The comedian Munya Chawawa is all eyebrows and incredible ambition. “I love the idea of being indelible, of leaving a mark on the world,” he says. “I can’t process the idea of leaving it without having left something, you know?” He’s bundled in a multicoloured fleece in a quiet corner of a south London pub – softly spoken, respectful, a little intense. In person, his famously abundant eyebrows – which Chawawa describes in his Instagram bio as “erotic” – do not disappoint.
Chawawa is best known for his satirical Twitter videos, which skewer trending news stories from Squid Game to Matt Hancock’s extramarital affair, and often feature recurring characters, including racist newsreader Barty Crease, culturally appropriating TV chef Jonny Oliver, and posh drill rapper Unknown P. (“How many times did I bunk off Latin,” he intones in one deathless rap, “to run a man down in Clapham.”)
We are meeting to discuss his upcoming four-part YouTube Originals series, Race Around Britain. In it, Chawawa and fellow comedian Yung Filly travel the UK in a VW camper van, speaking with the general public about the Black British experience. Chawawa pitched the show in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of June 2020. “It was tough,” says Chawawa, of that time. “It was really stifling creatively, because there was this enduring feeling of, ‘Wow, this is actually a dangerous world for us,’ you know?”
The show draws on Chawawa’s lived experience of racism as a mixed-race man. In one affecting moment, Chawawa talks about his first day at school in the tiny village of Framingham Pigot, in Norfolk. His parents had moved there from Harare when he was 11 – Chawawa’s father is black Zimbabwean, his mother is white British.
A classmate asked Chawawa whether he wore a loincloth. He was gobsmacked, and devastated. While Chawawa had been happy in Zimbabwe – “People are very warm,” he explains, “everyone wants you to do well” – in Norfolk, he was often lonely. “A lot of time in your own head,” Chawawa says, “thinking to yourself, ‘Am I ever going to have friends who are like me? What’s the world like out there? There must be more to life than this.’”
Where Race Around Britain might have felt didactic in lesser hands, the show makes for genuinely hilarious viewing, mostly because of the natural charisma of Chawawa and Filly. A game of “microaggression bingo” in a Welsh community hall ends with the victor throwing up their arms and cheering “I’m not a racist!”; when vox-popping people on the streets of Cardiff, a member of the public tells Filly that a durag is a “black thing”, causing him to dissolve into laughter.
Crucially, says Chawawa, Race Around Britain’s intended audience is people who are perhaps not au fait with terminology like unconscious bias and microaggressions, but are still open-minded and tolerant. “It’s pointless for me to try and convert people into believing that black people’s lives matter,” says Chawawa, “because you either already believe that; you’re on the fence but willing to learn; or you just straight deny it.”
The show feels particularly necessary in an era of never-ending culture wars. “As somebody of colour,” says Chawawa, “I don’t know whether I will ever feel truly represented by the political situation here. That’s the honest truth. So instead of feeling depressed by that fact, I try to use it as a source of inspiration for my satire.” The gags in Race Around Britain have a serious message: Chawawa jokes about a “stop and search loyalty card” that rewards black men with free trips to Taser Quest as a way of illustrating the fact that black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, for example.
For people who are willing to learn, Race Around Britain is an attempt to talk about race “in a non-accusatory way,” says Chawawa, “in a way that feels a bit warmer, a bit more welcoming”. But Chawawa has no desire to make committed racists see people of colour as human beings. “My approach to it is,” he says, firmly, “here’s the message, it’s in front of you. We can laugh through it, and if you want to take it away, you can.”
Race Around Britain comes at the end of a phenomenally successful, if gruelling, 18 months for the 28-year-old. In a pandemic period where there was scarce else to do but browse online, Chawawa’s career has exploded. His Matt Hancock video felt like a major social media event, shared on WhatsApp groups by everyone from Conservative-voting mums to TikTokking teens.
But although it feels as though Chawawa’s fame has come overnight, in truth he’s been grinding away behind the scenes for nearly a decade. “Anyone who says to me,” he says, “‘Oh, you really blew up during lockdown,’ I think to myself, I’ve been doing this for years.”
He’d initially hoped to be a TV presenter, because he enjoyed public speaking at school. While studying psychology at the University of Sheffield, Chawawa would interview students on nights out, edit the videos until 6am, and upload them the following morning.
