‘Londoners have a great sense of humour,’ says Munya Chawawa, over an orange juice in a West Hampstead bar. ‘It’s a coping mechanism, even if we don’t readily admit to it being one.’ He knows there are lots of things in this city that could be ‘really quite depressing’ if you think about them for too long: ‘Oppressively high rent, long, rattling tube journeys every morning, saying to friends, “Yeah, we’ll catch up”, knowing that’s basically a ten-year promise.’ So these things have to become jokes. This is the Chawawa ethos: when the reality is properly grim, why not cheer people up?
With a small country’s worth of people on social media now hanging on his every word (Chawawa has 1.1million followers on TikTok and 965,000 on Instagram), the comedian has the ability to cheer up a lot of people. But he wasn’t always so social-media savvy. When he was 17 years old, his younger sister begged him to let her create a Facebook account for him. The reluctant teenager was ‘petrified’ of social media, he says, and only agreed if he could hide behind a pseudonym. The name he chose? ‘Arnold Milky’. Chawawa has come a long way since then. But in a way, he’s still Arnold Milky.
The world at his feet
Over the last two years, Chawawa and his character comedy have lifted our mood. His ability to create a topical video in the time it takes to refresh your Instagram feed is seriously impressive, and this year looks like a good one to be in his shoes.
For someone whose forte is making funny videos in his flat, the pandemic kept Chawawa busy: whenever the government made another tone-deaf blunder, in he swooped. In his most successful video, he adapted Shaggy’s ‘It Wasn’t Me’ after Health Secretary Matt Hancock was caught having an affair in June 2021. ‘Matt Hancock – It Was Me’ has had more than 3 million views on TikTok. (‘The Sun newspaper caught me red-handed/Creeping with the Tory next door’).
I was face-deep in Stormzy’s armpit. And I tell you, it’s a good-smelling armpit
Chawawa’s intelligence and abundance of eyebrow have helped him transcend the limitations of the short-form social-media video. He now also hosts ‘Race Around Britain’, a sharp YouTube series about race relations, and ‘Complaints Welcome’, a Channel 4 sketch show. His posh drill rapper character Unknown P has his own record deal and this month he won the Comedy Breakthrough Award at the National Comedy Awards. Unlike many ‘online comedians’, Chawawa has a genuinely incisive mind and nuanced things to say on class, patriotism and race.
In person, Chawawa is a fascinating mixture: witty and focused with the calm articulacy of someone who always seems as though he is performing for the camera. He holds doors open and remembers names. He gesticulates as he talks, an ‘attraction ring’ on the index finger of his right hand. He is ‘big into’ the law of attraction and bought it as a reminder that positive thinking can bring good things. ‘I got it a bit too small,’ he says. ‘So it actually constricts my finger for most of the day.’
Chawawa has a vision board behind his bedroom door: a piece of WHSmith card on to which he sticks images that represent the things he hopes to achieve over the next year. It’s covered in photos of people like Trevor Noah, Dwayne Johnson and Daniel Kaluuya holding a Bafta. When he got the pictures printed, he pretended to be a teacher making a collage for a kids’ workshop. These days he has to constantly update the vision board – he’s achieving things too quickly.
The London life
Chawawa was born in Derby; moved to his father’s home country of Zimbabwe; lived in a Norwich-adjacent village (‘If you told me the Queen’s second cousin was called “Framingham Pigot”, I wouldn’t even blink’); then studied psychology at the University of Sheffield before moving to Birmingham then London. His accent is difficult to pin down. When I ask if it is Brummie, he says ‘No!’, outraged. ‘It’s a mixture. It sounds like someone pretending to do a really bad English accent to get past immigration.’
‘Ultimately, there were very few places that I felt normal,’ he says. ‘In London there is no normal.’
