In Conversation With Chinasa Anukam, Nigeria’s Next Stand-Up Queen

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“Good comedy is intelligent. It should say something meaningful and speak to the human condition,” Chinasa Anukam declares. “I want to make intelligent comedy.” Her voice, when it comes through the receiver, channels a ceaseless conviction. Her speaking voice betrays a cross-cultural heritage, as her Nigerian English is tacked with all sorts of Americana and Britishisms. The interview takes an unlikely turn when I ask, “Do you play basketball?” To which she responds, “No”, before saying, “Stand-up comedy is where I feel like Michael Jordan.”

Chinasa is a product of Abuja — Nigeria’s capital city, with a heavy Muslim population — and Loyola Jesuit College, an Abuja-based secondary school owned by the Catholic church, a sect not typically known for its liberalism. She describes Abuja as a “conservative city,” then relays an anecdote as proof. “One time, my friend was chased out of Wuse Market for wearing a skimpy dress.” Still, she doesn’t think the conservatism, in which her early sensibilities were reared, affects her work, because, by her account, “I’ve always been someone who only accepts what makes sense to me. If certain conservative values do not make sense to me, I don’t accept them. If it does, then sure. I just create what I enjoy, and that’s what I tell people to do, too.”

For Chinasa, wit is everything. No wonder she flirts with freestyle and battle rap, that street-rough niche where clever, off-the-cuff coinages curry the crowd into one’s corner. Think B-Rabbit in 8 Mile or Cyrus DeBarge in Disney’s Let it Shine. “I want to do more rap in the future. I mostly follow the U.K. rap scene,” the lawyer-turned-creative says. In October 2020, Chinasa put out an approximation of a rap verse on her TikTok page, a spoken word piece on the End SARS protests, an anti-police brutality campaign taking place in Nigeria at the time. But she isn’t just a rap or poetry enthusiast. She’s also a screenwriter, actor, stand-up comedian, presenter, writer, content creator, and online comic. I make a point to note the broad dimensions of her interests, then ask how she gets the best out of each of them, and if there are genres she prefers working in. “If you look at all these things,” she replies, “you will see that they are all connected in one way. They all involve the use of words. Writing is at the core of everything I do. That’s why I find it easy to navigate them. Of course, some require more effort and time than others, but I wouldn’t say one is easier than the other. My preferred category? I would say stand-up comedy.”

Though born in the United States and a Nigerian by descent, Chinasa started her stand-up comedy career in the United Kingdom. In her words, “I didn’t want to start in the U.S. because people there are too polite to tell you the truth. In the U.K., if you are shit, they tell you immediately. I needed that straightforward truth. To know if I was good at what I was doing or not. And the U.K. seemed like the perfect place for that.” Chinasa got into stand-up comedy before ever adopting any one comic idol. Trevor Noah, however, first showed her the possibility of a comedy career. His grasp of global politics and ability to convey it in basic terms appealed to her. She’s keenly interested in politics, too, wishing for her comedy to encapsulate the spirit of the times without the baggage of condescension and self-absorbed judgement. She doesn’t want to make merchandise out of Nigerian trauma or tell those familiar stories that end with “To God be the Glory,” that Nollywood trope in which the good or godly— or God himself — always prevails at the end of a film. Even when Chinasa depicts tragedy in her work, she wants people to laugh through it. A ready instance of her commitment to handling real-life issues with comic gloves is one of her recent and most successful TikTok skits, where she parodies upper-middle-class Nigerians who harvest poverty stereotypes about Africa for self-profit. In this skit, she plays a rich Nigerian woman who, typing on an ostensibly expensive laptop, applies to Harvard University from her plush bedroom, cross-legged in air-conditioned comfort. “Dear Admissions Officer,” the TikTok character types, “I am writing this essay from a cyber-café in third-world, poverty-stricken Africa. We have had no electricity for the past three days.” I’m curious as to the thinking behind the skit and she says, “It shouldn’t surprise anyone when a group of people start to weaponise the stereotypes made about them.”

Chinasa goes on to name names, a clan of creatives she claims inspired her in some way, many of them Nigerian and non-comic acts: Ali Baba, Basketmouth, Bovi, Genevieve Nnaji, I Go Die, Ini Edo, Jazzman Olofin, Styl Plus, Tony Tetuila, Weird MC, Zaki. She cites Beyoncé’s Flawless, off the singer’s self-titled 2013 album, as the portal through which she got on a first-name basis with Chimamanda Adichie’s feminism, as summarised in the latter’s We should all be feminists 2012 TEDx talk, a discovery that Chinasa claims altered her life forever. She identifies as a feminist, then muses on the place of women in stand-up comedy, a space which has been and remains a boy’s club, or a “white men’s club,” as Chinasa puts it.  She acknowledges that women, by cultural demands, aren’t allowed to be uninhibited and funny in the ways that men are. The vocabulary of comedy is ninety percent vulgarity — fuck, pussy, cock, shit, motherfucker. And while a man can get away with saying any of those on stage, such language isn’t expected of a woman, comic or not. Literature is littered with instances of men, even of the cerebral variety, casting doubt on women’s ability to be humorous. These naysayers include William Congreve and Reginald Blyth; even Christopher Hitchens, who, in his 2007 Vanity Fair article, Why Women Can’t be Funny, claimed women are less funny than men because, unlike men, they have no need of humour in attracting the opposite sex. Chinasa hopes more women will be allowed to thrive in the genre without prejudice. “Rap, for instance,” she says, “has really opened up to women. That’s something I want for stand-up comedy.”

Chinasa holds up stand-up comedy against its online equivalent, pointing out where the two of them intersect and diverge. She notes that both require comedic timing, storytelling, skilful delivery, and some writing. Both, in her opinion, equally take time to create. But the latter allows for gaffes, as the online comic enjoys the gift of editing and second or third takes. In stand-up, the comic has only one chance to get it right. Face to face with a live audience — with “knees weak, arms heavy, mom’s spaghetti” — she feels the mortal threat of death that’s as acute as the feel of the microphone in her hands.

Away from stand-up, Chinasa, who is formally trained in stage drama, starred in her first television film, the Nollywood series Money. Men. Marriage in October 2021. Sharing screen-time with actresses like Toni Tones, A’rese, and Adebukola Oladipupo, she tells me she felt out of sorts on set, having had little prior experience. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she confesses. She says she has since picked up vital lessons and looks forward to appearing in many more films; even, perhaps, making a feature film of her own.

Our chat settles on Is This Seat Taken? (ITST), Chinasa’s self-funded web series that premiered on her YouTube channel last year. In each episode of the series, Chinasa goes on a date with a public figure, with whom she has an unscripted conversation. The show’s first season has entertained the likes of Ajebutter, Prettyboydo, and Falz the Bahd Guy. Is This Seat Taken? is an old idea given new skin by Chinasa. By her admission, she was inspired to create the show by the Chicken Shop Date web series, created by the British YouTuber, Amelia Dimoldenberg. “I wanted to create a platform where celebrities can come and be human. Where viewers can see the intimate and interior side of public figures, and see them involved in a funny, witty, and unscripted exchange. Naturally, the first person I thought of was Falz. I knew he was someone who could match my energy and keep the back-and-forth going. I knew that I had to have him on the show.”

Like Falz, whose spontaneity she extols, Chinasa studied Law as an undergraduate but betrayed it for non-lawyering work. “Law is more about enforcing the status quo. I have always been interested in creative things, even as a child, but my parents wanted me to study Law. You ask me why it seems like many lawyers end up in more artistic fields? I think that’s down to our Nigerian education system and the hasty ways that it places kids in categories. Just because a child is articulate or interested in social activism while in secondary school, his parents or teachers conclude that she is fated to study Law, even when there are at least fifty other fields in which the child’s gifts could be useful.”

When I ask about the challenges of her work, Chinasa recites a long rosary prayer of complaints. “It is very difficult doing my kind of work here in Nigeria. Would you believe it if I told you that some people offer N15,000 to me so I can create video content for them? Imagine that! The reward is sometimes poor and some people feel that they can underpay creatives. I also don’t think that we have a proper industry structure here for people in my line of work. In the U.S., I perform in several clubs and at open mics. But we don’t have that sort of thing here. We are also more focused on appearance than substance. In the West, someone with 2000 followers on Twitter will be paid well to advertise a brand, so far as he gets lots of engagement even with his 2000 followers. Here, they look at the number of followers you have and are only willing to pay well if you have a million followers. Yet we wonder why many people invest their time into buying followers and trying to cheat the system. We need to stop this culture of mediocrity.” Among other challenges she lists is having to work with celebrities with busy schedules. She emphasises having a “reliable team” and being “prepared for everything to go wrong.” When asked where she sees herself in the next ten years, it’s a twofold response: “I want to be financially stable, and to be the best at what I do.”

During the interview, Chinasa often says that she produces her work with a “global audience” in mind. So I ask a trick question: “Which would you take — a global audience of 10 million or one with 100 million Nigerians?” She chooses the former without skipping a beat. “Where is the electricity?” At once her skit haunts my mind: “Dear Admissions Officer… We have had no electricity for the past three days.” At the moment, I recall a line from Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.”

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