Actor and writer Aki Omoshaybi joins Sinéad in London to talk about how he navigated his Nigerian background in a predominantly white neighborhood, how soccer drove him to excel in drama school, and his struggle to take breaks.
REAL, in theaters April 24th.
[00:09] Sinéad Burke: Hello and welcome to As Me with Sinéad. It’s been a strange and unpredictable week for lots of reasons. There are many people probably even listening to this who are concerned about all that is happening with the coronavirus, either for your loved ones who perhaps are more vulnerable than most, or just work being different. Many people working from home or being grounded in a place in which you live. At least that’s what’s happening for me. It’s strange being home for so long. It’s wonderful, both for my carbon footprint, though I do pay off my carbon emissions with an amazing company called Offset, but it’s also so wonderful to be embalmed and surrounded by my family for such a long time. Just getting to spend time with them as we celebrate personal moments is such a thrill. Surprisingly, I was also in a different place this week. Los Angeles. Well, in a way. I was a guest on the Kelly Clarkson Show. I sat on a sofa alongside Paul Wesley, who you might know from The Vampire Diaries; Lilly Singh, the incredible late-night host; and Matthew Cherry, who has most recently won an Oscar for his short film, Hair Love. It was serendipitous almost because two years ago I contributed to the GoFundMe that Matthew had for Hair Love. I loved his idea and his mission to create stories and visuals for people who are not often represented. And I fawned all over him in person. It was deeply embarrassing. But if you haven’t had an opportunity to watch, it’s on YouTube and it’s on well, almost every social media platform. But I’m so grateful for those conversations. But back to this show. This week we have a beautiful conversation with Aki Omoshaybi. I had the chance to sit with him in London. And the conversation surprised me so much. We talked about how his identity shaped his drive to become an actor.
[02:07] Aki Omoshaybi: When I was in Portsmouth, I just knew there was something in me — and maybe it was came from my mum’s side — that I just knew this wasn’t my place. I did like it, but I knew I wanted something more. I remember going to an audition and I’d just dislocated my shoulder. And then the doctor told me not to go. But I knew this was my kind of chance. And I took off my sling, walked in reception, and then I saw these people stretching and doing all these kind of things. And always just there in my Puma trainers.
[02:38] Sinéad Burke: What’s on my mind this week is Women’s History Month. And particularly International Women’s Day, which happens on Sunday. Over the past couple of days and years, as we celebrate this occasion, I’ve heard amazing phrases, “like 50/50 by 2020,” which is a vision that many corporates hold as regards to gender equality within their workforce. But for me, I’m always curious as to what that means. What kind of women? Do they mean disabled women? Do they mean members of the trans community? Do they mean women of color? Do they mean queer women? And as much as we have progressed, there is still so much work to do. But celebrating women and those who position themselves elsewhere on the spectrum of gender is so important. But it shouldn’t just happen one day a year. So I’m committing to celebrating myself more than necessary. I hope you join me. Are you ready for this week’s episode? Let’s go!
[03:44] Sinéad Burke: One of the reasons why I love the performing arts is because those who are involved in either scripting the narrative or performing works are in this extraordinary position to not just change how we see them, but also how we see the world, our part in it and the tools that we need to make it different and make it better. The person who is sitting across from me in this slightly small and intimate studio is one of those people who is doing that. With such agency and such intent that it not only is it inspiring to watch because it’s easy to say that, but it makes you want to pick up a pen and do it yourself. I’m sitting across from Aki Omoshaybi, the extraordinary actor. Thank you so much for being here. It’s a disgusting day in London, and by that I mean the weather, not the political climate. So I appreciate you making the way to here.
[04:42] Aki Omoshaybi: Thanks. Thanks for having me. Really appreciate it.
[04:45] Sinéad Burke: How do you describe yourself personally and professionally?
[04:50] Aki Omoshaybi: Ooh. I would say honest, loyal, empathetic. I’d say I’m just creative. I don’t think fear many things, to be honest. And I’m very spontaneous.
[05:11] Sinéad Burke: Have you always been all of those things?
[05:16] Aki Omoshaybi: Yes, I have. I have.
[05:19] Sinéad Burke: What’s your earliest memory of being spontaneous?
[05:23] I was fostered. And it was in a house, like, three-bed house, seven of us. And if I ever got into trouble —
[05:39] Sinéad Burke: Never. I can see it from your face, the innocence is beaming from you.