He is alive to the city’s absurdities. When he lived in east London, he would be woken up by police raids next door – ‘a giant baton is a hell of an alarm clock’. One summer he saw a dog collapse in the street. Some people carried it off in a leather jacket. ‘I’m no first-aid expert,’ he says, ‘But if you want to cool down a dying dog, don’t wrap it in a leather jacket. That was a famous saying by Gandhi, wasn’t it?’
Lugging a backpack ‘full of nonsensical things like a lukewarm risotto’ down from Birmingham, he knew London was the place you needed to be. ‘I remember how hungry young Munya was,’ he says. Commuting to a researcher job at 4Music, he used to wait until the ticket inspector had turned his back before licking off the fresh blue stamp from his return ticket, making it brand-new again.
‘I never even thought about comedy,’ he says. ‘I was just like, “I love public speaking and I will do whatever it takes to become a presenter.” ’
If you want to cool down a dying dog, don’t wrap it in a leather jacket
His ambitions as a presenter may explain why, unlike a lot of comedians, Chawawa lets you finish your question before speaking. He learned as a child at school in Zimbabwe that deference and politeness are important. When he moved to a school in England, he also learned that drawing attention to yourself isn’t a good thing. In a year-eight drama lesson, the teacher asked the class to imagine how a fur wrap made them feel. Passing it around, each of the kids grunted in a monotone. But Chawawa launched into a dramatic flight of fancy involving his grandmother. His classmates glared at him. ‘I should not do that again,’ he remembers thinking. Now, he says he’s more unapologetically himself – perhaps because he has an audience for those figments of his imagination. At one point – though the gesture seems unconscious – he hugs himself when he says, ‘I’m happy with who I am.’
Work hard, play less
What may not be apparent is how much graft goes into his videos. When he first went viral in 2018 – for a riff on Jamie Oliver’s recipe for jerk rice – his instinct wasn’t to sit back. He thought: ‘I need the next one. I need to show people that I can do it again and again and again.’
This mentality means that he struggles to remember what he does when he’s not setting the internet alight. ‘It’s very hard for me not to work,’ he says. He talks about playing VR ping-pong and watching videos about Japanese people living in tiny houses. He likes facts. His favourite one is that a scorpion can stay under water for six hours. (Having looked this up, it seems to be 48 hours. Sorry, Munya.) Between 8am and 9am, he goes to the gym. So if, say, Keir Starmer gets caught ‘performing the Kama Sutra in a car park’, he says, working out gives him time to formulate a response. For Chawawa, even the gym is an incubator for ideas.
Ultimately, there were very few places that I felt normal. In London, there is no normal
Tapping into the mind of the nation is key to Chawawa’s success. ‘I like to make my videos,’ he says, ‘Because I like people to feel like someone’s seen how they’re feeling.’ He delves into the comments, checking why a video has struck a chord. ‘You can connect to anyone using humour. It feels like a superpower.’
Fame has been surreal for him. Last year, he went to Stormzy’s birthday party at Thorpe Park. Instead of schmoozing, Chawawa went on the rides, not expecting to cross paths with the birthday boy. At one point, however, he did. ‘He just ran up to me!’ he says, still amazed. ‘Next thing I know, I was face-deep in Stormzy’s armpit. And I tell you, it’s a good-smelling armpit. Back in the day I would have paid good money to be at the back of a Stormzy concert, never mind front row in his armpit.’
People at Chawawa’s career stage often spout clichés about ‘enjoying the moment’. Not this guy: he’s probably eyeing up a new vision board already. ‘Longevity is important to me,’ he says. ‘I know that I’m relentless.’
That relentlessness has landed him on the cover of a magazine that he would pick up when he commuted to the capital from Birmingham. ‘I used to walk around London with a Time Out sagging out of my back pocket,’ he says. ‘So to be on the front cover, to know that I will be sagging out of someone else’s back pocket, that’s the real dream. Full saggy circle.’
‘Race Around Britain’ is on YouTube now.
Munya will also be in the upcoming BBC Three series, ‘Munya and Filly Get Chilly’, a spin-off of ‘Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof’ on BBC One, due this spring.