Comedian and actor Stephen K Amos joins Jimi to discuss how - as a second generation Nigerian in London - he’s subverted perceptions of his heritage to win over audiences and create a space in the comedy world on his own terms.
Plus discover the role bottled peanuts, a strange piece of musical furniture and ITV’s News at 10 bongs play in Stephen’s sense of home.
Jimi Famurewa 00:02
Welcome to Where's Home Really with me, Jimi Famurewa. We're a podcast that digs deep into the culture and heritage of some amazing people, and aims to discover what home really means to them. Every week, I'll be asking my guests to tell me four key elements that helped define for them that unique sense of home. And by the end of each episode, I think you really know where they're from, where they consider home to be. Those four elements are a person, a place, a phrase, and a plate. So for me, it would probably be a giant bowl of cereal, like I'm talking like a fruit bowl sized one because it really reminds me of just the chaos of my house in the summer holidays, lots of cousins everywhere, just real mob rule, and people just kind of living off these huge unfeasibly massive bowls of cereal. But that's enough about me for now, let's hear from my very special guest today.
Stephen K Amos 01:05
So I really thought about what I was going to do what you want to play with people's perceptions. So my first thing was I used to come out with a broad Nigerian accent. Yeah, the jokes as far as I concerned was not the accent. The jokes are the things I said, for example, pointed that a man in the front row look at you openly, openly wearing glasses. You're a sinner. Have you found Jesus, the Lord gave you vision at a limited rate, you defy him by wanting to see more. And then the audience would lap it up. And then I'd stop it. And then they'd go, oh, so What fool them.
Jimi Famurewa 01:41
Today's guest is a stand up comedian, a writer, an actor, and TV personality, born in London into a big family whose parents came over to the UK from Lagos in Nigeria, in the 1960s. So as a second generation Nigerian, born here in London, Stephen K. Amos is very much what this podcast is all about. Steven. Hello,
Stephen K Amos 02:05
Jimmy, thank you so much for having me. I'm very pleased to be talking with you. We'll have quite a few things in common.
Jimi Famurewa 02:11
I think so too. I think it's always that that weird thing? You never want to be presumptuous? Do you never want to presume and be like, were the same. I know exactly your story. And I think we should get into the difficulties of doing that.
Stephen K Amos 02:23
I think you're absolutely right, we shouldn't make assumptions about people. Because at the end of the day, we all have a story to tell. And we all have a journey. If you're a child born of immigrants into this country, that's the starting ground. And then it just shoots off from there.
Jimi Famurewa 02:38
I always kick off by asking people, What the show title means to them. What that question, what their initial thoughts are? The notion of being asked, where's home, really? And those ideas of home? What are the first things it brings to mind?
Stephen K Amos 02:54
Do you know why? That's a really good question, Jimmy. And I really think it depends on who's asking the question, because one can easily be on the backfoot. And think, why are you asking me that? Are you trying to find out whether I belong here there? Are you trying to ascertain my identity? Who I perceive I am in your eyes? Or are you asked in a more gentle way, which is the way I received it from you, Jimmy, I think about comfort, I think about safety, I think about family, I think about joy, I think about laughter, tragedy. You know, I think of all those things that encompass your formative years, those are the kinds of things I think about. But I'd be honest, if somebody asked me, you know, randomly in the street are we trying to say, excuse me, my damn business,
Jimi Famurewa 03:43
is a very good point and an important distinction. But I do also think that it kind of works the other way. And from my experience of say, going back to Lagos, going back to Nigeria, there is this need from like, other black people to get to the bottom of like, why you spoke like that, like who you were, and that goes back to this notion of home. And it being this thing that we carry with us. And that is built up from all our experiences, be a cultural, physical, whatever you want to call it.
Stephen K Amos 04:12
So I think you've just absolutely, again, hit the nail on the head. Because in my formative years, as I'm saying those home is about, you know, with the nurture I received growing up in southwest London. But then in my mind, because of my parents, I had this other notion of home. And the first time I ever went to Nigeria, I think I was 13. And the first thing that struck me was wow, there's a sea of faces, who just looked like me. And I met my dad's brother for the first time, who looks like it could be a twin of my dad, and it was just like, wow, but the moment I opened my mouth, the people around me are going, where are you from? So I'm like, Wow, am I home?
Jimi Famurewa 04:54
Yeah, that's true. There's there's familiarity in there. As affinity and there's that sense of oh my god, like not being a minority, but then of course you give yourself away there isn't this kind of embrace of our you're one of us. And that is richness. And that's interest, isn't it, the degree to which you belong to a bigger culture and a bigger heritage, but you can also be your own individual person. And if we are light on the thought of people, I want to start off with the person that you feel most evokes this sense of home is a member of your family, you come from a very big family, right?
Stephen K Amos 05:32
I know, there's a lot. And I think my parents, they should have gone out more, that's what they should have done. Instead of just having fun. I'm really intrigued
Jimi Famurewa 05:41
because I feel like there's There's any number of candidates for that person, for you, within your family or outside of it, who is the person that represents that
Stephen K Amos 05:49
the people that really solidified home for me, and musicians and musicians from my era of growing up in the early late 70s in London, the music that was in played in our house, I never heard anywhere else. The music by pioneers, African musicians, King Sonny Addy, Ebenezer obey, and the legend that was Fela Kuti. And it was joyous. And that was the time I saw my parents, their happiest. You know, in our house, we used to have one of those 70s radiograms, there was quite long, and they had a record player on top. And to decide they had my I've got the one that my parents had in my house. It's a Blaupunkt of all things, right. And it all works got radio to the side, you pull out the record player that takes vinyls, obviously. And on the bottom, it's got this really kitsch, hideous drink. And all I can remember from growing up since the year.is, my parents literally just jamming and winding to these these musicians. It was called pray life music, Juju music, and was so rich, you know, because if we had it so often, I could sing along to it. And then I began to understand it was that there was singing about and my parents would describe what was going on in the song. And then you'd understand my parents would speak to each other in Yoruba, this before into any form of school. So that's the kind of culture and the life and the buzz that was in my house at the time. The weirdest thing was I did a function at a bigger venue in the West End, and it was celebrating Nigeria Independence Day. And then I said to the DJ, what are you really good is if you play this track by Ebenezer obey, right? Which I love and are coming off syndrome to cloud or go mad, right? And so I come out, you'd have a big self lose, it comes on, and I'm giving it all that thought. And the crowd of young, upwardly mobile 30 generation Nigerian kids. Look at me going, old man, you're so old.
Jimi Famurewa 08:07
Take what you very much. Take a seat uncle moment. No, no more pine wine for Uncle Steven.
Stephen K Amos 08:18
I really thought I'd rock the joint but
Jimi Famurewa 08:22
totally been with you. We're getting into something that that interests me about you because I always think what I always loved and responded to your comedy was you give people a window into that home space that a lot of not just people of Nigerian or West African heritage, but I'm sure a lot of like, people have immigrant heritage recognised and it was true. And it was funny. You were on the path to do the good thing of studying law and the sort of cliched stereotypical proper job of the child of immigrants and something changed. Like what was the moment? That sounds
Stephen K Amos 08:59
a really good question, because it's only later on in life that I began to ask myself what that moment was. And originally when I was going to pursue a career in law, it was all about, you know, getting to work for the Citizens Advice Bureau and being a good member of society and helping people in times of need and trauma and tribulations. But as I went on, I thought, Joe, what do I actually want? I want respect. And what better way to get respect than by standing in front of a roomful of strangers, talking them laughing and applauding?
Jimi Famurewa 09:33
Where did that urge for respect come from? Did that come from things you face growing up?
Stephen K Amos 09:38
Possibly things that my parents face because my parents are really good in terms of not sharing with us what they went through. If you live in another land, and they come from the generation where they used to say things like, oh, when we were under British rule, it was much better in those days. But when they arrived here To the in quotes, motherland, completely different story. And what an upheaval that must have been for these, they were young, they were young people when they arrived here, and to be literally slapped in the face must have been traumatic. But they never showed that to us. My dad worked three jobs sometimes for jobs, that I don't remember a time where they signed on, or they were unemployed. Dad was a cleaner once a bus driver once. Also just to put food on the table for all his children. We had our own house, and there was only one thing they did that really irked me. I went about seven primary schools, because they bought houses that were rundown, did them out and sold them. So they were quite savvy back then, you know, so we moved quite a bit, you know, they thought of themselves as high flying property developers, we thought we were in the witness protection programme, because this is like, we're moving to Austin, what's going on. And so you know, that song, wherever I lay my hat, that's my home, where is my home, I don't know, we had an amazing house and Balam, one of those houses, that's four storeys and a basement. And I remember that we're doing up slowly, slowly. And when we finished the basement, my parents said to us, or now the basement, Stan, this is for you, kids, you could have here and live here within three months I have.
