
And he used that impetus to face the public with…themselves.
In 2019, I co-wrote the one woman show Accidentally Muslim about my reasons for accepting Islam. I performed it at last years Edinburgh Fringe. I opened the show with a section of the Quran playing. Sitting in the audience with a full burqa covering my face, was a hoot. Festival goers usually left spaces either side, clearly nervous of not just the clothes I was wearing but of what they — and by extension I — ‘meant’.
The second day of my run, our production assistant was assaulted by a Zionist extremist. The police were involved.
I say again, the option of sticking to your authentic voice, won’t be easy.
Survive AND thrive?
Over a decade ago, Nabil was advised to make fewer jokes about his race and religion by Micky Flanagan, a fellow comedian, Judging the ITV4 contest FHM Stand Up Hero in 2010, Flanagan suggested Nabil talk “a little bit more about not being a Muslim, or not being black”.
Translation: Keep white audience member comfortable, if you want to get ahead.
Exceptions Who Prove The Rule
Others have broken through this comfort barrier. Notably in the UK, the brilliant Tez Ilyas, Muslim, mouthy, hard hitting and clever enough in his critique of mainstream society to make it onto C4 with a sketch and current affairs show, The Tez O’Clock Show. In the US, you have Trevor Noah host of the Daily Show. An African man telling white America home truths with a smile on his face as if he’s offering premium donuts for free.
Back to BGT. Up until the final act Nabil was right up there to win. The only other contender, a sweet children’s choir who we could all have applauded and wished well.
Then came the final act, which TV producers had selected for the peak voter-friendly slot. A middle aged, white, male pianist performing a jingoistic, flag waving medley. To marching drum backing track, Jon Courtenay chanted:
‘Little things like when the Queen said ‘we’ll meet again. With pride inside our chests…’
Snippets of English nostalgia for days when black people worked silently on the buses and silently accepted less wages and rights.
When Muslims did NOT come on prime time with edgy comedy making children ask questions like ‘Mummy was Winston Churchill black’ or ‘Daddy Black Lives Matter don’t they?’
The message loud and clear. Nothing wrong with Britain as it is! Carry on chaps! Ignore the nasty nay sayers! And so on, mundanity after soundbite for five minutes. Half way through, I kid you not, a vast union jack was unfurled — just in case we didn’t quite get the point that this was white Britain, giving itself a massive, nationalistic hug.
In the phone vote, the general public, agreeing with Flanagan’s decade old advice, voted by a landslide, for Courtenay.
He wasn’t the best act of the night. He wasn’t even the best act on my sofa.
But long after the manipulative Courtenay is forgotten. Nabil Abdulrashid’s legendary lesson authenticity and bravery will remain a TV legend.
This is what victory looks like for Muslims and others who won’t compromise our reality for fame: painful and so, very, very, worth it.