[05:43] Aki Omoshaybi: That’s what they all say. Little did they know. But yeah, if I ever got into trouble, I was very good at kind of being spontaneous in a way to get out of trouble. I crafted a story. And I think from a very young age also, I was very good at reading people. So it kind of led me to being quite spontaneous with things. Whether it was me playing football or me pretending to be amazing at boxing or cricket, even though I’ve never had any lessons or, you know, things like that. I would just dive straight into something believing that I’d be good at it.
[06:25] Sinéad Burke: What was your most believable story/excuse?
[06:29] Aki Omoshaybi: Believable? When I smashed a window, maybe. It was at school. At my school we weren’t allowed to play proper with footballs, were only allowed to play with tennis balls. And one day I brought a basketball in the school in my rucksack, kind of hit it, and started playing football with the basketball. And it smashed a window. And I ran home, and they asked me why I ran home, and whose basketball it was. I can’t remember what I said, I think I said something like it wasn’t my basketball. I found it in the bushes. And oh no, someone threw it over the wall. It bounced and smashed the window.
[07:28] Sinéad Burke: Gosh, the next door neighbors of schools are horrific people. [07:30][2.1]
[07:31] Aki Omoshaybi: Yeah, absolutely.
[07:35] Sinéad Burke: I think it’s really interesting that you say you’ve always been really good at reading people. And I’m also fascinated that you describe yourself as empathetic, because few people see that as a strength.
[07:52] Aki Omoshaybi: Reading people — I don’t know if you know much about Portsmouth or Lee Park. It’s a coastal town, very working-class. Some of the people call it Flea Park that live there. It was one of the biggest housing estates in Europe in the late ‘90s, early 2000s.
[08:09] Sinéad Burke: Could be a new drama for Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
[08:14] Aki Omoshaybi: Right. But growing up there, there weren’t many black people. So I had to be constantly on my guard because sometimes they weren’t nice to black people. So growing up, I had to sense any bit of danger that was coming my way. Mostly unprovoked. So I always had to be on my guard. So I could always sense a change in mood, or changing someone’s kind of energy, or — because it happened to me where sometimes they would be I’m having a laugh with them and they’re my friends, the next minute they’ve had a beer or something and they’re being racist to me, trying to beat me up. So that led me to be kind of sensing energies and being out to read people and kind of getting a feel for people. Like, you know, if I walked into a pub and I was the only black guy walking in and I’d see who to mix with and who not to mix with. And also just seeing other people being bullied for other reasons just made me kind of, you know, very aware and stick up for them in kind of, like you said — being empathetic, some people see it as a weakness. But I really do see that as a strength, as my friends would tell you, they come to me with their problems, if you know what I mean. They share their problems with me because I’m very open. And sometimes it sounds bizarre, but I feel their pain when they’re telling me a story, or because also what I’ve been through and I just don’t want anyone to kind of suffer, or kind of experience what I had or what I went through. And so when someone tells me about maybe their hardships or if they’d been bullied — I just feel for them and I cause I know what it feels like. And so anything like that, I just try and help.
[10:13] Sinéad Burke: It’s so interesting to me, that idea of being able to walk into a pub or a room and being able to read people’s intent, or how their relationship to you, it can almost be tangible. And not that I’ve experienced the same things in terms of racial discrimination and horrible unprovoked hate crimes. But being a little person and being visibly disabled, how I move through the world, whether I have a good day or the inverse is based on how other people react to me. And you can sense it. You can see when someone is laughing at you, when they are using their group mentality to make you an object when they want to cause you harm. And one of the hardest parts for me sometimes is not only the fact that I’m aware of it and I can see it happening, but then when you verbalize that to people who do not have the same experience as you, they’re like, “they’re not laughing. They could have been just telling a joke. And they’re definitely not taking a photograph of you. I mean, look at the architecture.” It’s embedded in your DNA, you can feel it like ricocheting up your spine.
