Since the conception of comedy YouTube series Diary of a Badman back in 2010, Humza Arshad has proven himself quite the modern Renaissance man.
He’s released three books, a huge web of internet content (from the dark and emotional to engrossingly funny), and toured schools around the UK as part of an anti-radicalisation campaign with Scotland Yard.
He’s also achieved an MBE for his services to education. "My mum was over the moon," says Arshad. "My dad said well done like two days later."
Sounds about right.
We spoke to Arshad about the power of comedy, his building of the Badman brand, and the battle against Islamophobia.
What upcoming projects are you most excited about?
Having my third book being published with Puffin on world book day. I’ve only been an author for three years now, me and my partner in crime Henry White. I’m a YouTuber, actor and comedian; I never thought I would be an author. I’ve learnt to appreciate and enjoy it.
Obviously it’s so different to the other work that I do. It’s such an honour to be part of world book day and have my stuff distributed to every single school in the UK. It really is incredible.
With TV and film it takes so long to get things moving, and writing is easier in that way. But the main thing is that I’m keeping busy man, so I’m happy.
Tell us more about your new book...
So Penguin and Puffin approached me a few years ago. We always had this in the pipeline but it took us a while to get round to it: the idea of doing a children’s book. When I was young I never read much. I think it was because the characters never appealed to me.
If I saw a little Asian boy who dressed like me, who talked about other cultures, then maybe I’d have picked it up. Only 1% of all children’s books have a main character which is black or Asian. It’s really bad man.
So yeah, it’s something I wanted to get into. Our first book was Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties. He’s kind of like the modern Asian Dennis the Menace. He lives in a Pakistani neighbourhood in South London. He’s obsessed with being a “badman” but he’s obviously anything but that, and it lands him into trouble.
The book won a few awards, so we wrote the second one: Little Badman and the Time-Travelling Teacher of Doom. It went well but I couldn’t tour and see all the kids because of the Pandemic. The new book (Little Badman and the Radioactive Samosa) is a World Book Day special, so it’s only £1.
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Tell us a bit about how your creative process differs between mediums. Particularly the darker content and the funny stuff. Is it exhausting switching between these genres?
It’s fun. It’s fun to do different things. I started off with YouTube doing comedy skits. I don’t want to sound bigheaded, but as I grew, my success allowed more doors to open. It helped me realise that the kids who see me as a role model need more attention. I needed to give back and do something more meaningful.
Even in my comedy skits, there’s always a positive message. When we approached the short film, Hate, I was already working with the police. We worked well together. I never thought I’d say that, but hey. There are some really cool people in the police force who genuinely do care and want to make a difference. As a Muslim, especially after 9/11, the media (not all of them, but a lot of outlets) portray us in a negative light.
Back then it was Muslim this, Muslim that, evil Muslim dog attacks grass. Whatever you can think of. Extremists are always associated with ISIS and radical Islam but no one really talks about the rise of racism in this country. Because of people like Trump in the U.S, people are getting more confident in speaking about their aggressive views towards people of different colours, religions etc.
Hate was a difficult shoot. Definitely went out of pocket on that one. But it was very rewarding. It received a lot of awards. They don’t mean everything but it’s nice to know people appreciate your work. Even as a comedian, I still have other things I want to express, and it’s nice to get away from all of that and do something a bit different.
Can you tell us a bit about the work you’ve done with Scotland Yard – how did that start?
It started in 2011. Things were getting worse, especially in London. The police knew about my videos, and they were happy to work with me, doing shows in school and stuff.
With radicalisation at the time, people halfway across the world would be contacting young school girls through social media, and building a relationship. They’d brainwash them to leave their families to marry someone three times their age, being promised a dream life. They would come to the realisation that they were mistaken; ending up as sex slaves and sometimes worse. It was really horrible, and I was deeply passionate about tackling these issues. I felt that people needed to be educated about this stuff.
So when they first approached me, it was about radicalisation. But for me it was also about Islamophobia. Because of all the radicalisation talk, you don’t actually see the good side of Muslims in the media. I wanted to show the world that even as a YouTuber and comedian, I am going out of my way as a Muslim to work with the police to show people that we aren’t all like that. In a year and a half we did over a hundred shows with kids all over the country. It was over 100,000 kids. It was very hectic.
