Interview: A Conversation with Mim Shaikh
I have always admired people who have been able to live through adversity, and rise up in the face of hardship. By acknowledging someone else’s success in the most difficult of circumstances, you are able to look at the challenges in your own personal life, and view them as being somewhat more surmountable. To seek out those people is important, as they can simultaneously inspire and humble you, allowing you to have more self-belief just from seeing their success. Mim Shaikh is undoubtedly one of those people. Raised in Mitcham, in a single parent household, with his mother suffering from mental health issues, Mim already had the odds stacked against him. However his desire to follow his passion with an unwavering focus, in spite of all the obstacles in his path, has led him to not only becoming a presenter on BBC Radio 1Xtra, but a spoken word artist, most well known for his touching ‘Letter To My Mother’, and also a budding actor that has just starred in his first feature film, ‘Freehold’. A multi-talented individual, and a genuinely good human being, such milestones are only the tip of the iceberg for Mim. We had the chance to sit down and speak with him on a number of subjects including how to cope with mental health issues, growing up in South London, why music is not to blame for violence, his path in media and more. Check out the interview below now:
TP: Do you think people need to be more open?
Mim: We live in a society that is mad closed… it’s annoying because, when you’re so open with everything you do, I had this expectation when I was younger that everyone is as open as I am. Growing up, you understand that the world ain’t like that, and people don’t want to be as open, but I’ve realized, especially this year, the more open you can be… the better it is for yourself…and it’s weird because in the new Jay- Z album, ‘4:44’-
Yeah, great album… there’s one line in there, that stuck out to me: “ you can’t heal, what you don’t reveal”. So for me, things that I don’t like about myself, or that are problematic, I want to be able to reveal…. Not in a “hey, look this happened to me” but in a way that is encouraging so I can show I’ve dealt with the issue. Dealing with my mum, who has mental health issues, writing a spoken word piece to her about that, has made me come away from that and think, “this is so liberating to me”, and I feel free… it’s a weight off my shoulders in that department. Now there may be other departments in my mind, but that’s helped that particular one. I just think, whatever is going on in your mind, you need an outlet to let that out, because if there’s too much stuff happening, it can become too problematic.
I feel now, in the UK, there is more awareness around mental health, which is thanks to the work that people like you are doing…but do you think there is a lot more that can be done?
Yeah, a hundred percent. I would’ve loved to have learnt about all of that stuff when I was younger, and understand the impact of your mind on you as an individual. What certain conditions are and what they mean. And why a person is the way that they are. You’re not just born like that… sometimes things have happened to them that have made them not as extroverted, or not as expressive, or not as open, or not having the ability to converse, and then I’m left thinking “why is an individual left like that?”
So then for me, I would have loved when I was growing up, to have been aware of it a bit more, rather than just dealing with it myself. I believe it’s something that could be taught in schools. Something that is taught to children, and they can understand why things are the way they are. If I was taught from a younger age, I may have been able to reassess the relationship with my mum. But it’s taken me to get to twenty five years of age to properly understand. I think that is the main change I’d love to see in mental health, just more awareness of it. It’s great that people are more open about it and talking about it, but then nothing happens-
There’s no solution
Yeah, there’s no action taking place. When people say “I’m not feeling so good”, instead of people telling them to brush it off, or saying to them “pull yourself together man, its fine” or “just get on with it”, they need to be reassuring. I do understand that approach, but I also understand how important it is for you to just take some time out for yourself and say “I’m not doing this today”. Just get on with what you need to do, and deal with it in your way because everyone deals with things in their own way. You don’t want to let something happen which triggers a whole different condition later on.
I read one of the pieces that you had done with ‘Mental Movement’, and you mentioned how your mum is into knitting. Do you feel that we need to encourage these kind of activities, which may not seem like obvious solutions, but can actually help?
