Njambi McGrath is a black Kenyan woman in a field that for the most part has white western men: comedy. Njambi McGrath is breaking barriers in the United Kingdom as she makes her way through the comedy scene with her political style of humor.
Even though sometimes her jokes about Africa are not well-received in the UK, such as in her very first set, that hasn’t stopped her from using her Kenyan upbringing in her comedy. In fact, it has helped her to keep persevering. “When you grow up in Africa you see people in much, much more difficult situations than you could ever be in and they just keep going,” she told the Guardian.
She has said that the shock of seeing how her country is portrayed in the UK has inspired her to tackle it in her jokes. One of the jokes she made, as she headlined the Black Comedy Awards a few years ago, was: “Kenya is a country just south of the axis of evil, to the east of the new corridor of terror, and right next door to jihadist cavemen.” Pausing for a second, she added: “Of course, this is no way to introduce oneself to immigration officers.”
She uses her African heritage to her advantage, allowing her to fly a little close to the sun when it comes to poking fun at African stereotypes. She also says that the African tradition of laughing at terrible situations helps her with her comedy.
“The portrayal of Africa abroad – I didn’t recognize it at all. I thought I would play around with that because a lot of people don’t realize that there is humour everywhere in Africa. We see comedy everywhere, sometimes because it is the only way to make sense of things,” said McGrath.
She also lists Kenyan comedian, Eric Omondi and Pakistani-English comedian, Shazia Mirza as influences as well as Robin Williams.
“I had a Somali boyfriend but it didn’t work out. He was only ever interested in the shipping forecasts,” is another joke – a reference to clichés about Somali pirates, which elicited laughter from a mostly black and Asian audience.
While in America, there is a booming black comedy scene, the UK scene can be more stifling. The Black Comedy Awards for a while didn’t have a category for Best Female Newcomer because they “weren’t aware of more than one or two people in the category,” said an event organizer. The biggest black comics are those who alter their sets to cross over to white audiences. However, there is still a demand for black comedy as black audiences want to see themselves onstage.
McGrath was born and grew up in rural Kenya. She received her primary education in Kenya but received university degrees in London and New York. She is fluent in three languages: Swahili, Gikuyu, and English. Growing up she wanted to be both a comedian and work in health care and fought to accomplish this despite her school’s headmistress telling her she “wouldn’t amount to anything.”
She received a degree in computer science and worked in programming. When she had a baby her boss told her that she should go home and be a wife and mother. Fed up with the white male-dominated environment, she quit. While teaching birth preparation classes, she rekindled her love for performance and finally hit the stage after an expecting mother and film script writer told her she should.
Now McGrath is breaking through and paving the way for other black female comedians. In 2012 she was voted as one of the top five female comedians to watch by Fabulous Magazine. She has appeared on BBC World New Year’s Comedy, BBC Radio 4 Saturday Live and was nominated Best Newcomer Black Comedy Awards in 2012.
She also has a hilarious podcast called The Hot African where she has conversations with other comedians and entertainers from across Africa as well as a blog called, The Hot and Bothered African. She is currently writing a book on her father’s life.
Here are some other hilarious African comedians to check out:
- Celeste Ntuli
- The Goliath Brothers
- Trevor Noah (of course)
- Lindy Johnson
- Bright Okpocha (AKA Basket Mouth)
- Anne Kasiime
- Tumi Morake