Kevoy Burton on His Career, Joseph and Breaking into Nollywood

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Growing up in Jamaica, what was your conception of Africa? 

My perception of Africa was mostly what was portrayed by the media, which was suffering, jungles—animals everywhere—poverty and I mean averse poverty. It looked terrible; I can tell you that, for sure. Dirt everywhere, it didn’t look developed.

And how has coming to Africa challenge those conceptions?

It is nothing like what I have seen on TV. Africa is far more developed than I could have imagined. I went to Ghana, I’m in Nigeria now and it is the same and I haven’t seen any of what has been portrayed to me in the media. And that has wiped [those conceptions]. It was wiped before, obviously, because there’s new information: Google and YouTube, that you can look at and understand that Africa is not what is portrayed in the media.

Let’s talk about Joseph. How did playing Joseph come about?

What happens is I did a film ten years ago, it is called Ghetto Life, and the screenwriter for Joseph she watched the movie and liked me from that and she told me that when she was writing Joseph, she had me in mind to play the lead. Obviously, other people presented choices to her but she was fixed on choosing me. She reached out to me, didn’t get through and finally reached out to my manager who contacted me and told me “you have to audition for this film.” I auditioned and that’s that.

How was the experience filming in Ghana for a couple of weeks? 

Ghana surprised me. The people in Ghana were very professional. They are very efficient with their resources, even better than what was happening in Jamaica. And again, because of what was portrayed in the media, I didn’t expect it to be this great. When I came to Ghana, the people were friendly and warm; everything was done properly and it made the experience better for me.

The tension between traditional and modern in terms of life and medicine, as depicted in the movie, is that a real thing in the Jamaica community?

Traditional medicine is viewed as black magic. We call it Obeah in Jamaica. You go to a gu; he has herbs, he calls the spirit. It is pretty illegal in Jamaica. And it is something I find strange because pharmaceuticals are far more dangerous than herbs because if you take ten tablets of Panadol, that’s probably your last headache. So yeah, it is something that’s frowned upon in Jamaica. So if you say you are going to a herbal healer, people say you are going to an Obeah man to get things done.

Michael: What is different about Jamaica is that there’s much herbal medicine, not for severe conditions, that is commonplace and used alongside traditional medicine. So it is more viewed as old fashioned because it is your grandfather that will say… So a lot of Jamaicans, especially in rural areas, always different herbs growing in the garden. You have a stomach ache, boil this. You have a headache, just boil this. So they are used for mild things, not for major things. And it is perfectly acceptable to the point where a lot of our herbal teas are packaged in tea bags and sold in supermarkets. And you don’t have to go to the garden anymore, you just boil a teabag and most people feel fine after because they really do work for mild conditions, not talking about cancer or any extreme condition. The other thing that Jamaicans believe in is your diet being able to heal to you. So switching your diet from sugar to fruits and vegetables. Eat that because it is good for your eyesight. Eat that because it is good for you.

What do you make of the idea of Black people coming to Africa, do you think that’s something all black people should do?

Yeah, for sure. I definitely believe Africa is for Africans. Marcus Garvey said it. I believe all black people should come to Africa and help develop Africa and create a successful black nation. And I think that’s one of the only ways we eradicate racism even though I don’t think it can be eradicated entirely. But things like racism will disappear for a little bit because now we have a successful nation and someone to defend us. Look it this way, if you’re in America and you are oppressed, who is going to save you? There is no nation to get up and say you can’t treat our people this way. So I believe that everyone in the West should pack their bag and come to Africa and build here. Let’s choose our country.

You have spoken about using this as a springboard into Nollywood. Is this an industry you have been keeping an eye on or are you just understanding how big it is?

We used to get a lot of Nollywood movies in Jamaica, and then we started getting the ones that weren’t quality. We weren’t getting the ones that were in the cinemas. So I have been watching Nollywood for a lil bit, I mean I don’t know all the names but I have been seeing Nollywood for quite some time and I have always believed it is a big industry but I didn’t know how I was going to get here. It is easier to think about Hollywood because I’m in the west and I can take a plane to America, but then when you go to America you become a Black actor, you are put into a category and you don’t get certain roles because obviously you’re a black man, and black men are still oppressed in America in 2020. I always thought Nollywood would have been perfect, but getting to Nollywood- that was the problem. So now that I’m here and I’m seeing what’s going on, I’m trying my best to get to know this industry and stay in this industry.

So what are the Nollywood films you have seen that you like?

I saw Sugar Rush recently and I thought it was hilarious. Then The Wedding Party, Payday and many more on Netflix. The biggest one in Jamaica though was Beyonce and Rihanna. That was a big movie in Jamaica. People were watching it left, right and center. It was dramatic! My stepmother loved it.

Right now, there’s a very big thirst for Africa music, art and content. How do you think we can keep the art authentic and not allow ourselves to be exploited?

Well, to be frank, I realize a lot of people here in Africa are adapting what they see in the west which is strange to me because you guys have your own identity; you have your own music and brand. Afro music, to me, is literally taking over but they have to stay true to the African beats and they have to stay true to the African arts. I mean people have to be compensated for their art, and if people are compensated properly here, then chances are they will probably stay true to the art. If they find that if they go to America, they are getting more than what they get here and the American audience is buying into what they are doing, then they will most likely change to suit that audience a little bit more. So people here have to support the artists.

You have done TV, theatre and film, what will you say is the difference between those formats? 

TV for me is the most hectic because it is usually a series, and it takes weeks or months to shoot series and it is hard to shoot because you shoot out of sequence. You never shoot in a sequence for TV. So that for me is hectic. Movies, you have a month to shoot so it is not as hectic. It is hectic but you know there is an end soon. Stage is one of my favorites because it is live; you get to see the reactions of the audience; you get to interact with the audience. Those are some of the major differences between TV, stage and film. Another thing is, stage in Jamaica is almost like a fixed job, so you do it for six months every night except on Monday night which is time-consuming, obviously. But it is something that I love.

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