Yeah, I think whatever activity you know helps liberate you, helps make you feel free in life, and there is no pressure… follow those activities. We all need to make a living, we all need to have a job, but also do things that are important for you. What makes you free? What makes you feel like “I’m free whilst I do this and there’s no one that can stop me from doing this, because I’m the most free human being that I can be”? That feeling… I get that feeling from radio… being myself on air, and not having to justify what I say or do. Its my show, I can do whatever I want on the show, within certain restrictions. But in terms of my personality, and being able to express myself, it’s a great way for me to go “hey, I’m feeling like this today, how are you feeling, are you feeling good?” And if you find that, then it’s great for you moving forward as a human being.
Have you reached that level? Because I saw on your Radar interview, you felt before that you were creating for others, whereas now you feel like you’re creating for yourself.
I remember thinking I need to put myself out there, and I need to create. Three to four years ago, I actually labeled myself the least creative person I know. I didn’t understand what creativity was. So I picked up a camera and did prank videos on the streets, and I thought that would be something creative. That was for other people – I came out and thought I want to be an entertainer so let me come out and entertain people by being me. Whereas now, I ask myself, “How do I feel?” “What do I want to create?” What do I want to see that will make me go, “I rate that!”? It’s wicked when an individual can be so open, and so vulnerable, and can make something that is aesthetically pleasing but has substance behind it.
Those are the artists I rate so much. For example, Jay Z’s ‘Moonlight’ visual from ‘4:44’ is amazing because you take something away whilst being entertained at the same time. So there is surface level stuff like “Oh my God, a black Friends, that would be so funny”, but then below the surface is a subtext which is… you don’t have to follow the mainstream idea, when you’re a person of colour to fit in. You don’t have to do that, you can create your own stuff, and let them jump on and let them think “this is amazing”. So for me, I’m at a place now where I want to create more, for what I would like. I know that other people would latch on to what I like anyway, as it’s the stuff that I rate.
And it’s coming from a genuine place as well, and people connect with that.
Yeah I think honesty is really important.
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Success. Freedom. Happiness; No matter what level of success you have experienced or attained. I truly feel like the most gratifying feeling that come from obtaining a level of success are happiness and freedom. Being free enough to be happy. Still got major work to be doing, but if both are in sync with one another, then you'll be flying high. Let's all reach them heightened positions!!! Thanks @fenn_omeally / @radarradioldn for documenting the journey. 🙏🏽
Going back a bit, I know you grew up in Mitcham… it’s not the easiest place to grow up in…
Not at all…
How was it for you growing up there?
I’ve been around so many places… I was born in Birmingham, then moved down to South London. And Mitcham is… Mitcham is rough. It’s an area where a lot of bad stuff happens, and going to school, I’d be exposed to things like knife crime, people dying… and just bad things happening in school. But I was never really the bad kid. I could have gone down that route, and I was hanging around the wrong people, but then something just happened to me in year ten, where I was like, “I’m going to study hard, I’m going to pass my GCSEs, and I’m going to go to a great sixth form, get my A Levels, then go to university”. So you can go your own way I think, it’s definitely down to the company you keep.
I stopped hanging around the people that were… making me go down the wrong path, and decided I want to do something with myself. But I wouldn’t change it at all, because it’s made me who I am, and that’s a consequence of anything that you’ve been through. If you’ve been conditioned to live a safe life, and not been exposed to know bad things that’s going to make you the person you are. So me being able to see people getting punched up, people dying… parents coming into school and upset at the fact their child has died, and asking for answers in an assembly, has made me realize how the world actually is like “whoa… there’s a lot of madness out there that I’m glad I’m aware about, and I don’t need to go in and touch”. But I just know that stuff is apparent and it’s there.
Would you say your childhood and adolescence was the inspiration behind your spoken word piece, ‘Triggers’?