We’ve done other projects since then. Hate was the most recent, about right-wing extremists and the rise of Islamophobia. It’s dark and different but it’s important to boost that positive message, even through more emotional work.
Has lockdown helped or hindered your creative process?
A bit of both to be honest. At first it was like a holiday. Smashed the Playstation and rinsed out Netflix, ate lots of pizza. After a few days of heaven, I just wanted to get out into the world again. After I realised that everyone was going through it, it was time to use work as a distraction. It’s been hard for so many people.
People are in a much worse position than I am, so I’m truly grateful for what I have. Not all people have the same luxuries as me. But creatively, it’s sad that I can’t go out and do what I love doing. But at the same time, I had other work to engage in as a useful distraction, so I was happy for that.
Can you tell us about how you kept fit in lockdown/ your workout routine?
I’ve been going to the gym for a while now. I’ve always been the chubby kid, or big-boned. I guess you can’t really say fat now. But I’ve always been a bit chubbs. I wanted to make a change, just for me. I started working out. It’s been hard having gyms closed in lockdown.
You make all this progress and everything gets shut down. I started to feel depressed, because one of my main goals in life was to be healthy. So I decided to use lockdown to make the most of the situation.
Even though I hated jogging and moving about unnecessarily, it was the only thing that I could do. Me and my friend started walking and jogging. The home workouts too would get more intense. In terms of work I’d get obsessed, and I took the same mentality with exercise. It helped me keep my sanity.
Who are your biggest inspirations? Actors/comedians/writers?
My biggest hero is Dwayne the Rock Johnson. When I was a kid, me and my brother would kick our parents out, tell them to sleep early and watch Monday Night Raw. I’d see this beast of a man, with all of his charisma, just the way he was was very inspiring. He not only dominated WWE but he transformed into one of the highest paying actors, and I got the pleasure to meet him as well which was one of the best days of my life.
Dave Chapelle is one of the best stand-ups today. I also love Def-Jam, Chris Tucker, Eddie Murphy, people like that.
How does it feel to have an MBE? What was the reaction from your family?
I actually put my mum's reaction on Instagram. She was over the moon. My dad said well done like two days later. But once the family made a big deal about it I think he realised it was a pretty big deal.
When my manager rang me, I thought he was just taking the piss. He was on the other side of the world, chilling in his t-shirt and I was all cold in my room. He said “You’ve got it. You have an MBE”. My reaction was disbelief. I didn’t think it was even possible. So yeah that was pretty special.
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On that note, what is your proudest achievement so far, apart from the MBE?
I’d like to say a million subscribers, but I never got that. There were some big highlights though. So, when my first book came out and I could call myself an author. Then there was my first BBC show, Coconut. Growing up all I wanted was to be on a mainstream platform, so that was really special.
Being a YouTube ambassador was life-changing. I travelled all over the world, and performed in hundreds of arenas, I met all kinds of celebrities. It was great. Those are the ones that come into my head straight away.
What do you hope to achieve that you haven’t yet?
Apart from the million subscribers, I want to get more involved in film, and be a part of TV shows. I trained as an actor, so that would be an aim. But at the same time, I’m so motivated to achieve more on what I’m currently doing, appreciate every day with my loved ones, given the global situation. it makes you realise that working and getting MBEs is amazing, but life is so short. Look ahead and set goals, but count your blessings, you aren’t promised tomorrow.
Your work has picked up coverage all over the world. Why do you think it's struck such a chord?
Comedy is universal. People love laughing, and it’s a great way to break the ice. When I used to do school tours about the dark subjects I would never make jokes about the emotional stuff. But I would make separate jokes, make people laugh, ease the tension. It’s beautiful to communicate through entertainment even in the dark times.
As long as it’s not too preachy or propagandistic, comedy is a great medium to reach people with. Believe in what you stand for, concentrate on making it funny and engaging, then people from any faith, culture, postcode will take heed of it.
Little Badman and the Radioactive Samosa is out on 4 March