[11:28] Aki Omoshaybi: Exactly. Yeah, you know, my partner is white. So, you know, when we go out, when we’re abroad somewhere, there’s like things I see and feel which she’s totally unaware of. So sometimes I have to explain to her — obviously it’s not her fault because, you know, it’s all relative and how she’s grown up. But for me, kind of experiencing that in Portsmouth, it was difficult. I kind of was never myself. I made myself smaller. You know, it was very good at schools. And if I had a talent at something I wouldn’t show off. I didn’t want the attention. And then if the attention came with it, I didn’t want someone — automatically given them a chance to kind of turn it into a bad thing, if you know what I mean. So I just kind of make myself smaller. And I wouldn’t want to — say, if I had talent, make someone feel inadequate. So normally when that happened, they would come back with — because they had an insecurity, but the attach would be on me.
[12:31] Sinéad Burke: I very much had this mantra growing up that if people were gonna stare, I was gonna give them something to look at. And I think it’s because my father is a little person and everybody else in my house is average height. I’m from a big family. And having my dad there, knowing that everything was gonna be OK because he survived and thrived and he looked like me. And despite our challenges being different — because he was male, I was female, a lot of the attention that I got or kind of comments were always quite sexualized in a way that his weren’t. But I was born into this family unit who always told me that I could do anything that I wanted to do. I just may have to do it differently. And that I didn’t choose to be disabled. I didn’t choose to be a little person. But those people who treated me unkindly, that was a choice on their behalf. And my mother used to say to me, if you could choose which of these people you would like to be, would it be you or would it be then? And that rationale, I think, gave me the confidence to be like, well, I’m going to grow into myself, proverbially. But there were still challenging moments. You’re still basing your own confidence and personality on how others —
[13:49] Aki Omoshaybi: Exactly. And bless my nan, you know, she was white and she’s about 80 now. And some of the times, obviously, there was seven black children, you know, down in Portsmouth in this house. And sometimes she didn’t see it. So when I was younger, it’s like, who do I go to? I didn’t know my mom, but she was always away or she was doing something. So I didn’t really see her that much. And her perspective was very Nigerian, and she didn’t kind of understand sometimes the Western kind of culture, in a sense of being raised in a predominately white area back in the early ‘90s and stuff like that. So it was like I was caught between two kinds of cultures. Sometimes I felt like I had the culture of the Western world, but not the skin. And then in my Nigerian saw of family, I had the skin, but not the culture. So I kind of always felt in between, so I felt alien in both sometimes. If I was in Portsmouth, it would be all laughing. And then there’d be a moment where, “oh, god. Oh, yeah. He’s black.” And then if I was sometimes in like Nigeria. “Oh. Oh, so you don’t know you don’t speak Yoruba? You don’t know the way to greet me? You don’t know how to cook this food?” And I was like, well, because I’ve been raised in Portsmouth.
[15:18] Sinéad Burke: Finding your own identity within that. I spoke to Riz Ahmed for the podcast. And he was talking about code-switching, particularly between home and school. The idea of being British-Pakistani and having these dual identity. But it must be even more challenging when you’re code-switching almost between three places, because you have school and that environment and kind of the social area, then you have home, where not all of your questions are understood, and then Nigeria. So at what moment did you begin to allow yourself to no longer shrink but flourish?
[15:58] Aki Omoshaybi: Truly, probably when I went to drama school, I think. Because in Portsmouth I was always good at football, but I didn’t push myself enough. I played semi professional, but I didn’t really go there. Because probably not having, you know, my nan — and football was a part of you need your parents because it’s quite demanding when you get to a certain level. And so I didn’t really push myself then. And then when I maybe got into acting — through football, actually. There was a Hampshire youth theater and they were doing a football play at St Mary’s football ground called Zigga-Zagga, and they said they needed more guys. And at the time I was kinda “eh,” but he was like, come along. There’s girls. You’ll be there for two weeks.. You’ll have a laugh. I just thought I’d give it a whirl. Went along to audition. I’ve always loved music, always loved singing. That was my first love, singing and football. Went along, auditioned, and then they asked me to audition for another role. And another role. And then I ended up booking the lead part. And I was just like, “ooh. OK.” Went through rehearsal on stage.
[17:18] Aki Omoshaybi: Did it. And then I think it was about six months later I got nominated for an award. And then I ended up winning this award, like best actor in the south, or something like that, in a youth production. And that was the first time I kind of was like, oh, maybe this is something. And I just started feeling, oh, maybe I am kind of could be quite good at this. And that was probably the first moment. But then I kind of stopped again, I didn’t do acting, just got a bit lost. And then when I started drama school, that was the moment where I kind of couldn’t hide. You know, you couldn’t stand in the background.