Yeah, so ‘Triggers’ was a piece where I was thinking, “Why am I the way I am, and why are people the way they are?” “What triggers them to go and do what they do, and what triggers me to go and do what I do?” I feel that we all have that – if you take the metaphor of a trigger of a gun, I feel like we all have that in our brain where the trigger goes off and it’s like, “Bam! Ok I’m going to go and do this, this is making me want to do this” and it’s something that happens psychologically. It’s something that happens in our heads where we tell ourselves “I see myself here, what do I have to do to get myself there?” And I’ve always questioned, “Why am I able to do this, but the other person is unable to do it?” “What’s different in me, in comparison to that person?” Because we’ve got the same anatomy… same human body, our brains just may be wired different. But why is that? I always question why, and that’s mainly what ‘Triggers’ was about.
So on the topic of taking a different path and given you’re from Mitcham, being from South, there are a lot of sick artists coming up at the moment, but at the same time, one can argue some of them are promoting a certain (violent) lifestyle in their lyrics… what’s your view on their music?
That’s all they know! That’s what they’ve experienced… if that’s all an individual knows then that’s what they’re going to talk about. So I give them credit for just being themselves. They’re from the roads, they’ve known about the roads, they talk about what’s happening on the roads, I don’t feel like they’re glamorizing a certain lifestyle… they’re painting a portrait of their life, and what their life is. Some people need to realize that’s how certain people are living their lives, and its their reality, down the streets that’s what you’ll see. If you go down to Mitcham, or down to Streatham or down to Brixton, stuff like that is happening. And there are kids that are doing that kind of stuff. People turn around and say, “you’re glamorizing a certain lifestyle as that”, I don’t see it like that. These guys are just talking about what they know, and that’s what they’re best at. They know about the roads, and so are talking about the roads.
So how do we solve the issue of young kids not having to go through that?
I think it’s about people finding what they’re really passionate about from a young age, and the only way you can do that is by experiencing and experimenting with different things. And not just saying, “society tells me I need to go get a job, so I’ll go get a job, and I’ll just do that job, I’ll do no passion projects, I’ll do nothing that I really want to do and just hang out with my friends”. If that’s the life you want, then that’s absolutely fine because your job will give you satisfaction, because you’ve chosen a great job, but we’ve all got callings in our head.
We’ve all got little whispers that say, “oi Mim go do this”, or “yo, go do this”. You have a feeling from it, like I had a feeling when I was on radio for the first time. I had a feeling that I wanted to be an actor, so I said to myself, “let me go and act in some stuff”. I wanted to be a poet, so I said to myself, “let me write some stuff and put it out”. Just do it! You don’t know where your life is going to take you by just making things, and actioning that thought that you have. So I think that’s the main thing that people need to be aware of.
Hundred percent man…so taking it back a bit, you listed what you’re capable of doing – initially I thought you were just on spoken word, but then I saw your film, ‘Shia//Sunni’, and I was like “raa, Mim can really act!”
So what made you want to study journalism, rather than acting?
I didn’t know back then that acting was something that I wanted to do, I just wasn’t aware of it in my head, I didn’t know if I’d be good at it. But journalism- I thrived in media and communication subjects. I got As in GCSE at Media and English, and when it got to A Levels, I flourished in communication subjects like History, English, Media, and I realized that I love communicating. Communication is so important to me, and that’s the thread that all of these things have within each other. So going to university, I was questioning, “what do I study?” “Is it going to be law or journalism?”
I said to myself “if I do law, I’m going to have to be a lawyer. If I do journalism, I could go and experience the world, and go to different places, and talk to different people, so which one would I prefer to do?” And it was journalism. And then it was journalism or broadcast journalism. And I went, “do I want to do radio and TV, or, do I want to do print and writing?”, and I was like “naaa, video and TV, because then I’ll be able to be seen and use a voice”. And from there, it just led on to all of this stuff…it’s crazy.
That’s a very mature mindset to have at that age… a lot of people would think of the security aspect of law, as a safe career to go for…
Again, it comes back to that- our mind tells us something, and our heart tells us something. Our mind tells us security, logic, safety, so my mind was telling me, “be a lawyer, you’ve seen successful people in your family become lawyers, do that” but your heart is going, “yeah but journalism is there, it’s a bit precarious so you don’t know what’s going to happen down there”, and so I asked “shall I go down that one or go down that one?” And I said, “lets go down that one” (laughs). Because I always push myself down a path where I don’t know what the end result is. Because I feel that’s how you grow, and you come out an individual that learns something about yourself even if it fails! You still go “ok cool, I learnt that about myself, let me go and do this now”. Only through that, can you grow as a person.
