[Diaspora Connect] Nathaniel Kweku, using comedy to debunk stereotypes about African immigrants in U.S.

May 02, 2018 at 08:23 am | Diaspora Connect

Nduta Waweru

Nduta Waweru | Contributor

May 02, 2018 at 08:23 am | Diaspora Connect

Nathaniel Kweku, the creator of Growing up Immigrant. Photo: Courtesy

Nathaniel Kweku is a Ghanaian-American actor and storyteller, someone who firmly believes that media is one of the most powerful tools to shape perceptions and bridge cultural divides. He is the creator of Growing up Immigrant, a comedic series that investigate the narratives about African immigrants in America.

He tells us more about the series and his creativity.

F2FAfrica: Tell us what  Growing Up Immigrant is all about.

Nathaniel Kweku (N.K): Growing Up Immigrant is a comedic, yet honest web series about a first-generation Ghanaian-American millennial who moves in with his more traditional aunty in the midst of navigating his career, romantic life, etc. It’s about the intersectionality of identity (how we choose to define ourselves) and how that informs our family life, relationships, and overall purpose.

F2FAfrica: Why did you decide to create this series?

N.K: I believe in representation and pre-Black Panther and pre-Queen of Katwe, I had never really been satisfied with depictions of Africa and Africans from a Western lens.

The idea for Growing Up Immigrant came about two and a half, almost three years ago. Vine was saturated with “Sh**My African Parent says” videos and the first generation narrative seemed so relevant. The idea started as a sketch- I thought I’d make some funny videos about my experience with an African aunty (a safe way to make sure my mom didn’t think I was parodying her).

I started developing sketch ideas and realized there was a story that was so much more dynamic than just a few sketches. I grew up around strong African aunties, women who had such a profound impact on my life (and also terrorized it… kidding, sort of). So the idea started with a character and the challenges of living with his more “traditional” African aunty and then progressed from there. About 17 drafts later, here we are lol.

F2FAfrica: Why is it important to have such stories that highlight the African and African diaspora experience?

N.K: Highlighting the African and African Diaspora experience is important because, on a global scale, media has for song long depicted a one dimensional narrative about Africans and Africa. It’s a narrative that was so pervasive that it caused not only non-Africans to look down upon Africa, but also Africans to look down upon Africa.

And sadly, I was in that group of Africans who consciously and subconsciously looked down upon our traditions and culture as a result of media. I didn’t become conscious of that until I was in my adulthood. It’s so important to take ownership of our stories so we don’t continue to have lies about who we are propagated at the expense of our humanity.

F2FAfrica: What kinds of issues are you trying to address in the series?

N.K: I don’t know if I have time to highlight all the issues the series brings up! Almost all the humor is steeped in addressing issues of identity, culture, race, class, gender, etc… But I’ll give you a few issues- the issue and struggle of wanting to date someone who identifies with your culture and dating someone outside of your culture, the issue of not recognizing “third world” educational institutions on similar level as U.S. institutions, the issue of why it seems African women don’t date after a certain age, and the issue of manhood and what it means in the 21st century.

There are a lot more that I really really really want to share, but they could potentially be spoilers!

F2FAfrica: What has been the reception of the series?

N.K: I’ve received a lot of great feedback about the series, generous feedback about everything from the acting to the writing to the cinematography. And it’s so humbling because most of those people have nooooooo idea how short we were on resources.

At the same time, I think we’re still in the process of building an audience  (from the ground up) for the series, so it’ll be interesting to see how feedback changes as more viewers find the show.

F2FAfrica: How did you get into the film industry, and how has it been so far?

N.K: Another loaded question! (But I’ll try to be brief) My dad supported me to start taking acting classes when I was 16 or 17 in Bakersfield, CA where I was born. It’s ironic because up until that point I had forgotten monologues and froze onstage in three out of the four plays I had been in. I also remember refusing to recite my 4th-grade oral language performance in front of my class because I had such CRAZY stage fright. Anyway, I started taking classes at 16 or 17 as an extracurricular activity, outside of school and there was an opportunity to go to New York for an acting and modeling competition.Through a generous amount of support, I raised enough money to go, and out of 200 guys, I ended up placing in a few categories.

That was the moment I realized I could do this. I moved to Riverside, CA for university and later transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, all the while, missing lectures in order to audition and take acting classes. It’s definitely been a process- a hustler’s journey, but in the past year and a half, I did a number of co-star roles on TV shows like Rosewood and SWAT. So many people see the end result, but they have no idea how difficult the journey can be and how much you sacrifice for it- I’ve been on thousands of auditions if you include theatre, voice-over, TV, Film, and commercials.

F2FAfrica: What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?

N.K: The Great Debaters- it’s an underrated movie directed by Denzel Washington with amazing performances by Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Forest Whitaker and others. It’s such a compelling story and one that inspired the ultimate journey I hope to take in the entertainment industry.

Crash- another amazing film that speaks to cultural identity and how we become a product of the stereotypes often propagated by others.

Lillies of the Field- Sidney Poitier is mesmerizing and so intriguing to watch.

Birdman- Love the way this movie was shot- the long continuous and tracking shots are out of this world.

Moonlight- another recent film and one that I that stopped and made the world think and question.

Aladdin- My favorite Disney movie (surprised it’s not Lion King?)

Rush Hour 2- Because it’s so much better than Rush Hour 1 or 3.

F2FAfrica: Could you tell us a bit more about your creative process?

N.K: I don’t know if I can boil down my “creative process”- it really depends if I’m acting, writing, producing, directing, etc. However, I think the biggest common denominator is to seek truth and find what brings me closer to a state of empathy. As a storyteller, I believe in constantly pushing the boundaries and questioning ideals. My process involves many checks and balances and requires a team as well.

F2FAfrica: Any new projects you are working on?

N.K: I’m still so entrenched with Growing Up Immigrant and I’m continuing to audition. I have a feature screenplay that won the top prize at the Hollywood Black Festival and I’d like to get started on that. I’m also excited about “Before the Vows” coming out later this year- it’s a lead role in a film I shot in Ghana back in 2017. It’s directed by An Africa City creator Nicole Amarteifio and stars John Dumelo and An African City’s Maame Adjei.

F2FAfrica: What are the future plans for  Growing Up Immigrant?

N.K: Right now, it’s: finish episodes 4-6! But my hope is to find the right production partners, either in the US or abroad for subsequent seasons. I’d love to have someone like Trevor Noah serve as executive producer and ultimately get the series picked up by Netflix, HBO, or FX.

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