[18:03] Sinéad Burke: You had to be in the spotlight.
[18:06] Aki Omoshaybi: Yeah. And also just because of a competition. And I was always very competitive through my sports background, or just whatever, and creative and competitive. So I knew I had to — and I was so behind everyone, so I knew that to kind of push myself.
[18:24] Sinéad Burke: More after the break.
[20:55] Sinéad Burke: As the young person who was constantly scanning the area for danger and for harm, and as somebody who was very involved in sport, and particularly football and soccer, which has this macho-ism attached to it, how did your confidence and yourself move to a place where — singing and theater and the arts can be considered quite effeminate sometimes. I grew up with my dad in theater. I remember people in the playground saying that my dad was very “camp.” I didn’t know what that meant. My dad always took it as a compliment. And how do you move through that world having come from a place of such masculinity, whilst also being afraid to grow into your own skin?
[21:43] Aki Omoshaybi: When I was in Portsmouth, I just knew there was something in me — and maybe it came from my mum’s side — that I just knew this wasn’t my place. I did like it, but I knew I wanted something more. And so going to the audition — I was playing football at the time. And I dislocated my shoulder. And my friends paid for my audition fees because I was skint and friends. Because my mum did give me some money at the time, but I think I spent it on trainers or something. And I remember going to the audition and I’d just dislocated my shoulder, and the doctor told me not to go. But I knew this was my only kind of chance. And the year before, I missed the auditions because I was doing something else. I remember just before going into the audition, I took off my sling. I didn’t tell them and walked in the reception. And then I saw all these people stretching — because I thought musical theater, I loved singing, was music. I didn’t realize it was an expectation to do — I saw all these people stretching and doing all these kind of things. And always just there in my Adidas and my Puma trainers. So they took us all up to the dressing rooms. And then these guys are like, “you got your Capezios?” I was like “what the fuck are Capezios?” And that was the first time with my interaction with gay people as well. But my love of music at the time — and I remember going to the audition and the teacher teaching the routine and I was like, oh, my God, what is this? And it was to Hairspray, which I was just kind of like —
[23:57] Sinéad Burke: You strike me as a link. You really do. Looking across from me, there is Link Larkin.
[24:07] Aki Omoshaybi: I could feel the vibe of the music. And they were doing jettes across the room. I didn’t know what a jette is, I was doing it like I was jumping hurdles. But I was laughing at myself because I was just kind — rather than being really insecure, I was just like I can’t do this. I’m just going to laugh and just have fun. And I think the teachers saw something in that because most people in the room had been doing it since they were three years old. Then I remember he called me into his office and was just kind of like, “yeah, we’re going to work with you. We’re going to work with you.” And I was like, OK, cool. But going back to masculinity, and being in a feminine space, it was sometimes — I got called aggressive in classes and stuff like that. But sometimes I think that’s something to do with race as well, being a black guy. You can say something and people say it’s aggressive when it’s not. If a white guy said that, they wouldn’t say that. It’s just bias. Yeah. So sometimes I got called aggressive. It was a lot. People in musical theater were a lot to me. From someone who would like, you know, just go down tot the pub and then all of the sudden people are doing splits, you know, and doing dance routines. And I just was like, “what is this?”
[25:32] Sinéad Burke: What made you stay? So the idea of me walking into a room — and usually I’m the only one who looks like me in any room. And then I like to be very good when I can go into those rooms, because I feel like whatever biases people have about my ability, at least if I’m qualified, I feel like I can limit that in some way. But the idea of me walking into a room and not only being the only one who looks like me, but also being the underdog? I’d last an hour.
[26:02] Aki Omoshaybi: As I said, I’m competitive.
[26:05] Sinéad Burke: Maybe I need to start playing football.
[26:07] Aki Omoshaybi: I’m quite competitive. And also, if I’m bad at something, I want to be the best. Not the best, but I want to be up there. If I see someone doing something, I want to try and do that. I only try my hardest to get to a certain space. And it opened me up to another world, which I’ve never seen before. Like someone was, you know, stretching and playing the piano. I ws like Oh, my God. He didn’t know he played the piano. Something like that just grew inside of me. But I found it really hard. I found it really hard. And like I said, I didn’t know I was being aggressive. That was just the way I acted around my mates. And that was just kind of like who I was. That’s the body I lived in at the moment, so I had to kind of change the way I kind of saw things. I kind of had to understand, you know, from being around gay people, and being in a feminine kind of area, which was quite relaxed. It made me grow as a person.