Being a young British Muslim in this country is very difficult- actually being Muslim fullstop, is very difficult. Do you feel UK will ever wholly accept Islam as a religion?
…No… not with the status quo right now…and the rejection of what Islam is to the greater people, and that is filled with negative connotations. I feel we are getting to a better place – getting to a place of where people don’t judge someone of hearing one word, and assume that’s exactly how they are. “Oh so because he’s Muslim, he thinks this shouldn’t happen and that shouldn’t happen”. I think we have a very long way to go before it’s accepted as a norm. It’s a weird one because, I’m British, I feel I’m British before I am Muslim… and what I do in the media, some people would argue, it’s not quite Islamic. I play music, I act, I do all these things, but I also understand myself as a human being and how imperative these things are to me, to be able to deal and cope with the world. It’s my way of just dealing with it.
With that being said, I think…. I just think the more different Muslims are, in terms of the things they do, and the more there are people out there, showing us that Muslims can do this, Muslims can do that, Muslims can be chefs like Nadiya Hussain or a Muslim can be a big actor like Riz Ahmed, and Muslims can be mayors like Sadiq Khan, the better. Like all these different jobs show that we’re still human beings at the end of the day, and we can do whatever we want to do, we just adhere to a religion that tells us to live our life in a certain way, and it’s down to that individual to decide how important that is to them.
Do you feel being a British Muslim in media, you have a responsibility to talk about certain issues that involve Muslims?
I think it’s down to you as an individual, if you want to you can, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. I feel like that question comes up a lot with people who are a minority. And “are you in a position to represent your people?”, whether you’re Black or…people don’t ask that to people who are Christian, or Catholic, or Hindu, or Sikh. I don’t see them asking that, I just see them always asking Muslims. Why is there an onus on you (Muslims) to represent all these people? Everyone else is not taking the burden on and saying they want to be a representative… I think I am naturally though. I think people see me, and it’s rare. You see a Muslim and an Asian guy on a Black music station, and you go “OK, he’s a minority then”. But I love being in places where I’m like… the odd one out. I’ve always been the odd one out, wherever I’ve been. So if I can carry that on, I love that because I get to have a different perspective to everyone. I think that’s important.
Speaking of being the odd one out in places, I feel like there are a lot of Asians who consider themselves the odd one out but may not feel they are able to express themselves, so it’s important to have someone like you in the media, as it gives them the confidence to express themselves more freely…. lets touch on music. I find it quite mad in certain ways that your previous interviews have predicted the success of huge acts today. For example you interviewed Future, in 2014- that was before ‘Honest’ dropped right?
Yeah, ummm…’Honest’ had just come out, because we were talking about it in the interview.
Yeah, so ‘Honest’ had just come out, and since then he’s released projects like ‘DS2’, ‘What A Time To Be Alive’, ‘HNDRXX’-
And he’s blown crazily
He was still huge then, but now… even more
Exactly man, and you even interviewed Steel Banglez a few years ago, and what he’s done since then with MIST has been mad… did you have any idea that these artists would reach those heights?
I just have an ear for good stuff. I’ve just been blessed with a good ear and I think… if you’ve been blessed with a good ear, you can just see what’s good. And then when you see what’s good you say to yourself “ahhh, he’s onto something, he’s going places”. You can just see it, by the work people are putting out. Because if they’re putting that out now, if they stick with it, doing what they’re doing, who knows in five years time where they might be. That’s the main thing, just being able to see that people are doing good stuff, and latching onto that and supporting that.
Would you ever want to be a part-time A&R?