In 2014, the late nights paid off: Chawawa won a vlogging competition for youth-focused music channel 4Music, and badgered executives for work experience until they gave him a job as a digital researcher. Chawawa climbed the ranks at 4Music, eventually becoming a producer.
It was a high-pressure job which Chawawa credits with teaching him the skills he’d later put to use in his fast turnaround viral videos. “We were making a live show every day for four days a week,” he says. “If something happened before you were about to go live, you had to change the whole script… So I’m very used to having to do things at the last minute and quickly.”
But Chawawa wanted to be on camera, not behind the scenes. He’d write jokes for the 4Music presenters to deliver. “I could see these jokes landing,” he remembers, “and I knew it was making good TV.” When he tried to get booked for presenting work, agents would tell him he didn’t have enough of a profile. “I’d go to these meetings,” he says, “and people would say, ‘We love your showreel, you seem like a nice enough guy, but you don’t have any followers. You’re a nobody.’” One agent told him that she’d consider signing him if he had 30,000 followers on social media.
Chawawa could feel himself growing bitter. “Because of the nature of the industry,” he says, “and the struggles I was facing as a presenter, being turned away, being told I didn’t have enough of this or that, I started to be one of those people who was like, ‘It’s not fair!’ I thought to myself, I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to suck energy out of the room.” He read the self-help book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, which taught him to “be grateful for the good things that happen and to look ahead to the things you’d like to happen”.
Chawawa did anything he could to increase his social media following, so that he could get back in the room with the agent. Podcasting. Fashion blogging. (When I mention that I’ve seen his early #OutfitOfTheDay posts on Instagram – the hashtag is a staple of fashion bloggers – Chawawa covers his face. “Oh my god,” he cringes.) By now, in addition to his 4Music work, Chawawa had a Saturday morning radio show on Reprezent, a Brixton-based community radio station, and was also picking up the odd presenting gig. “I’d host some acoustic music event where no one could even hear me talking on the microphone,” he says, “but I’d have researched all the artists so I could interview them. None of this was paid, you get what I mean?”
In August 2018, Chawawa was on a bus. He saw a now-notorious Jamie Oliver recipe for jerk rice trending. The recipe prompted a national discussion about cultural appropriation. Chawawa saw an opportunity. “I thought,” remembers Chawawa, “what would happen if you expanded out jerk rice? What would a Jamie Oliver Caribbean meal taste like?” He went home via Sainsbury’s, recorded a faux-Caribbean meal in character as “Jonny Oliver”, and posted it on Twitter.
“We’re going to kick things off with the plantain,” says Chawawa in the video, rictus grin on his face, “or as we call it in the UK, banana.” He slams the banana in a microwave before mixing up a dish of baked beans and Uncle Ben’s rice. “There he is,” says Chawawa, gesturing to Uncle Ben, “the old bumbaclart.”
The video went viral, and Chawawa was well on his way to 30,000 followers. “I started relentlessly making videos… And I just kept going and never stopped.”
He sometimes thinks about all the people who told him “no” earlier in his career. “I remember every single one of those people,” Chawawa says, “and my drive is to correct them, to prove them wrong. I will never say it to their face, never need to see them again, but I know they’ll see me. That’s what I use to drive myself.” A flicker of defiance appears in his eyes momentarily, before he laughs and is all easy charm. “It’s like Arya Stark in Game of Thrones,” he says. “Isn’t it? Except I’m not brutally murdering anyone.”
There is a refrain on Twitter, where Chawawa now has 183,000 followers: the devil works hard, but Munya works harder. His fans marvel at the speed with which Chawawa can turn around a slickly edited video within a few hours of a news story breaking. “I have a very active imagination,” he explains. “If I see something happening, already in my head I’ll be thinking of ideas.”
Take the Hancock video, which featured Chawawa hip-thrusting to Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me. (Sample lyrics: How could I forget I wasn’t wearing any PPE / Though she hasn’t had her vaccination she got a little prick from me.) Chawawa put out the song just four hours after the Sun broke the story. “I thought that video was late by the time I put it out,” Chawawa says, unbelievably.