[27:14] Sinéad Burke: You don’t know what you don’t know. And the same biases that you would have experienced at home were playing out in your own manifestations in a different space. Because we all need platforms to learn from and people to be kind to us. My background is in teaching and I’m so impressed by kind of the professor and the mentor who brought you in. It’s like watching Just Dance in my head. Or Save the Last Dance or something. And bringing somebody in saying, you know, we can see that there is raw talent here. And despite whatever lack of comfort you feel in this space, we’re going to nurture it.
[27:49] Aki Omoshaybi: It was exactly that. Once I got offered a scholarship, one of the deals was, if you want to come here, you’re gonna have to come up during the summer and have speech lessons before you start.
[28:01] Sinéad Burke: That’s interesting. How did you feel about that time? I say that because I come from a very working-class background and this is not the accent of the area in which I live. And it was never deliberate in my family how that I would have a flatter accent. But the idea of being able to communicate with others was a powerful tool. So I loved language because if I use the word ameliorate in a sentence, people understood that I wasn’t four. But when we talk about language and class —
[28:33] Aki Omoshaybi: Yeah. At the time I didn’t really care because I was just excited to go in. I was just excited to be moving to London and going and learning new things. But, you know, I suffered with dyslexia as well, so being in those kind of classes at drama school, when the teacher used to make me stand up and do monologues or read in speech classes, and I sounded different to everyone else, that was a big insecurity of mine. And I found that extremely hard. Extremely, extremely hard. That was one of the biggest kind of things I was insecure about. I tried hard and I still try hard now, but now I’m not as bothered. But back then, it was you know, I stood out because I spoke like a geezer, but I sounded like a farmer at same time. People used to take the piss out of me for it. And so something I did struggle with and sometimes I’m still a bit like — my accent changes. Like it’s probably changed now because you know when I was taught all those years at drama school and fighting.
[29:48] Sinéad Burke: Figuring out who you are. So who are you?
[29:50] Aki Omoshaybi: I’m not one for big groups. Like I say, I look out for the fellow human. I like to understand people. I feel like everyone should have a voice. Everyone should be heard. Like I said, I strive. I’m always striving, always curious, always want to learn. And the world fascinates me. Humans fascinate me. And for me, it’s just always about learning.
[30:12] Sinéad Burke: When do you rest?
[30:16] Aki Omoshaybi: Good question.
[30:18] Sinéad Burke: I say this is somebody who doesn’t know what that word means.
[30:19] Aki Omoshaybi: Same here. I just got back from holiday. I can’t rest. I’m kind of — has to be up and doing things, has to be doing something, has to be thinking about what’s coming next. Has to be — and that’s something I’m working on now, to be honest with you. It’s weird, I kind of live in the moment with myself, but when it comes to achievements and work and stuff like that, I struggle to kind of acknowledge my achievements or accomplishments. I really struggle with that. And so I’m always thinking about next. And this is a conversation I had with my girlfriend on holiday about me trying to switch off and understanding it’s OK to rest. Because, you know, my first holiday, my first — because being from a very, very working-class family, my first holiday was when I was about 17. And first time abroad and then obviously go to drama school and then leaving drama school, I didn’t go on holiday for about seven years or eight years. So it was only the last five years.
[31:42] Sinéad Burke: In those holidays, you want to see the parts of the world that you haven’t visited? You don’t want to sit by a pool and do nothing. You’ve saved, it feels like a waste of money. But that idea of being somebody who’s always had to challenge the expectations of others, and defend yourself, you have to completely transform and contort yourself into a different person in order to be still.