Ummm, I’ve thought about it… but I think I’m too creative to be that. I don’t want to limit myself in that sense. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great job to do, but I just think, I’m more passionate about other things in my life other than just music. I love coming in and talking about music, but at this stage of my career, I’m not sourcing music to the extent of finding out who is the next best thing. I latch onto things that I like and say “ooh this is wicked, I want to play this”, you know? So yeah.
Speaking of all of these pursuits, in terms of you wanting to go more into acting, what projects do you have lined up? What’s the ideal role?
Being the odd one out. Being on a show which is like… nineteenth century, I don’t know… like back in the day, old English times and then you see a brown face pop up, and he’s a character called… Christopher
And it’s played by a Muslim guy, from South London, who loves Hip-hop and R&B. That makes me go “What? They done that?! Ratings to them, that’s sick!” That will make me go, “raa that’s wicked bro”. Doing stuff like that, but that will take a long time.
Any auditions come up for those kind of roles?
Na, not for those kind of roles…
Because the UK loves those kind of shows, like old fashioned shows
Yeah, I haven’t auditioned for those kind of roles, but I just found out the other day that I’ve got something really exciting coming up, a really good project, that is shooting at the end of this year.
Can you speak on it?
Naa, I’m not allowed, no one really knows what’s going on except for people in the industry, but I’m sure people will hear about it when they advertise it. But it’s quite close to home, in terms of getting to where I said – like that place. The character is very close to home, but there’s a lot of stages you have to go through in acting, to push it through.
Will that project be based in UK?
Yeah London based.
Yeah man, looking forward to it.
Yeah I think you’ll like it…
Coming from where you come from, and with the inevitable pressures placed upon you pursuing a career in media, what would your advice be to young people, especially young Asians, wanting to follow the same route?
My advice would be, figure out the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. Why do you want to become what you want to become? I have a reason for everything that I want to do…figure that out first, chase what you want to do, do it, and always stay true to what that reason was back in the day, and be able to use that constantly within your career. If things aren’t working out, or not happening the way you think they should be, then you need to be more patient if you’re not getting a break. Just realize why you’ve done what you’ve done, and you will think “ok cool, how can I take things into my own hands, and make what I want to make?” And go and do what you want to do with that core purpose and passion still behind you. I think that’s key, it’s helped me in every situation that I’ve ever thought, “this is long, I feel like giving up, should I do it?”
Anytime I’ve doubted myself, I say, “No, theres a reason that you’re doing this, you were born for a reason that’s deeper than any other reason that other people have purposes. You found your purpose out at a very early age, stay true to it and just go forward”. That would be my advice to any individual. Brown, White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, purple, whatever – just focus on that. And saying that makes me go, “I need to focus more on it”, because sometimes I get caught up in – doing this and doing that, and a show, and another show and another audition, and then something online, I lose track sometimes. But once you know who you are, and are centred, and you realize why you’re doing what you’re doing it will work wonders for you.
What’s making it for Mim Shaikh? At what point is it that you’ve felt that you’ve done what you set out to do?
That’s a really good question…I’m struggling to answer it because I don’t think that will ever happen. I don’t think I can ever turn around, and say I’ve made it man. Be that with heightened fame, or be it with heightened salary, those things don’t bring you happiness. They don’t make you happy, you can see that from any interview with people who have obtained that. So it’s a feeling, so if I’ve realized my work has impacted humanity, and something has shifted in us how we operate as human beings, and be able to be more open and honest with each other, converse, that will make me go “ah sick, something I was a part of, led us to do that” so that will make happy. And once that has been attained, then I want to do that on a scale of a hundred, then a thousand, then a million, and then it’s like “alright, chill out” (laughs). Yeah, but I don’t think making it is a thing bro. You just got to do you all the time, like people would say Skepta has made it, but he’s still doing him, and he’s going to carry on doing him until the day he passes away! That’s powerful…
Mim, honestly, pleasure chatting to you man.
Yeah man, appreciate it.
You can tune in to Mim on BBC Radio 1xtra every Saturday morning from 6AM-10AM and follow him on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook