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Gina Yashere: 'Black people are too complacent... we sit back and let people tread all over us'

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Over the last decade, there’s been a notable ‘brain drain’ in the UK, whereby some of the country’s most talented black creatives have migrated to America, to flourish therein and maximise on its wealth of opportunities. You already know some of the names, and one of the most prolific of those successes is our Gina.

The 43-year-old has become a primetime star in the States and there are few funny bones that she hasn’t tickled. Gina goes in; she’s featured as a selected comic on Gotham Comedy Live, was the only black Brit to perform on Def Comedy Jam and broadcasts on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, to name a few accomplishments. Here we chat with the renowned, East London performer on upping sticks for America, new ventures and living the dream.

On building a successful stateside career... 

I’ve been out there ten years, had to work my ass off and be consistently good. And persistent. The first few years was a real struggle.

I came out there as a British woman. For a start, most Americans have never been outside of America. Like, up to 75% haven’t even got passports. So, most of them don’t even know that there are black people in England.

Now, they’re starting to learn about black people with Idris Elba and all of that. Remember, Idris and those guys, got to America, playing Americans. So, I still think there’s probably a chunk of Americans that still don’t believe he’s British.

On challenging perceptions of being British...

Coming out there, they didn’t know what to do with me. They didn’t know what to make of me. That was difficult; trying to change people’s perceptions of what England is about.

If you look at American TV, British has always been, y’know, Hugh Grant, Ricky Gervais. It’s been white men, that’s all they see. Or the English rose – the Queen. Coming out there, as a comedian, I had to educate people. I had to go ‘yeah, there’s a different kind of British person out there, just like there’s different types of Americans’.

I got on lots of shows because I was different, but pushing it to the next level has been hard. For women in comedy as a whole, it’s gone way of pop music where it’s all about being young. The older comics that are making it through, are all older white men! How many older white women are breaking it and becoming massive right now? It’s all young white women.

On becoming a UK correspondent on Trevor Noah show on Comedy Central...

I never auditioned for the show – Trevor just texted me. I’ve known him for years; we’ve worked around the world together. I’ve worked with him in Florida on a TV show, we worked in Australia and then, when he moved to New York, we were seeing each other at the Comedy Cellar which is premium comedy club in the city. So, he saw what I do.

He and I have a similar outlook; both of us are outsiders, looking in on American culture. When he got that show, I was happy for him but thought nothing of it.

Comedy Central has always been a channel that seems to be geared towards the youth, and I’m no longer a youth, so I wasn’t planning to try and get on that show because I thought "that channel doesn’t think I fit their demographic."

Then, one day, I got a text from Trevor asking me to come on the show. I was like cool, and that’s how that came about. So, it was all very casual and organic, really.

To me, it’s another show. It’s deserved because I am very good at what I do and I am loving it.

Which black British comedians inspire you?

I’ll always be grateful to Lenny for giving me the opportunity to come on his show (The Lenny Henry Show), and bringing me to a wider audience.

Up until that point, I was what you’d call ‘hood famous’. I had a black audience; I love them and they love me, but I was never seen as viable on mainstream TV.

As a kid, Lenny Henry was the black comic that I saw on TV. He inspired me. I am now that person for the younger generation.

Curtis Walker, to me will always be the don of comedy. He’s still the most original and funniest one out there.

On the lack of black comedy across British television...

Are these people [broadcasters] fucking listening? It irritates me because, if you come to any of my shows and you’ll see this massive theatre packed with all kinds of people – black, white, old, young, gay, straight, everybody’s in there. And these people can’t seem to see that, they're just feeding out the same bullshit comedians.

There’s a wider market and I don’t understand what they’re thinking.

Black people are too complacent. We sit back and let people tread all over us. We need to say "you know what, we’re not paying our TV license, we’re not gonna spend our money with you, we’ll go online and watch our shit there because you’re not representing us on your TV shows.”

We’re moving away from TV anyway to be honest; most people of 24 and under consume most of their content online. TV is dying. If they don’t get their shit together, they’re gonna find themselves out in the cold in no time.

On her greatest responsibility as a comedian...

My greatest and only responsibility as a comedian is to make people laugh; that’s it. I don’t want to be nobody’s role model, I don’t want to be a political commentator, I don’t want any of that.

I’m not saying that I’m not political; I am, just by virtue of who I am and what I talk about, as a black woman in this society. But, if you come to my show and you’re educated then that’s a bonus, if you’ve learned something new, if you see black people, women or gay people through a new lens – that’s a bonus.

But, at the end of the day, first and foremost, I want you to come out of my show with aching stomach muscles from laughing!

On breaking the glass ceiling and opening doors... 

When I hit the glass ceiling, I hope I smash through it, In the same way that Kevin Hart has done. He’s now the most successful comedian on the planet! I’m getting up there in age now, I’ve over 40, so I may not be able to smash it. In which case, I am more than happy to nudge it with my forehead, make them millions, carry on doing what I am doing and just open the door for someone else to smash it in the future.

On moving back to the UK... 

It would be pointless.

I’ll come back, do my shows. London is where I am from, British born and raised and I’ll never forget that. My fan base is the UK is the most rabid; they come out and support what I do. I love my UK audience. But I think I’ve done what I can do here.

I’ve been around for so long that people take my shit for granted. That’s why I had to go to America, now that’s why I’m getting all this love back in England. Live at the Apollo and all that kind of stuff. I was funny enough for that ten years ago – but I wasn’t getting it. But I’m getting it now because I’m gained respect somewhere else. That’s how all of the actors done it – Idris; Estelle, who’s doing brilliantly.

On healthy eating and living with Lupus...

I eat very healthily - nothing but organic food and no bullshit, processed foods. I try to limit my sugar intake because it’s the devil. Sugar is like a cancer magnet. I make my own chocolate!

I am feeling good and haven’t had any lupus symptoms for a long time.

On her aspirations...

What I am doing now is my dream - I love doing what I do.

The bigger dream would be doing this on a bigger scale.

I’d love to perform in bigger theatres. Stadiums? I don’t know about comedy in stadiums. It looks amazing but I don’t think it is really conducive to good comedy. Comedy, to me, is about the intimacy, about you being in a room with people and sharing your experience.

But the prestige of being able to perform in a stadium; I’d like to be able to do it once, to say I’ve done it.

If I could make my living, like Joan Rivers, until I drop dead, performing live shows to massive audiences that love what I do – that’s all I want, really. I don’t give a shit about being a movie star, I don’t care about any of that.

I just want to be a massively famous and successful stand-up comic.

Gina Yashere is currently playing at the Udderbelly Festival, from 21st to 25th June

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