[32:04] Aki Omoshaybi: Yeah. And I’m struggling with that nowadays. Like if I’m really honest, that’s something that I spoke to my girlfriend about, maybe seeing someone, speaking to someone about how I change my behavior and understanding. That it’s OK to sit down for a bit and have a rest. It’s OK to kind of try to relax or not think of everything that could go wrong, or when things are not hectic or when something’s not going wrong, it’s OK to accept that. It’s OK to be happy, because the minute that feeling of happiness — I can never admit that I’m happy. So if I’ve achieved something and my partner, she’s like, “oh, you know, that’s really made you happy.” And I’m like, “yeah, it’s all right.” And she’s like, “I know you want to smile.” For some reason I stop myself from smiling. It’s bizarre. I won’t go, “yeah, I did good.” night. And even Pippa, who’s in my film, she’s like, “oh, my God, baby, that’s great. Are you chuffed?” And then I’m like, well, you know, we’ll see. I expect the worst. Always expect the worst. Which I don’t know why I do that. And then anything from that is a bonus. I celebrate things very rarely, very, very rarely.
[33:20] Sinéad Burke: What are the moments you’ve celebrated?
[33:27] Aki Omoshaybi: One is getting into drama school. Yeah, on a scholarship. Probably when my film got distribution. I mean, when I say celebrate, it’s just me for about two minutes going, “oh, my God.” That’s as big as the celebration gets. And then it kind of dissipates as kind of — I would never do big celebration about anything. It makes me feel very uncomfortable.
[34:12] Sinéad Burke: For me, I find it hard to revel in the celebration. Because I look at, particular my professional work, as often a chess game. that if that happens, what’s the next four moves? If that’s the end goal, how do I get there? And often the idea is, in my own mind, is that the achievements are less about accomplishment and celebration, but usefulness to an end goal. But the thing is, that’s exhausting.
[34:44] Aki Omoshaybi: Yeah, it’s very, very exhausting.
[34:48] Sinéad Burke: And if you’re constantly thinking about the next four moves ahead, how do you maintain your own purpose? How do you maintain your own satisfaction in whatever it is that you do? And if you had to take a step back and look at yourself 10 years ago and think this is actually what I wanted, and yet why do I not feel — I’m glad that this has been therapy for the two of us. We can both psychoanalyze each other. So we both need to see somebody professionally. Or maybe this is just it, maybe we will come out of this booth and both be joyous. We can just send each other a message when we achieve something, or like send flowers and cake to one another going, “spend five minutes eating this, please. And thank you.”
[35:36] Sinéad Burke: We’ll be back just after this break.
[38:08] Sinéad Burke: I would love to talk to you about your film because, from self-funding to challenging industries, perceptions of what a person can do, what was the moment when you decided, this is what I need to do?
[38:24] Aki Omoshaybi: To be honest with you — oh, God, I’m getting a bit emotional. It was probably when my mum passed, I think. I realized that I need to act in achieving things that I have in my mind. I read somewhere, or someone said to me, you have to die a little to truly live. And that kind of stuck with me. Then when my mom passed away, I kind of went through a thing where I’ve got nothing to lose. I always felt that anyway, just from my background, but it really stuck with me. I just have nothing to lose. So whatever I can do into being creative, I’m gonna do it. And I don’t care what anyone says. I’m not gonna do it the way you’re supposed to do it. And then I booked a job in a film, and I was just watching, like a sponge, you know, taking in everything, from the crew, the producers, the cast. And I just kind of thought, I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna sit down. I’m gonna write. I wanna be disciplined. And I did that by doing a short, which I already produced, direct, acted in, pretty much did everything. And I used the money from that film to produce my short, spent it all on there.
[39:52] Aki Omoshaybi: And then I just kind thought, I’m gonna try to write a drama or something. Because sometimes when you are an actor, you have spare time. And I just started writing. And then I just got carried away with it. I wasn’t thinking about anything else. And all of a sudden I had this script, and then I thought I’m gonna try and make this. And I reached out to people, and no one wanted it. And then I just kind of thought, well, if no one wants it, then I’m gonna just carry on pursuing this. And I did. I’ve never produced before. I’ve never written a feature. Never directed. But there was just something in me. I don’t know, something in the back, my head saying “you can do it.” I don’t take no for an answer in a work capacity. I just believe if someone else says you can’t do it, does that mean you can’t do it? Doesn’t mean I can’t do it. So I’m just gonna give it a try, and I’ve just got nothing to lose. And then having the script, I couldn’t afford to bring on a lot of people, so it was just me casting it quite a lot via social media. I reached out to actors on that, me going online trying to find crew. I just have a drive. And, you know, some producers because they didn’t know me, they only knew me as an actor, didn’t want to know. Then once I got the funding, that kind of even confirmed, I was like, there’s no way I can back out now. I’m just going to make this happen regardless.