He had woken up that morning looking forward to a relaxed day: a few meetings, go to the gym. “I went to Instagram,” he says, “and saw there was a photo of Matt Hancock kissing Gina [Colangelo, his aide]. I thought to myself, it’s politics, people don’t really engage in politics, it’s fine, not everyone’s going to know about this.”
Then he clicked on a news story about the affair online, and saw that within a half-hour it had received 1,000 comments. Already, social media users had begun impatiently tagging Chawawa in posts, demanding a video. “I checked my phone,” he says, “and people were saying, in capital letters, ‘WHERE IS MUNYA CHAWAWA, WAKE UP NOW.’”
Chawawa wrote a sketch in which he spliced old Hancock interviews, to make it look like he was interviewing the beleaguered health secretary. This took an hour. Then he looked at Twitter, and realised that people were expecting him to write a song. “I had to abolish the entire sketch.”
Chawawa speed-wrote It Was Me (Shaggy Parody), recorded the video in front of the green screen he keeps in his Forest Hill flat, and then ran to a production meeting that he couldn’t reschedule, while his collaborator Carlos Rico worked on the graphics and animations. He raced home and uploaded the video around 5pm. Twitter exploded. “I went out that evening,” he says, “and people were coming up to me going, ‘Mate, I love the Matt Hancock video.’ There were literally about 300 people who came up to me and said, ‘I just watched you right now, this is so crazy.’”
Chawawa tries to savour these moments. An incorrigible workaholic, when a viral video is successful, he grants himself a night off. “Normally I’m always stressing that I need to put something out,” he says, “and thinking about what needs to be next. But when I do a sketch, it’s like this 24-hour invincibility thing where it’s like, cool, this is the perfect time to actually enjoy my life.”
After so many years striving, success feels as good as he’d hoped. “I’ve lived it a million times in my head,” Chawawa says, “which is why I’m not overwhelmed by what’s happening. It’s just like, cool, finally. It’s just the way I imagined it.” But what is difficult to cope with is his punishing work schedule. In addition to his comedy videos and Race Around Britain, Chawawa is a co-host on Channel 4 sketch show Complaints Welcome, and has represented brands including Paco Rabanne and Adidas. (To his chagrin, Chawawa’s followers thought the Paco Rabanne ad was a spoof. “That was me trying to be sexy,” he sighs, “and everyone goes, ‘great joke Munya.’”)
He regularly clocks 18-hour work days and estimates he’s had four days off in the last three months, including weekends. “I’ve discovered being a workaholic isn’t the greatest thing in the world,” he says, “in terms of prioritising the people who matter.” Chawawa lives with his girlfriend, who works in music management, but rarely sees his family as much as he would like. “Last year,” he says, “I was in Norwich, seeing my niece for the first time, and then my phone goes and I see they’ve announced tier 3.” Chawawa got a train back to London and stayed up all night, writing a satirical song about the restrictions. “You think,” he says, “I can just let this slide, people will forget after a few days, but then I think, this video can change my life, and that’s how I approach it.”
Right now, Chawawa freely admits, his balance of work-leisure is definitely off. “Everyone says to you, ‘You’re going to go so far and you’ve got something special and you’re going to be amazing.’ But no one considers the sacrifice that involves…. That being said, there are many successful people who’ve learned to balance both, so they can see their families. I believe I’ll arrive at that point when the time is right.”
But for now, Chawawa is continually in upward thrust. He’d love a late-night talkshow of his own, in the style of John Oliver or Trevor Noah. “That’s a great template for me,” he says. And – unexpectedly – he wants to try acting. “I would love to be in a Marvel film,” Chawawa says. I assume he wants to be a comic character – perhaps a mugging villain – but he swiftly corrects me. “No way!” he exclaims. “I’m trying to be one of the good guys… I want to be a superhero.”
It’s an unexpected ambition from a wisecracking, drill-rapping comedian. But then again, he has already shown himself to be capable of achieving his goals. I bid goodbye to Chawawa, who pulls on his puffer jacket and heads out into the chill – even though it’s a Friday night, he has more work planned for this evening. The devil works hard, but for the foreseeable future, it seems, Munya will work harder.
Race Around Britain launches on YouTube Originals on 6 December
Stylist Jessica Swanson; stylist’s assistant Savannah Jones; photographer’s assistant Bertie Oakes; grooming by Lucy Thomas using Bobbi Brown; shot at the Lemonade Factory