Jamali Maddix: ‘I saw Bill Hicks and thought, there’s someone like me’

When the Essex-born comic first came across the firebrand US standup as a teen, he saw a way to articulate his own frustrations. Now fronting a new documentary series on racial hatred, he says comedy has been his salvation

Towards the end of Jamali Maddix’s first – and, as it turns out, last – year at university, he got a tattoo. In the surprisingly straight-bat boardroom at Vice Media’s UK headquarters in Shoreditch, east London, he rolls up his left sleeve: the blue-purple ink runs from his wrist to his elbow and depicts a man wearing a suit looking into an abyss. It’s quite something. “It’s that idea of me actually doing what I want to do and fuck the corporate shit,” Maddix explains (reader beware: Maddix does like an expletive). “That’s why I put it on my forearm, so I can’t work in a bank. I don’t want to be a bank teller – I want to be a comedian.”

The tattoo did the job, but not in the way Maddix was expecting. He picked up a blood infection from the needlework and had to drop out of university to recuperate. He’d been doing standup on and off for years, but for six months he decided to commit to it fully. “Everyday I’d write, write, write, all day,” he says. “I’d perform at night, I’d do three, four shows a night, come back and write. And I didn’t feel sorry for myself. You know, I don’t blame a lot of people for giving up, because it’s a hard game, man. You go on stage and no one laughs, it’s shit. It’s disappointment, disappointment and it’s hard to carry on. But you have to make the decision yourself and go, ‘I’m going to have to keep on trucking.’ And I did; I kept on trucking and I done all right.”

Maddix, who is 25 now, certainly has done “all right”. At the end of those six months, he had honed his act enough to win the 2014 Chortle student comedy award. He is now a poster boy for Viceland, a new TV network from “the world’s pre-eminent youth media company and content creation studio”. Maddix has made a six-part documentary series called Hate thy Neighbour, in which he travels around the world trying to make sense of the growing resurgence of rightwing beliefs. He starts in Sweden, with the Aryan leaders of Nordic Youth, and ends after the Brexit referendum with the English Defence League, with trips to meet radicals in Israel, Ukraine and the US in between. Location footage is interspersed with standup sets recorded in a small club back in London – think Louis Theroux mixed with Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, without the polish of those seasoned pros.

Maddix’s background certainly gives him an intriguing standpoint from which to discuss the rise of the far-right. His mother is British-Italian and his father is Jamaican; they haven’t been together for a while: “I’m from a broken home, man!” Promotional material for Hate thy Neighbour notes that Maddix, who has a long, straggly beard, is “often mistaken for being a Muslim – but he is actually a committed drinker, smoker and fornicator”. In his early standup routines, he would tell audiences that he grew up in “Dagenham in the 90s”. This isn’t exactly true: he was raised – and continues to live with his mum – in Ilford, five miles away. Either way, he was in an excellent position to observe the British National party winning 12 council seats in Barking and Dagenham in 2006, and the “white flight” that saw the white British population in the area drop from 80% in 2001 to less than 50% in 2011.

“I’ll put it into context for you,” says Maddix. “Ilford is on the border of east London and Essex, so we never got the gentrification of east London and we never had the money of Essex to begin with. So it’s just a stalemate. A stagnant area. Everything is shutting down. I love the place, I grew up there, but it’s a shithole. No one has invested anything into the area. So what you have is abject poverty and then you have affluence. Both in the mix.”

Does his background explain why he wanted to make Hate Thy Neighbour? “Maybe that was a subconscious foundation for it,” Maddix says, “but I wouldn’t say that was the reason why. There were various reasons I wanted to make this show.”

Maddix expected Remain to triumph in the EU referendum, but he wasn’t entirely shocked by the result. “I wish I found that surprising, I wish I did, but I don’t,” he says. “Because I’ve travelled up and down this country, man, I’ve met people, I know what this country’s like. There’s this fear and we hit bad times and it’s just easier to blame someone with brown skin. It’s easy to blame someone else. It’s not the banks, it’s not the politicians, it’s that guy who’s trying to make a living.”

Dyslexic, dyspraxic and a comic-book obsessive, Maddix struggled at school and had little direction until one night at home he was flicking through the TV channels. “What really made me want to do comedy was watching 100 Greatest Standups and I was young, 14,” he recalls. “Probably high as well, smoking some weed, watching the show. Well, 15 then, for the record. Or 16. OK, it was yesterday.”

Maddix snickers: “So I was 16 or however old I was, and I was watching this show and everyone was all right and then I saw Bill Hicks and I was like, ‘What the fuck is this, man?’ Like, ‘This shit is mental.’ I love the people I grew up with, I do, but every conversation was about money or clothes or just nothing. I always felt that there was more to this, but I didn’t know what it was. And I watched Bill Hicks and I thought, ‘There’s someone who has the same ideas as me.’”

Another defining moment came when Maddix was studying theatre and performance practice at the University of Salford. He was hardly an exemplary student: “I was flunking out; I think I went to four lectures in the year.” One of the four, however, was part of a module where the comedian Jason Manford came in to give advice on how to do standup. At the end of the session, Manford asked if any of the class wanted to try out some material. Maddix, who had started performing aged 16, but had stopped a couple of times, disgruntled, did a few bits. “He looked at me and went, ‘The only advice I can give you is just to leave uni, mate, you don’t need to be here,’” says Maddix. “He went, ‘Be a comic, that’s what you are.’”

