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Comedian Funmbi Omotayo: 'I spent life trying to escape Hackney - now everyone wants to live here!'

PUBLISHED: 08:00 17 March 2016 | UPDATED: 16:18 18 March 2016

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Funnyman Funmbi tells Bridget Galton why it's hilarious that everyone wants to live in the neighbourhood he's seen change.

When Funmbi Omotayo was uprooted from his native Hackney to Lagos at the age of 10, he felt like a fish out of water

But after assimilating into life in Nigeria the family returned when he was a teenager.

The unsettling experience of trying to fit in across two continents has given the 35-year-old a unique insight on emigration and immigration, not to mention material for his stand-up routines.

Legal Immigrant which runs at Soho Theatre on April 1 and 2 covers everything from gentrification to racism.

“I spent my whole life trying to escape Hackney now everyone wants to come!” says the former Orchard Primary Pupil.

“Our parent’s dream was to come here to work and provide a better life.

They dreamed of moving to peaceful white neighbourhoods with gardens, where you could raise a family.

“Hackney was not that place. There was violence, gangs and drugs – everyone I grew up with went to prison or sold drugs.”

Now he’s torn between celebrating the rapidly gentrifying borough he grew up in and asking: “What does it mean for the original people who had to live through the hard times of Hackney?”

“I can’t lie, it’s nice to have co-ops and cash machines. This is what we want for Hackney. But how come the people who put up with things for years couldn’t benefit from it, and are now being pushed out to go somewhere else?”

For an upbeat funny guy, Omotayo paints a bleak picture of his London childhood.

“The discrimination I grew up with was the stigma of being African. Not just white kids but black kids had a massive ignorance about Africans being uneducated, living in caves and jungles. We didn’t fit in, we had the funniest names and clothes, we were poor. We were

targets.”

At school in Hackney expectations were low, while in Nigeria there were powercuts and corporal punishment.

“Schools were like ‘if you can get a couple of A*-Cs that’s ok’ but in Nigeria if you didn’t pass your parents were embarrassed, you had to repeat the year. You learned because people wanted you to.”

When he got to Lagos Omotayo “jumped into the culture hands down”. “I was not British enough for people in the UK and not Nigerian enough for the people back home. Your accent stands out, people could see we were not from Nigeria. I changed my accent tried to dress like them and fit in.”

While the locals played football with bare feet Omotayo’s were “too British for that”.

“They have no shoes on, not because they don’t have them, they didn’t want to wear them – it was such a learning experience, it changed me into the person I am now.”

But Nigeria had it’s own brand of inequality.

“It became a place where those who had the most money got the most opportunity. In the UK the working class can still survive with a good quality of living, but in Nigeria if you are not rich you really struggle.”

So his father who had bought their council flat, moved them back to the place they’d left six years earlier to a Hackney that had changed

“We started again. I had missed it so much I couldn’t wait to get back. You’d had the whole hiphop movement, there were actors like Denzel Washington and Africans were not as embarrassing any more. We still had a great chip on our shoulders and it was hard coming back to the English school system, I couldn’t adjust and failed my GCSEs.”

He first studied engineering before arriving at stand-up via a failed stint at drama school.

“My parents just wanted me to get out of Hackney and said whatever you do, do it with your whole heart. If it wasn’t for them I would have strayed off the path. I was hanging out with questionable characters but thought ‘I am better than this’. My sister said I was the funniest person she knew – apart from Eddy Murphy – and I should use my talent.”

She booked him in for a five minute slot – if it didn’t work out he was going back to engineering – and after cutting his teeth on the urban scene, realised performing to mostly non-white audiences wasn’t pushing himself.

“My breakthrough was realising I should stop looking at the audience as black and white. They are just people. Find the common ground.” It worked, garnering a slot on the John Bishop show and winning the Laughing Horse new act of the year in 2012.

“This show is a story of people who have gone through the same journey and can relate to it.”

He riffs on the myth of multiculturalism how different cultures “still do our own thing”. “I don’t have any white friends, that bothers me – I can’t just say they are racist without getting to know them! I met a white guy who grew up in Hackney, we were complaining and missing the Hackney we grew up in. That was just two people who grew up in the same neighbourhood finding common ground.”

This brings him back to gentrification of Hackney. “What bothered me was people were so afraid to come here just 10 years ago and it wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be. There are still crazy people around, it’s just cooler to live here now.”

His dream is a show at Hackney Empire: “I grew up getting stopped and searched outside the Empire. I want to do a show there to give something back. To give the people the truth, the real Hackney and I would love the audiences to come together and merge.”

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