Kwame Kwei-Armah explains why he changed his name

The actor, playwright and Young Vic artistic director took inspiration from popular culture

Kwame Kwei-Armah said he changed his name at age 17 to acknowledge his African heritage.

Speaking in a Letter To My Younger Self this week, the actor, playwright and artistic director at the Young Vic, who was born Ian Roberts in west London in 1967, decided to adopt the new moniker after being inspired by popular culture to trace his ancestry back to Ghana.

He said: “I was about 12 when I saw Roots, and watched slaves being beaten and given a name. And I said to my mother, I’m going to trace our family and find our African name.

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“A few years later I read Malcolm X’s autobiography and realised how widespread it was, this persistent perception in the West of black people as intellectually and morally inferior. So I did it to honour my ancestors. And actually… I didn’t want my children to inherit my slave name. I didn’t want them to spend as much time as I had thinking about history and the past.

“It wasn’t easy. It was a very painful thing for my mother. It felt like rejection. Many of my aunties wouldn’t call me Kwame. But I didn’t give a toss. I felt I hadn’t done it for them, I’d done it for me.”

Read the full letter in this week’s Big Issue.