Toronto comedian Brandon Ash-Mohammed is speaking out against the racism and homophobia he experienced in the Canadian comedy scene.
The Trinidadian-Canadian standup comic will host Toronto's Virtual Pride Parade on Sunday.
"Nobody wanted to hear from people like me," says Ash-Mohammed, 27, when reflecting on getting his start in comedy in the early 2010s. "There were no support systems in place, there were no shows for people like me. I just felt very alone."
Often when he was booked, it was because the organizers were "trying to make it multicultural," he says.
"It just messed with my head," says Ash-Mohammed, who went on to play Just For Laughs, write for the CBC sketch series "Tallboyz," and establish The Ethnic Rainbow, a monthly comedy showcase for queer people of colour.
He hopes his debut comedy album, "Capricornication," sends a signal to Canada's comedy gatekeepers that diversity sells. Since dropping June 20, it hit number one on the iTunes Comedy Album chart.
To celebrate, "I ordered Wendy's," he says.
Ash-Mohammed is donating the first month of sales to charities that support queer and racialized communities, matched by his label Howl & Roar Records.
Earlier this month, Ash-Mohammed saw his experience reflected in the reckoning at Second City, where Black alumni called out systemic racism at the comedy franchise, which is based in Chicago and has branches in Toronto and Hollywood. The criticism lead to the resignation of the company's CEO Andrew Alexander.
After understudying for the 2018 Second City mainstage production "The Best Is Yet To Come Undone" in Toronto, Ash-Mohammed says he received a call from a producer who said they had gotten complaints that he yelled at staff, supposedly telling them, "I can do whatever I want."
"It just came out of nowhere, because I am not like that," he says. "I'm very shy, I'm very quiet, I keep to myself. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, people don't want me there so badly they are full-on making stuff up.' They were trying to 'put me in my place.'"
"The entire time I was there I was made to feel unwelcome by some of the higher ups. I was treated like an outsider. I don't know if it was because I'm Black and gay, it just seemed like they didn't want me there and I was constantly made to feel like I should be so grateful for the opportunity."
Second City Toronto would not comment, but a spokesperson noted the company released an open letter on June 11 pledging to address its systemic racism and marginalization of "BIPOC, Latinex, and LGBTQIA+ communities," followed by a multi-step action plan to guide the company's protocols moving forward.
But Second City, Ash-Mohammed says, is not the only problematic comedy institution. "It's a bigger issue," he says. "They're just the only ones who are being called out for it right now, because a lot of people are scared, especially in Canada. I know so many people don't feel safe to speak up. I don't even feel safe to speak up."
Despite his experience, Ash-Mohammed's comedy is often playful and uplifting. On "Capricornication," he talks about his father praising him as a child for being "a tank." "If I identified with any kind of motor vehicle, it would just be a truck with eyelashes," he says.
"I just focus on having a fun time and looking at the brighter side of things," he says. "I want to do stuff that makes me happy and makes me laugh."
Usually Pride gigs make June Ash-Mohammed's busiest month. With live venues shuttered amid COVID-19, Pride month has seen him doing most of his comedy from his bedroom at his grandma's house, but he's still been working the queer comedy circuit. He appears alongside comedians such as Lea DeLaria, Carolyn Taylor, and Colin Mochrie in Maggie Cassella's "We're Funny That Way" queer comedy festival, now streaming on CBC Gem.
He's also excited to mark Pride on Sunday in unprecedented fashion, hosting Pride Toronto's Virtual Pride Parade live from a studio in Peterborough, Ont., where he'll throw between the guests, DJs, and performers. "We're in this whole new pandemic world," he says.
The event will stream live at PrideToronto.com at Sunday from 12:00 to 1:30 p.m.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2020.
—Ryan Porter is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
Ryan Porter, The Canadian Press