Jimi Famurewa 11:28
So I think if we return to the idea of home, then that is something that again, I think a lot of people will relate to when when home is literally a forever shifting thing. Your notions of it and your sense of it is going to be scrambled isn't there? I remember moving house and I vividly remember like that feeling of like, why have we moved here and kind of not being part of the decisions that have been made. And I think there was this real pragmatism that was really evident in that generation of Nigerian immigrants to this country that might you know, my parents, my mum definitely exhibited, where it's like, you'll be fine, we'll go here, we've got this plan, you'll be fine. And you're kind of being dragged along. And you're sort of really attached to, to these to these various things. And so that must have made it really difficult. And that must shape you in all sorts of interesting ways and continue to, to have an impact
Stephen K Amos 12:25
it did as well protect that thing about when you have to move schools, and then you have to do that thing of re explaining who you are to new friends. You're the new kid on the block. And you've just left the house where you think everyone, everything is settled. And you've got this amazing, I should have room with my older brother. And it was the biggest room in the house. And he had his side had my side. We just got settled in. It was brilliant. And we moved. And he's like, moved down side. What are you doing? And then later on, we're building a house in Nigeria. twice an hour.
Jimi Famurewa 12:59
Well, that's fascinating that yeah, that that to them. That's the prize. That's the thing you're aiming for. It's the home in what you think of as your home isn't it? I want to return to talking about places. But let's talk about the phrase, what phrase really cements and encapsulates this idea of home for you What have you chosen to share with us today?
Stephen K Amos 13:26
See, again, this really I was racking my brain over that. And it really stems back to the notion for me about home being someone who felt safe and secure and loved as in the phrase for me, is actually a theme is the theme to the news at 10. With the bombs and the old theme, did it dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, don't don't don't don't do don't. Don't, don't, don't don't don't don't welcome to the news at 10. And I'll tell you why. It's because of travelling McDonald hasn't McDonald in our household was held in such high regard as a beacon of what is possible. So when he was on TV, literally my mom would shout out to the whole house. Kevin my daughter's on TV. The fact that he wasn't Nigerian. He didn't have a name didn't matter in that moment. He was one of us. But he was the face of respectability. I think my mom had a secret crush on him. But
Jimi Famurewa 14:38
I think it's I think it's a fantastic choice. And I think it's a really really, again like really resonant one for me and I think it feels really telling for you because I think if we go from you working as a live comedians transitioning to TV like you embodied that in so many ways. I'm interested in the degree to which you felt, at the first times that you were transitioning from live work to being on TV and being on these panel shows and being funny, and being this recognisable figure that you felt any pressure to be representative in any sort of way, or did you just literally feel the pressure to be funny? What was that transition like for you?