Viceland might well be the future of television, but it’s too early to tell at the moment. It launched in the UK in September, having previously started broadcasting in North America in February. In June, Shane Smith, the CEO of Vice Media, announced that the company had signed deals to broadcast in 44 countries and there is certainly some muscle behind it. Vice Media has been valued at more than $4bn and the new channel’s co-president (and Vice creative director) is Spike Jonze, the director of Being John Malkovich and Her. Two of the first commissions – Gaycation, a travel show from an LGBT perspective, fronted by the actor Ellen Page, and Woman, hosted by Gloria Steinem – were nominated for Emmy awards.

Watch Jamali Maddix’s winning set at the Chortle student comedy awards 2014.

The channel is still finding its feet in the UK. On opening night, Viceland (which is on Sky channel 153 or a Now TV box) had a peak of about 17,200 viewers. Whether it can convince millennials to tune in remains to be seen and much will depend on the pull of young talents such as Maddix and Grace Neutral, an extreme tattooist, whom Viceland believes will not be found anywhere else.

Maddix, who is tall and hefty, but has gentle eyes behind milk-bottle spectacles, thinks that in his case that’s probably true. He had the idea for Hate thy Neighbour a few years ago and it had even been “sort of optioned” once. But the channels he spoke to all wanted to change the idea too much for his liking. He says: “Then I got a meeting for the new Viceland channel and I told them the idea and they said, ‘Yep, good, bang.’ And we made it. So Vice have been a lot more free and giving and it suits being there; it’s not that weird show on Channel 4.”

Though he is fascinated by race, Maddix dislikes being described as a “race comic”. “I get it, I understand why, but talking about race – what does that really mean?” he says. “Listen, when a white comedian goes up, even though he doesn’t mention he’s white, he’s talking about the white experience. He’s talking about race.”

Writing the standup material for Hate thy Neighbour to go alongside his experiences on the road has been easy, Maddix found. What has taken him aback, though, is that some of the extremists he met, including a man with dogs called Adolf and Eva, and General Yahanna from Pennsylvania, an African American “Hebrew Israelite” who believes white people are possessed by Satan, have actually been pleasant company. “I don’t know if we could be friends, but the weird thing about some of these people is that they have nice qualities. There’s one guy who had probably the most horrific views that I heard, but he had likable qualities about him, where you go, ‘If that was taken away, he’d be a great guy.’”

Although many of the groups he met held intolerant views, there was only a single point during filming that Maddix feared for his own safety. “They might say shit behind my back but not to my face,” he says. “There was only one episode where I felt like ‘Fuck!’ I was surprised it happened so late. There’s this mixed-race dude running around the world talking to people who are a bit racist and then, out of nowhere, I forgot that they really do live this life! This was reality.”

Maddix seems a natural fit for the Vice model – that of a regular person, rather than a journalist or a reporter, landing in an extraordinary situation and sending back a dispatch. (For an excoriating and extremely funny primer on the pros and cons of this approach, search “David Carr confronts Vice” from the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times.) At one point, in the first episode of Hate thy Neighbour, when Maddix is hanging out with the young, immigrant-vilifying leader of the Nordic Youth, he chuckles and says: “I’m a journalist… apparently.”

So is he or isn’t he? “Well, I’m not a journalist,” says Maddix. “I’m not. And I don’t want to go there as one. I’m going there representing Jamali; I’m not going there representing journalism, integrity, shit like that. A good journalist, they go there and do the things that a good journalist would do, but in terms of preparing and shit, I didn’t want to make a film where I go there and go, ‘I’ve researched everything and you’re wrong!’ Run around the world going, ‘You’re wrong! And you’re wrong! And you’re wrong!’”

This is perhaps the main difference to Louis Theroux. While one always suspects that Theroux knows more than he’s letting on, Maddix tends to genuinely be reacting on the fly. This can certainly lead to some choice moments. In the first episode of Hate thy Neighbour, he asks a member of Nordic Youth whether he is ever attracted to black women. The young man says no. Maddix pushes: not Beyoncé? Halle Berry? The young man replies that he’s not even sure who they are. “You liar!” laughs Maddix and the two men exchange rueful, revealing smiles.

“Listen, Louis Theroux is the best that’s ever done that style of journalism,” says Maddix. “I ain’t trying to copy his style because there’s no point. Whatever he’s doing, he don’t need to change the recipe. But he’s him, he’s living his reality, I’m living mine. So I’m just trying to do what I can do. I put my little two pence in.”

Maddix has to go to finish the edit on the last films. There’s much more he’d like to achieve – standup tours, more documentaries, move out of his mum’s house – but for now he’s feeling pretty content. “Comedy saved my life,” he says. “I wasn’t going to do anything else in my life. I’ve already done things in standup and things in my life that I never thought I’d achieve. Even sitting here, right now, in the Vice office and talking to the Observer… I’m a boy from Ilford, that shit doesn’t happen to me. Just from telling jokes and that.”

Hate thy Neighbour is on Viceland on Wednesdays at 10pm


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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