Mayowa Olowoselu interviewed by Ronnie Krupa for Black History Month

What does Black History Month mean for you? Is it tokenism? 

I’m very interested in black history. I had a lot of questions. I’m Nigerian so everything I knew about being black was related to being Nigerian. The older I got the more people I was meeting who had similar stories but in different contexts. Black history month is the chance to learn all of these stories and how they connect and also I just love history and I just like to know how things developed, how we got here. So, I don’t think black history month is tokenism. It’s significant to look at how things change and where we are now. 

A stunning response. At the moment you are studying law. What encouraged this choice? 

I kind of got pushed. I was really indecisive so when everyone was writing their personal statement, I had no idea what I wanted. I never thought I would get into university and thought about what I am really good at. And I thought about history; so what can I do with a history degree? Oh law, the typical thing they tell girls; you’re argumentative so do law. I applied for history and law which not many offered but I happened to go to the best one I got into, which was Liverpool. I never wanted to be a lawyer but it seemed like a good option, and then I dropped the history which I now regret but I am sure I did it for a valid reason at the time. And I guess I’m here now. 

And if you could go back, do you think you would change course or are you happy with where you ended up? 

Yes and no. there is a particular branch I am interested in; International and Criminal law which consist of genocide, crimes against humanity; things like that. It is very complicated as everyone wants to take down the next dictator. In the uni I went to the professors really care about imperialism and I got to have that link with history. If I were to pick again I wouldn’t pick law, I would have done history first and came to law willingly rather than just fall into it. And I didn’t really understand at the time that I could still be a lawyer with just a history degree. If I did pick history though I wouldn’t have known so much about this part of law that I love, it’s very give or take. History was my initial passion but I got scared out of it. 

How far are you in your studies

So, in England you have to have your undergraduate and law school completed to become a solicitor or barrister. Or the GDL; I did my undergraduate, got scared, then did masters, so I still need to go to law school. I’ve had law experience here and there but I need the last two years to say I am a lawyer. 

How did you become involved with Pascal Theatre Company? 

I was struggling to get a job and this lady at church informed me of organisations you can apply to for volunteering as it helps to get your foot in the door. I haven’t done anything crazy since I was seventeen years old, so I thought I’d go for it. I am involved in social media so I thought this would be great. I had my interview with Sally and Julia and towards the end they were already telling me about my role and I was like “have I got it already?” 

What other responsibilities have you had during this role

So far I’ve done two things. As I started in August and the main focus was on the production they had; I took pictures, contacted Sally back and forth, trying to come up with a theme for black history month. I researched some black patrons they wanted to interview and put together a document and sent that to Sally. I spent a long time trying to send pictures and videos but for the life of me it took two weeks to get them to her. I’ve sent photos and videos since I’ve had a phone, I don’t know why it took so long. I then helped to guide the audience around as it was a really interactive piece. For me it feels like I’ve experienced more than I’ve done. As I don’t know much about the performing arts and the first time I met them I was interviewing students. It was very weird as I felt like I didn’t know what I signed up for. I interviewed a couple people, and they all had such great things to say, it makes me want to get involved even more. 

That sounds very interesting. Going back to law, you want to focus on human rights; can you tell me more about what drives your interest in that field

I’ve always been someone who had a problem with injustice, which manifested from being nosy. Which is good for my career, not for when you’re fourteen years old. I was very interested in why black people got treated the way they did, and when you are interested in history; you inevitably are interested in colonialism and slavery, slave trade and how that affects today. I had a great lecturer. She never told us exactly what her job was, she was vague in description about her criminal cases and I was like tell me who. I was hooked and wanted to know more. They took us on a trip, where I was able to see all of these international organisations come together in one city in the Netherlands, all trying to defend people’s rights, and help people who have suffered some of the worst crimes against humanity. We can’t put those countries back how they deserve to be but at least if a little bit of justice is served, for some of the worst crimes in history then why not? People go to jail for smoking a bit of weed or getting in a fight. But you can wipe out entire villages and get away with it like you’ve not done anything. To me this didn’t make sense. 

Absolutely! Do you ever feel that the courtroom is a form of theatre, how do these two link for you?

Yes and no. I’ve not been to as many court cases as I’d like, but the ones I have were fascinating. It feels literally like I am watching a tv show; I did go to one, and when they were reading off all of the issues, I was like this is like something you don’t see in real life, especially when I got to see a criminal who was referred to on tv, someone a lot of people had been talking about. Even the judge looking very sterically, the jury watching; it was like a tv show. So sometimes there is a connection, but what prevents me from saying that they are similar is the seriousness. Theatre is very important and affects people’s real life, changes perspectives, so I wouldn’t say it’s not important. But watching these moments in court affect people’s lives and watching the cases I would have to lean more to say they are not similar. But I can understand how or why people make that connection. 