[41:33] Sinéad Burke: When did you know it was good?
[41:35] Aki Omoshaybi: I didn’t know it was good. I don’t know it’s good. That’s the truth. I don’t know it’s good. Yeah, I think it’s all right. And that’s the truth.
[41:48] Sinéad Burke: How do you measure success?
[41:50] Aki Omoshaybi: I struggle with that one because other people look at me now and say he’s done a film, made a feature. I’ve made it. It’s hard to make one. Now it’s in, you know, London Film Festival, managed to get distribution. People would say that’s a success. But to me, I’m just like, yeah. That’s my response to it.
[42:13] Sinéad Burke: If a person in my family thinks something is good, I’m like, “oh, it must be really good.” They’re so supportive. But I do some work in fashion. I do some work in advocacy. It’s different worlds. But I think their perception of something being “good” means more to me than they probably know. But my definition of success is it’s different in different fields. I have kept a list of things that I’ve wanted to do since I was 18, but I think personally I feel like I’m a success when I own my own house.
[42:50] Aki Omoshaybi: Oh, really?
[42:51] Sinéad Burke: Yeah, because the idea of being able to be financially independent, with a roof over my head and a home where I can reach the light switches, and reach the kitchen counters and not have to struggle based on the world’s designs, I think for me I’ll feel like, OK, I’ve done enough to get here. And I’ve done it with a moral compass and I’ve done them with a vision and I’ve made it to here. Now, I’m not there yet. I’m giving myself another five years. Maybe 10. But I think when other people see themselves, or parts of themselves in the work that I’m trying to do, that feels like success because I grew up never seeing myself on the cover of a magazine, never seeing anybody who looked like me in places in which power traditionally existed. And the idea that you then get to be a vehicle by which not only can people see themselves, but they can then aspire to be you, that’s also a success.
[43:49] Aki Omoshaybi: The last thing you said, that’s how I’d measure success. If if I’ve inspired someone. I would struggle to believe them. If someone says something was good, I don’t believe you. Oh, I had a conversation with a friend about this the other day. Like I said, I struggle with taking compliments. I struggle kind of taking it all in. My default reaction is I switch off and just be cool. Not even thank you. Yeah, it’s all right. But when people say that, you know, you’ve inspired me, that’s when I feel success, because I want us to be all in this together.
[44:28] Sinéad Burke: You want people to pick up the tools and to follow on. What gives you hope?
[44:35] Aki Omoshaybi: What we were just speaking about before is kind of inspiring other people and seeing change and knowing that we can change. And knowing that no two days are the same. Do you know what I mean? And if I was ever in a bad situation, I knew deep down that this is not my forever. Because I know me as a person. I’m going through this now, but I knew that things can always change. I’ve seen it in my life, and so humans give me hope. And just knowing that no two days are the same. And that there’s something about that situations change. Nothing’s permanent. And that gives me hope. It really does. And that’s something my mom always said to me. She was always like, you know, it’s not permanent. It’s just now. Like, so what? Like, you haven’t got the money to do this or go to this school. She used to say to my sister, my sister didn’t have the fees and she said, “I can’t do it.” My mom’s like, no, you’re gonna do it. And my sister, like, well, where will we get the money from? She’s like, doesn’t matter. We don’t know what’s gonna come tomorrow. Don’t rule it out. Yeah. That gives me hope.
[46:07] Sinéad Burke: If you could go back and talk to 14-year-old you in that seaside town, what would you say?
[46:15] Aki Omoshaybi: I would probably say you’ve got as much right in this world as anyone else. Just don’t make yourself small. Stand proud for who you are. Don’t make yourself small to suit other people.
[46:29] Sinéad Burke: And watch Hairspray.
[46:30] Aki Omoshaybi: Yes. Learn the soundtrack and the choreography. The funny thing is, I actually did Hairspray after that.
[46:44] Sinéad Burke: Did you? Yeah. What role did you play?
[46:47] Aki Omoshaybi: I was a character called Fad and then I was Seaweed.
