BGT standup sensation Nabil Abdulrashid: 'There's so many people to annoy!'

His routines about race, identity and a black Winston Churchill clocked 3,000 complaints. As he looks forward to touring again, the standup explains why he won’t be toning things down

Watch Nabil Abdulrashid’s audition for Britain’s Got Talent from last year and you’ll see a man overcome by emotion when judge Alesha Dixon’s buzzer propels him into the contest proper. “That means a lot!” scream Ant and Dec from the wings, as confetti rains down on the 35-year-old, who’s close to tears. “At that moment,” Abdulrashid says now, “I thought of all the times I’d emailed agents who never got back to me, all the times I’d emailed comedy nights that wouldn’t let me get 10 minutes, all the times I’d smashed shows and they wouldn’t call me back. All that anger, frustration and pain – I let it loose on stage because I knew that, no matter what happens now, that stuff will never happen to me again.”

Abdulrashid was no talent-show greenhorn, trying his luck for the cameras, though. A 10-year comedy circuit veteran, the British-Nigerian turned to BGT in despair that “the traditional avenues” – to television in particular – “seemed exhausted”. By the end of the series, he’d become a tabloid mainstay, his routines about British Muslim identity, #BLM and Winston Churchill being black attracting 3,000 complaints, and many, many more fans. He finished fourth in the final. “But my name,” he tells me via Zoom, “trended more than the winner’s. Anybody who remembers BGT last year will remember me.”

‘That means a lot’ … the golden glitter rains down on BGT.
‘That means a lot!’ … the golden glitter rains down on BGT. Photograph: Tom Dymond/Syco/Thames/PA

Four months on, Abdulrashid has just moved house (with his wife and two kids) and is prepping an autumn tour, coronavirus permitting, to consolidate his BGT success. It will address “experiences in my life I’ve never spoken about before. I’ve seen a lot of crazy shit. How many people have seen a rocket launch at the Nasa space camp, but also been chased by police in Ghana? I owe it to standup to get these things out there.”

Abdulrashid’s chequered life story is certainly part of his appeal. Privately educated but at home among the “roadmen” of Croydon, he spent his youth between London and a Nigeria emerging bumpily from military rule. A self-styled “bad boy” of comedy who funds an African orphanage, and a Muslim who looks, as he joked on BGT, more like a Marlon or Babatunde than a Nabil Abdulrashid, this is a man who straddles multiple identities – and plays them off against one another skilfully. Last autumn at Soho theatre in London, between Covid ascendancies, I saw him deliver a terrific set, addressing race and cultural sensitivity in today’s Britain with a refreshing lack of piety, point-scoring or easy provocation.

That’s the idea, he says – to speak about his life without fear or favour, toeing no one’s line but his own. “I don’t identify as a member of anything. But, no matter how liberal or conservative someone is, they’re not going to be consistently liberal or conservative about everything. Some people are financially conservative but morally liberal: they don’t want to pay taxes, but do want to do something about police brutality. I find that interesting – and funny. Human beings have so much nuance. Comedy doesn’t often explore that.”

Instead, he says, “a lot of comics just say what everybody wants to hear”. This temptation would be easy for him to succumb to, as a black comic forever being told white audiences won’t get your work. “And I’m very black,” says Abdulrashid. “I am a practising black man. But I just don’t believe these differences really exist. I’ve never met a white person who didn’t watch Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

That’s not to deny what Abdulrashid calls “the colour line in comedy”. Promoters who wouldn’t book two people of colour on the same bill contributed to his career stasis, he says, adding that the standup community teems with “vitriolic anger from white comics who aren’t funny and blame it on diversity”. Abdulrashid’s response is not to soften his hard edges to blend in. “If you spend all your time worrying about what other people are doing, you’ll never really do you.”

Before going on BGT, he says, “a lot of people advised me, ‘Nabil, be careful. Just be funny, don’t annoy anybody and you could win.’ But if I win like that, I’ve not won. A version of me that’s not true has won.” Instead, he stood up on primetime ITV and joked about racism, stop and search, Islamophobia – and how, with pubs closed and everyone covering their faces, pandemic Britain looks to Muslims as if: “We won! We won!” It was true to himself, and amusing to the rest of the nation, give or take 3,000 Ofcom botherers.

Abdulrashid is relaxed about them. “There’s so many people to annoy, so many topics to discuss,” he says. “It’s flammable right now, and a good comic should be happy about that. It’s a hotbed of opportunity if you know what you’re doing.” He does, and he’s bursting to get out there, post-Covid, to prove it. “Imagine doing something well for 10 years and being ignored – only to finally get an opportunity to prove what you’ve been saying for so long: ‘Look, I am good at what I do, but no one gave me a chance to show it.’”

• Nabil Abdulrashid is at the Lighthouse arts centre, Poole, on 9 September. Then touring.

Contributor

Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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