Stephen K Amos 15:20
I'll be absolutely honest, when I started doing stand up, it was just a bit of a hobby sort of thing to do. And I loved it. I loved the fact that I was hosting a lot of these shows. The idea the thought of being on TV did not even cross my mind, that was not attainable. You know, that really literally was only Liliana literally was. The thing was, I was doing comedy on the live circuit. And it was getting bigger and bigger just by word of mouth. Remember back in those days, it wasn't YouTube, or the internet, whatever. It's it's word of mouth, going up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And I remember the year possibly in probably 2007, or there abouts. I was doing the biggest venue in Edinburgh for a month. And that's like, I mean, like 800 people for a month, you know what my face was on the side of buses and taxis. And by that point, they couldn't ignore you. And then when I did my first ever Live at the Apollo, I've been going for 10 years by then. And I really thought about what I was going to do. And so I thought, I'm going to do what I've been doing on the comedy circuit, which I want to play with people's perceptions. So my first thing was I used to come out with a broad Nigerian accent. Yes, I remember. Just yeah. But the jokes as far as I concerned was what I said, not the accent. Don't laugh at the accent. The jokes are the things I said for example, I pointed at a man in the front row, look at you openly openly wearing glasses. You're a sinner, have you found results. The Lord gave you vision at a limited rate. You defy him by wanting to see more. So Jeremy, those and then the audit would lap it up. And then I'd stop it. And then they'd go, oh, so what fooled them. I'd fooled them. And then I think when that came out, I was I also did maybe the raw variety. And then maybe I haven't got new C or something all came out in like within a month and people were like, Who is this guy? And the weirdest thing about that was people started trying to compare me to Lenny Henry, I was like, is that the barometer now is that we're now going to be pitted against each other. And maybe it was naive of me. But I didn't appreciate the weight of what that would represent. Because when I did that show, the first time I did the Apollo walking down the street weeks of days afterward, I'd be stopped in the street by young Donnelly black youth sang thank you for representing
Jimi Famurewa 18:01
my guest today is Stephen K. Amos. Hello. Hello. We've not really spoken about food but I am intrigued to know what your dish is going to be that really speaks to that notion of home for you a full
Stephen K Amos 18:15
English breakfast, we would have that every Sunday. So that was like a treat. And we'd all eating together would be in the kitchen helping mom cook all the the sausages, the bacon the eggs, and we get a choice that one time we'd have a choice you want your scrambled or fried or. And we'd have it together with toast. It was like baked beans, Johnson pepper on your beat. Yeah, give it a cake. It was brilliant. That is why today I still love a fool if I'm ever doing a job outside London or abroad, and I'm staying in a hotel and breakfast is included. I will always get out for breakfast. And I will always have a full English.
Jimi Famurewa 18:57
That's interesting to me that you because we definitely had you know a lot of sort of bacon and eggs and things like that. And my mum would cook spaghetti bolognese and things like that. But the thing that we always returned to was rice, stews, a lot of Nigerian dishes, we'd have stewed eggs like kind of folded together with like, spicy tomato sauce. And with yam. We'd have that on a Sunday, like kind of after church. That's interesting to me that yeah, that your parents would pander in that way or did they love British food as much as you?
Stephen K Amos 19:28
Absolutely not. That is why we didn't have a spaghetti bowl today or shepherd's pie or steak. We didn't have any of that. Every evening. It would either be rice with some sort of proper Nigerian pots do and chicken or beef, right? On the special occasions, a goosey soup which is full of bitter leaves. Those who don't know it's made from the seeds of melon. There's a particular way you make it and then had my mum used to also also, chicken feet was a thing, liver, which come back. So now I will go out of my way, I've got a very good friend of mine who has a catering business. And every other week, I get a delivery of Nigerian food, which is a Gooshie soup, which is Jollof rice, pepper soup, and I have it all delivered frozen, and I just make it up myself. Every now and then I can't make myself but it was a joy helping my mom, because we just go to the market buy all the ingredients and the House would smell beautiful
Jimi Famurewa 20:41
if we get onto your place, is it is it Nigeria? Is it Lagos? Or is it one of those those amazing lost homes that you that you that you were ripped from just as you were just as you were settling into your gigantic bedrooms?
Stephen K Amos 20:56
She No, it is neither. But there is a connection. One of my favourite houses that I used to live in with my family. We had a next door neighbour. And I was just enamoured by this woman she was black, beautiful. And I just wondered what she did. And we got chatting, found out that she was also of Nigerian heritage, her name, it's Debbie Taylor. And I thought wow. And then I spent a lot of time because she lived the house next door was divided into flats, and she lived on the top floor. I just wanted to go there. And then I found out she was a performer and actress. And she inspired me because back then I used to write lots of scripts. So I had like, I used to tape them to her so she could read them and give me her advice. And then she was in the first London production of Cats, the original production. And I went and I saw her and I was just all of this woman. She drove a yellow to CTV, she lived on a road. She was independent. She was Nigerian. She was working in the West End. It gave me hope. And then we lost touch for about 15 or so years. And then got in touch with each other last year on social media. And she came to see Me in My Fair Lady, I got a ticket and it was just like, full circle. And at the end, we met up she said I always knew you could do it. And I was just like, it was such a moment. Because when I first started doing comedy, I didn't tell ya know, they thought I was a mini cab driver. I was out all hours of the day. When I started getting sort of regular paid work, my dad would still when I used to visit them would still have jobs from the council. And it's always
Jimi Famurewa 22:57
getting to the point where you have to sort of like you know, quickly turn the TV off as you appear on a colour thing to to keep up the rules that you're just like a very successful mini cab driver
Stephen K Amos 23:07
when I did my own show at the Apollo Hammersmith Apollo. My parents were flying in from Nigeria that day. And I got them seats gotten picked up the airport sat in the stalls, and I put on like a big after show party saying Nigerian Catering and I was so overwhelmed. I didn't change my routine. I did all that stuff. I do the talking about them. At the end I went Can I just tell you later when my parents have arrived just in time, at least the first time to cry crowd when my mum stood up and it was
Jimi Famurewa 23:50
so we're talking a lot about British Nigerian culture and that notion of second generation third generation immigrants and what they kind of take from British culture in a lot of ways. But I wonder what are some of the impacts that you feel that that your culture has had on British culture on kind of you know, where you've grown up like where you live, like whether it'd be food or music like what are some of the things you see and how do you feel that that is kind of now part of the broader British story?