[46:54] Sinéad Burke: Seaweed’s a great role. I think it’s even interesting that the first musical you were exposed to was even a narrative like Hairspray. It’s a narrative of allyship, be it performative or not. but it’s about breaking down institutions. I have loved this conversation. I have learned so much from this. And I am genuinely so admiring of whatever it is you will choose to do next, because I think if your inbox is occupied at the moment with people telling you that you inspire them, that’s only going to avalanche and become even bigger.
[47:36] Aki Omoshaybi: I don’t want this to come across as a “woe is me.” I hope it hasn’t come across like that because that’s not me, if you know what I mean. It was just that these were my experiences, and I was just speaking the truth.
[47:50] Sinéad Burke: I think it’s the antithesis of that. I think one of the things that I talk about with children in school is I kind of ask them to raise their hand if they got to choose the color of their hair, the color of their eyes. If they got to choose the color of their skin, their religion that they currently believe, how much money they were born into, or where they would live. And none of us gets to choose those circumstances, particularly at birth, particularly in our youth. And I think often it’s about what we do within those circumstances or who can help us? Whether that’s mentoring from professors, whether that’s having a family unit or a friend group who support you. It’s less about looking at something through a negative lens, but revealing what’s possible. And I think you do that for so many.
[48:36] Aki Omoshaybi: Hopefully. Hopefully. Like you said, it’s me. I’ve learned something, actually. And that’s what success means to me. And that’s inspiring people, which I’ve never really kind of, you know, had down. Which has been great. It’s been great speaking to you, actually. It really has.
[48:57] Sinéad Burke: Thank you. We’ll both charge each other for therapy as we leave. Thank you so much.
[49:09] Sinéad Burke: Even listening back to that conversation now, I can’t help but be emotional. Aki taught me so much in relation to being vulnerable. I thought I was good at it. I thought I practiced it. But, you know when you look at someone and you make an assessment about who they are or what their challenges are, often you don’t even think they have challenges. In my research of Aki, I thought he had none. I thought he presented to the world as the very definition of normality. Those were my biases that I’ve been conditioned to have. And I am so grateful to him for opening up in the most beautiful way. And what an honor it is to have a platform like this where we get to have conversations around identity and disability and race and who we are as people. Thank you so much for being part of this. Next week as we kick off our Women’s Month, Ambassador Samantha Power. Yes, that’s Ambassador Samantha Power, is joining me. I’ve long admired this incredible woman. No, really. I’ve been a fan and fawned all over her in person. And we had a chance to talk about the moment the world cracked open for her and ignited her drive to learn as much as possible.
[50:20] Samantha Power: I went to intern at a TV station in Atlanta, Georgia, which is where I’d gone to high school. And as I was taking notes on a Braves game, like literally with a clipboard in hand looking at the Atlanta Braves baseball team playing the San Francisco Giants. And I’m in a kind of glass booth where there are screens from CBS Television from all over the world. And one of them was the live feed from Beijing. And I’m very focused. But then out of the corner of my eye, I’m seeing the Chinese government’s tanks making their way into Tiananmen Square, where young people had been protesting for weeks, demanding freedom and their rights and wanting freedom of speech, above all, an ability to do what they were doing, which is to express themselves. And if you’d asked me in that moment, is this your moral compass being triggered? You know, I wouldn’t have put it that way. And I wouldn’t have experienced what amounted to just empathy and curiosity as some trigger for do-gooder-ism or anything like that. Like, I was a very apolitical person at that point my life. But it did unleash a kind of really lifelong inquiry. When you don’t know something about something, there are many reasons you don’t necessarily pursue that knowledge. You may not be curious. You may not be interested. But a major barrier to entry is no one likes feeling dumb. So for me, when I went back to university, I was so aware of how little I knew. But the real threshold that I crossed, I think, was not amoral to moral, or uninterested in current affairs to being interested in current affairs. It was much more I would prefer to have my gaps, canyon-like gaps in my knowledge exposed than to not learn.
[52:05] Sinéad Burke: This week’s person you should know is not a person, but a collective. They’re called the Rogue Collective and they’re an initiative out of Ireland. They are a curation of extraordinary women who are writing and podcasting and videoing and poetry-ing. That’s a verb. Behind a paywall to ensure that their voices are commercially benefited. But to reframe the narrative about what women are interested in and what their perspective on the world is. You can find wrote collective almost everywhere on the internet. And I subscribed this week and I think you should too. Thanks so much for joining me. See you next week.
[52:40] Sinéad Burke: As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.