1Xtra Comedy Gala: 'There is space for black women in comedy'

Kyrah Gray performing on stage for the BBC 1Xtra Comedy Gala at the Hackney Empire on 1 April. Kyrah is a black woman in her 20s with brown eyes and dark hair worn loose with a platinum blonde streak. She wears a black corset-style top paired with camo-green trousers. She holds a microphone with her right hand while her left is extended out to her side. The staging behind her is dark with BBC Radio 1Xtra branding in lights.
Kyrah Gray says it's important to highlight there's "always space" for black female comedians [1Xtra]

When Kyrah Gray first got into comedy, she says she struggled to find an audience.

"I started doing shows and then everyone was on lockdown," she tells BBC Newsbeat, about timing her career with the coronavirus pandemic.

But since then, the comedian has been honing her craft and on Monday night was one of eight acts on stage for the first ever 1Xtra Comedy Gala, celebrating voices underrepresented in the industry.

The event hosted established talents like Thanyia Moore, Kane Brown, Babatunde Aléshé, and Slim while also introducing fresh talents like Gbemi Oladipo (Bemi), Ola Labib and Michael Odewale as well as Kyrah.

Representation and highlighting black talent is an issue close to Kyrah's heart.

"The industry has kind of made black women feel like there isn't a place for them in the comedy circuit," she says.

"And if there is a space, it's like one-in-one-out."

Kyrah says she likes to use her sets to joke about her family and relationships - subjects she feels are relatable for everyone.

"Just because I make a specific joke and I look a certain kind of way, doesn't mean that everyone can't enjoy my comedy," she says.

"It's really important that people focus on the jokes and the writing and not on the person that's delivering those jokes."

Ola Labib performing at BBC 1Xtra Comedy Gala at the Hackney Empire on 1 April 2024. Ola is a British Sudanese woman in her 30s. She has brown eyes and smiles, wearing a blue hijab and a checked-patterned tracksuit in yellow, red and blue. She holds a microphone in her right hand while pointing to the ceiling with her left. The staging behind her is black with pink accents.
Ola Labib worked as an NHS pharmacist before launching her comedy career [1Xtra]

One person who knows that only too well is fellow comedian Ola Labib, who was also on the line-up for the event at the Hackney Empire.

"A lot of people say, 'you comedians only get to where you are because all you do is talk about race'," Ola says.

But actually, it's jokes about Lord of the Rings which have become her calling card.

She's a practicing Muslim with Sudanese heritage and says before she started out in stand-up, she'd never been to a pub.

"The first time I ever went into a pub was when I did an open mic," says Ola.

She didn't know it then, but the event's promoter was as much of a Lord of the Rings fan as she was.

"I made an off comment, saying, 'I bet you've never seen a hijabi in a pub before.

"I think the last time anyone saw hooded figures going into a pub was Frodo at the Prancing Pony'."

Even though she caveats the joke saying "only nerds and losers will get it", it got lots of laughs and has been included in her sets since and will also feature in her tour this summer.

But Ola thinks even though it's funny, what's funnier is audiences not expecting it to be a joke someone who looks like her would tell.

The comedians who performed for the BBC IXtra Comedy Gala: Thanyia Moore, Kane Brown, Babatunde Aléshé, Slim, Gbemi Oladipo (Bemi), Kyrah Gray, Ola Labib and Michael Odewale. The acts are grouped together on stage, smiling at the camera
Ola and Kyrah were among eight comedians who performed at the 1Xtra Comedy Gala on Monday [1Xtra]

Ola says she was the only African Muslim in her school and now she's in her 30s, she still doesn't see many people like her on the circuit.

Sometimes, she says, that adds a pressure to speak out about issues affecting her community.

Comedian and presenter Eddie Kadi, who hosted the event, says talking about race is something young comedians "can't avoid".

"I think what comedy needs to do is actually say that we should embrace our differences," he adds.

"Our differences are what make us all special.

"But you will be shocked the moment you open your mouth, how much similarity there is in the stories, and we should be able to tackle it head-on."

Eddie says the gala has been an important platform for the black comedy scene because "other platforms are really hard to get on to".

But more than a platform, he says events like the gala can act as a "trampoline" for underrepresented talent.

"There are just so many amazing, talented, young black women that are fighting to get their spot and fighting to be seen," adds Kyrah.

"There's always space for us and it's important that we keep highlighting that."

1Xtra Comedy Gala with Eddie Kadi and Friends is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer or listen on BBC Sounds.

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