Stephen K Amos 24:19
Oh my goodness, there's so much you go to the supermarket now there's you can buy you can buy Gary, you can buy a Gucci seeds in Tesco. You go to the My locals market, which isn't far from me, tooting Broadway market, you go in there. And the array of smells reminds you of being in a market in Lagos. I took my husband to Thornton Heath in southwest London and the man that was selling the yams, the peanuts in a bottle that you get in Nigeria that I used to bring home. My mom used to buy yams and bring from Nigeria bring him to England. We don't have to do isn't anymore. And the man whose job it was, was talking to Lee in Yoruba. And I'm like, wow, and look at the music whiz kid, this young lad from, from Lagos, who sells out the ode to, you know, taking the baton on from your fellow cooties and influencing musicians around the world. People want to work with you talk with you. It's no you can't ignore the fact that you know, Nigeria is still one of the biggest oil producing countries in the world. So very important. When I went to Lagos last time, I went to a place just off Victoria Island called Leckie, which is just like going around Hyde Park. It's so glamorous to remain and the money from wealthy Nigerians and come here and get this economy going.
Jimi Famurewa 25:56
Stephen K. Amos, thank you so much. It's been fantastic to talk to you to kind of find those points that connection, but also to return back to it those points where I think it's really important that we're allowed to deviate. And we're allowed to kind of claim our culture and our heritage in our own way and for ourselves. And it isn't just the, the possession of our parents generation or, or people that still live in our kind of ancestral countries, wherever that may be that that it can become something that we're proud of.
Stephen K Amos 26:25
Well, thank you so much for having me, Jimmy, I really do appreciate and I really liked the fact that we went in depth, you asked about me embrace my culture, you know, whatever. When I go to Nigeria, when I get on that plane at Heathrow, I change into my traditional clothes, and nine times out of 10. I'm the only person on the plane wearing my traditional clothes. And I love it. And that also means when I get to the other side, I'm not happy at the airport.
Jimi Famurewa 26:55
Yeah, a beautiful sort of physical manifestation of returning to your spiritual home. And also just good sort of travel practice for anyone that's been to Lagos airport. Thank you, Steven,
Stephen K Amos 27:12
thank you for having me.
Jimi Famurewa 27:15
On absolutely staggered, that was fantastic. It's so good to speak to Steven. I was kind of quite surprised in a lovely way because I think he's a figure that a lot of us recognise and we know how funny how quick he is. But it was really amazing to get some insight into the person behind that into, you know, some of the difficult challenges. He's gone through his experience a different era of black immigrant life in London in the UK, he sort of told it all with such weights and vibrancy and honesty. And yeah, I feel like who I thought he was is shifted in a really lovely way. Please join me next time, we will have another amazing guests with their own unique stories and special interpretation of what home really means to them. And why not follow where's home really on your favourite podcast platform? And we'd love to hear your thoughts. So drop us a comment or leave a review from Podimo and Listen, this has been where's home really? Hosted by me, Jimi Famurewa were the producers are Tayo Popoola and Aiden Judd, the executive producers for Podimo are Jake Chudnow and Matt White and for Listen is Kelly Redmond. Until next time.