Interview with Stephen K. Amos
Words: Robin Murray
Stephen K. Amos is a fascinating man. Growing up in London in the 70’s as one of seven children born to Nigerian immigrant parents, his life was always going to be challenging. Throw in the fact that he was also gay and his story seems even bleaker, however, Amos learnt to 'find the funny’ and has become a successful and well-known comedian (we met in the Westbury, an indication of how well his career's going).
Amos is all about being upfront and honest. He is who he is and he's unapologetic about that. Rather than pretending to be someone he isn't in order to be more marketable, he has chosen to be true to himself but to still go after the things he wants.
Amos publicly came out in 2006, when he revealed he was gay in his Edinburgh Fringe show, All of Me.
"It wasn't a big fanfare - 'Hey I’m coming out!' - I just happened to mention something in the show. It made me more open to talking more personally about issues that affect me and other people and making them funny."
The following year, Amos recorded Batty Man, a Channel 4 documentary on homophobia in Jamaica and the black British community, which went on to win a Royal Television Society Award and to be nominated for a BAFTA. He chose to do a documentary on the subject of homophobia in black communities after a close friend was killed in a homophobic attack.
When asked whether there was a negative reaction to the programme in the black British community, he says that nothing was said to his face, "But like any emotive topic, people will say, 'Why did you mention that? Why didn't you just keep it quiet?' Families don't want their dirty laundry being aired."
I ask him what it means to be one of the very few role models for gay black men. "I never set out to be a role model. I set out to be honest and truthful to myself, and if it means that by being visible and standing up and being counted that makes me a role model, that’s fine with me. I know people who are [gay] and who say nothing, and that’s their prerogative. For me, I would never ever want to be looking over my shoulder, worrying about what is going to come out next.”
However, while being openly gay has its upsides, Amos admits that a black gay man is "a very hard sell because people assume certain things." I ask him whether he thinks there’s a clash between what society expects from a black man and a gay man. "I think, sadly, that the kind of gay thing that was deemed acceptable and harmless all those years ago is still here today. All the high-camp, I don’t identify with it and am not like that at all. But if by being the kind of bloke I am, I'm helping to bring down some of those negative impressions, then good."
In recent years racism has become completely unacceptable, in public life at least. I ask whether he thinks the same thing will happen with homophobia. “Hopefully, in time. The longer life goes on, the people who had those negative, non-inclusive ideas because of how they were brought up are going to die." He goes on to talk about a friend who is forty and has been in a relationship with the same man for seven years, but hasn't told his grandmother he's gay because she's from a different generation and he fears it might kill her. Amos has a different outlook; "If you think that someone loves you unconditionally, tell 'em. That's my theory."
While researching Amos, one thing that surprised me was his large media profile and following in Australia. He has toured the country numerous times and performed at the Melbourne Comedy Gala earlier this year. I asked him why he thinks he’s gone down so well Down Under. “Well, A) they get the English quite well, because there are lots of English connections. But also, because for Australians, their reference for a black British person is nil, and the same goes for Americans. For them to see a funny, positive, sometimes outspoken, black British person, their ears prick up. I'll mention things that I've observed about their country which might sound uncomfortable coming from one of their own, but they’ll take it from an outsider."
Abroad, Amos has been told that he 'doesn’t sound black'. "I've had the most outrageous things said to me. People say to me, 'Why do you go on about being black?' Nobody asks Michael McIntyre, 'Why do you have a middle class take on things?' You don't know my perspective. Let me do what I do, and if you don't like it there are so many other comics you can see.”
As far as the future's concerned, he says a chat show is "definitely something that I'd be interested in doing. It would be quite nice to see a British black person with a chat show - we haven't had that in a while." He would also like to go to America and "show them that there is a British black culture. I could see me doing a cop movie with Will Smith. Bad Boys 3 - get rid of Martin Lawrence and fly in a British black cop to work with an American black cop."
Letting the world know that there is a British black culture is something that’s very important to Amos. He goes on to say that he was sitting beside an older Irish gentleman on the plane here, who turned to him and asked him, "Where are you from?" When he replied that he was from London, the man said, "No, where are you from?"
"I haven't got a chip on my shoulder, I just wondered why he asked me that."
Did he think that because he was black he couldn't be British, full-stop?
"That’s what I think he meant. I told him my parents are from Africa and he just went, 'Oh'. Where does that go?! It doesn't lead anywhere!"
I tell him that multiculturalism has only recently become a thing in Ireland.
"Yes, bu you’re trying to catch up big time aren’t you? You've had Obama, and Beyoncé last night. Really catching up!"
To end the interview on a fun/morbid note, I ask him what song he would like played at his funeral. "Maybe Chasing Pavements by Adele. I want people to be sad. I'm not one of these people who say, 'Celebrate my life - laugh!' No - cry!"
Stephen K Amos is playing the Vodafone Comedy Festival in the Iveagh Gardens on the 23rd and 24th of July. He will be joined by Dermot Whelan and The Nualas on the 23rd and Milton Jones and Neil Delamere on the 24th. Tickets are €28, so come along and you’ll be sure to have a laugh, and your mind expanded.
Story by EI Team | 09:00 | Wednesday 13th July 2011 | Comedy