It must be fascinating to observe some of these situations people have found themselves in. So more back to you, tell me where you grew up

I grew up in Dagenham, born in North London. Been here all my life since I was three. Dagenham is an interesting place. A big shift I’ve noticed in my life was a very working class place with a lot of people who used to work in Ford Motors, which is not far from where I live now, losing their jobs when it closed. So, this has always been a poor borough. It affected the morale of the area which manifested into economic decline; there was a big migration into the area, especially Africans. A lot of people said, They’re stealing our jobs.’ We were not stealing their jobs, there were just not enough there. The new wave is Asian people, it’s interesting to watch diversity happen. The houses here were the cheapest in London; I went to school in another borough; to Havering which is on the edge completely.

Would you class yourself as black British? And what do you feel about the categorization of ethnicity? 

I think about this question a lot, because it’s so interesting. I used to say black but depends on who was asking. If a white person asks, then I said British to prove I am from here. If a black person asked, I would say Nigerian as I thought they may be looking for cultural connection. When I went to university, I’d say London; there are so many elements. Even then, if another Nigerian was asking me about my ethnic group, of which there are hundreds of, I thought black British was a more accurate description. As when I go to Nigeria, they make fun of my accent, they say I can’t fully speak my language. I am British; I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for growing up here. But I am very connected to my black culture. Within black British there are so many cultures which are mixed together like Jamaican, Nigerian etc. So, I really don’t know; it depends who’s asking, as I never know what they mean by the question. 

Do you ever feel confused about how to describe who you are? 

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I’m trying to not be confused. I shouldn’t let how other people view me change how I view myself. Even if Nigerians say I’m not Nigerian: well this is how I was raised. People tell me I’m not British: well I sound like it. I only learned British history in school, it’s the only language I learned. So, I don’t think I’m worried, insecure, or confused, but I like thinking about it. It’s an interesting discussion. But throughout my lifetime I think black British will be a big discussion, and I think it will be interesting to watch that discussion evolve. 

What about women’s rights? Do you experience a change between your parents or grandparents youthful aspirations to what you’re experiencing now

Yeah, women’s rights before I learned black history was my favourite thing to talk about. Where I live now is behind my old primary school, where I started a petition that girls should be able to wear trousers. They still can’t actually but it’s not fair that they can’t. I feel like feminism is my love when it comes to caring about injustice. I’m definitely achieving things people before me haven’t. But the way I was brought up, in the family that raised me, gender was never really an aspect that stopped me from doing anything. Apart from karate. But when I speak to other people, I realise not everyone had the same upbringing as me. The older I’m getting, what I view as equality is changing. When I was younger it was about the trousers. Now I care about relationships: how women are treated there. I do want to get more into the theory of things rather than just looking at experiences. I haven’t done that in a long time. 

Discussing that you were able to do more than other counterparts, what are your goals in five, ten and 70 years? 

I hate this question so much. 70 is much easier, I’d love to have grandkids so get married and have children, have a happy family and have lived somewhere else for some time. In ten years have a career that puts money into my bank account and be married. Also feel independent and self-assured. I can be insecure right now, I want to be able to look at myself and think ‘oh you did good’ or ‘you look nice’. Five years… self esteem takes longer so ten years. But five; learn to drive as I cannot do that, apply for jobs I think I can’t get. I get so scared of doing that, I want the confidence to do random things and embarrass myself. I am worried about embarrassing myself and I feel it limits me. Let loose a bit; I feel I’ve achieved a lot of big things, for example in women’s rights. Like going to university, it’s not something everyone can say. So, in the next five years just relax. I live in a relatively stable country so just chill, find a good career line and fall in love would be really nice, and move out and live by myself. 

Do you think the American movement BLM (Black Lives Matter) is making changes in British society? 

Unfortunately, I don’t think the change is positive. A lot of British people know more about American black history than British. They have been exposed to it more. In terms of people who actually care, like activists and black people, it’s good. But the way it has been utilised and discussed, especially in the media, anything that happens to a black person they will just talk about BLM, but we don’t all care about it. We all have different perspectives and different experiences, so I think it’s good in terms of class consciousness and knowledge of issues black people face today. Like are we on tv shows, but are we also in boardrooms? Talking about it is better than not. 

Relatively, what is your favourite and least favourite mainstream representation of the black community? 

Oh that’s a hard question, I have to really think. I think my least favourite is, if I think I won’t like it I don’t watch it. Favourite; I did really enjoy the Small Axe Anthology by Steve McQueen, it’s interesting to see black British people in the 20th century. Even for someone who cares about history I don’t know much about it. Least favourite, I don’t think I have one because the best thing about streaming on the internet is you can ignore things you don’t care about. So, things that I have been watching I do really care about. I really like Insecure; I love that so much. I used to watch her web series and I really like how she is talking about a twenty-something year old stumbling through life successfully and unsuccessfully. It humanises black women and treats them like normal people who do stupid stuff, do good stuff, have fun with their friends. They aren’t criminals or angels, just people who do stupid shit. I also really like artists who aren’t mainstream, they can do what they like with their music videos as only their fans will see it and it gives them a lot of freedom. 

One more question. If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

Oh my god that’s a hard question, not sure if I should say something fun or super serious. 

Up to you, however you interpret the question. 

I’m so indecisive. I think what I would change is make people view each other as equals. People need to look at people they look down on and realise they’re the same. My hope is they will notice that.

Mayowa Olowoselu interviewed by Ronnie Krupa for Black History Month