Kwame Kwei-Armah: ‘I would live in fear of being stabbed by skinheads’

Kwame Kwei-Armah describes throwing away his £50k recording studio to make a leap of faith that would launch his career in theatre and broadcasting

My dream at 16 was to be a singer. That was the main focus of my life. Everyone expected me to be a recording artist, and I did too. I went to college for a year but I didn’t care about that much. In the meantime I teamed with a friend of mine called Bobby Collins and we called ourselves – God, this is really embarrassing – Ebony and Ivory. He was white of course. For about four years, from when I was 14 till I was 18, we went to Butlin’s in Barry every year and won the talent contest and then we’d get a free holiday for next year.

I grew up in Southall. I had this strange thing of having a brutal, cold world outside, and having a warm and brilliant childhood in my house. The mood in my house changed from night to night. On a Saturday night it would be my dad and his friends in the front room, and the next night it would be my mum and her church. Prayer meetings in the evenings. It was just a joyous, expressive and nurturing environment. And on the outside – Britain then was a colder place and youth culture defined itself through skinheads. It was a violent backdrop.

One would live in fear of being jumped or stabbed by skinheads on the way to school. I remember being chased down the street by about 50 skinheads. So it was cold outside but it was very warm inside.

I was phenomenally close to my mother. She was 22 when she had me. She was a magnificent woman who taught me to be a man. She was technically an orphan. For some people I can imagine it might make your heart smaller not to feel parental love. In her case it was the opposite. She was a very ambitious woman and dreamt big dreams for her children and gave them all the support they needed.

She was a childminder and everywhere I go someone who knew her approaches me. Not to namedrop but I was at the Palace to pick up my OBE six years ago and I was sat in the car and this journalist came up to me and asked me how I was feeling and all that. And at the end he said, you won’t remember me but your mother used to look after me. I used to come to your house. It was like my mother was there at the Palace with me, she was telling me – I’m with you today [she died in 2005].

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A feature of my youth could be characterised as being intellectually lonely. I think my interest in intellectual pursuits was mostly borne out of my trying to rationalise and intellectualise why I was treated by society the way I was, as a black person. I couldn’t rationalise racism. And I think that’s what led me into literature, thinking about the mind and how to challenge structural inequality.

When I was about 19 a music publisher hooked me up with this recording superstar to write a batch of songs for. I won’t say his name. Two long years later that superstar was just getting into the studio. And I started to think, I don’t know if this is going to happen. And I sank into a bit of a depression. There were ups and downs after that.

I think in my mind I thought, this is going to either define me or break me,

Then, when I was 26, a year after my son was born, I woke up one morning and said to myself, it’s not going to happen Kwam. And I gave away my whole recording studio, about £50K worth of stuff. I think in my mind I thought, this is going to either define me or break me. I had been living this dream all my life and I had to let it go.

I’m a working-class boy, I always wanted to buy my mum a house before she died. If I was standing in front of the 16-year-old me, with all his big dreams – I think he would be surprised if I told him what I do now. He’d think, an artistic director of a theatre in London? That doesn’t make sense. Who looks like you in theatre? I’m not sure he would understand it. The 19-year-old me would understand and be really excited. The 16-year-old me would say, but I want to be Lionel Richie, what the fuck are you talking about?

When I was 17 I changed my name from Ian [Roberts]  to Kwame. 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. 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.

When I was in my early thirties all of my mates had done TV, and I was doing theatre. So I told my agent, I want to do some TV or film. I got offered these really tiny parts in Hollywood movies. Then my agent called and said, do you want to do Casualty? I said no, why would I want to do that? They said, look, it’s only three episodes. So I auditioned and I got it.

And they extended my character from three episodes to five years. And actually, it was a brilliant time in my life. My aunties stopped asking me, are you still acting – when I was doing something at the National Theatre – and started saying, oh my God, you’ve made it. And the money meant I could do my Masters at the same time. And that’s when I learned how to write.

If there was a day I could live over again it would be the day I won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2003. The same day an album of me singing covers was released. The happiness wasn’t about the actual achievements though. I was with my mother and we were walking into the Savoy, along the red carpet, and I realised on that day two of her dreams had come true.

She was walking into an establishment that she had only ever heard of on the radio. I remember she turned to me and said, I know I wanted you to be a lawyer so you could help people. Well today I realised you are doing that with your work. Then my album came out at 12 o’clock, this thing she’d seen me dream of all my life. And she could call her friends and tell them to go and buy her son’s album. If I could I would loop that moment with her over and over. And thank you for reminding me of it.