“I want to encourage people to be themselves”
Mayowa Osinubi from Atlanta, Georgia, is constantly trying out new genres: She modelled, directed a documentary film and started both a YouTube channel and a feminist comedy show. She currently lives in Berlin as Chancellor Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. She talks about how the internet gave her the feeling to belong – a feeling she was missing offline. And she gives recommendations on how self-marketing and networking can help to enhance financial success.
Your documentary film “Acting White” starts with your memory of being told that you acted white while growing up in Atlanta. What did people mean by that and how did it make you feel?
They meant that the way that I am does not fit the mainstream perception of a black person. This phrase was said by people of many races and it would make me feel sad. I felt that I must be doing something wrong for people to say this about me.
In your film, you interview several teenagers who experience this as well. Did you change your behavior to be seen as fully belonging?
In some ways I did. I sought a lot of validation from my peers, so it made me feel really insecure when people suggested that I didn’t belong to the black community. I was always an outsider though, so I don’t think I was good at pretending to fit in. What helped was when I turned to the internet where I found the community and validation that I did not have in real life. I listened to youtubers from backgrounds very different from my own and started to realize that there is more than one way to be in the world. Today, this is exactly what I aim for: encouraging people around the world to be themselves.
How did you decide to make this your profession?
When I first started recording YouTube videos, my Mom was totally against it. She begged me to please, please, do my Master’s degree and get a 9-to-5 job. But I was very stubborn. I was so passionate about it that I felt it just had to come true. So, I did my own research on marketing, economics and writing to figure out how to work for myself. For the first one and a half years I kept it a secret from my mother, until I started to have success. Now she watches every episode and is my biggest supporter.
Why did you choose to come to Germany?
Because it seemed so different from the Southern US where I grew up. I always thought that I could find my community anywhere in the world. Germany was the testing ground for that hypothesis.
Were you right – did you find your community in Berlin?
Oh, yes! And it’s probably my best group so far. I love their loyalty and their straight-forward honesty: “No” means “no” and “yes” means “yes”. This is very different from the US, where people back out of agreements all the time.
You are here with a fellowship of the Humboldt Foundation. 200 years ago, the scientist Alexander von Humboldt was already a master of self-branding and networking. He has written 30,000 letters to politicians and fellow scientists to lobby for himself and his topics – a little bit like you, one could say. Can you imagine how you would have built a global career without the internet?
The internet is not everything – I think people underestimate how much power is in physical interaction. When I wanted to start my own comedy show, I had no idea where to begin because I had just moved to Germany and didn’t know anybody. So I just printed out a thousand flyers, hit the streets of Berlin and talked people up – a kind of one-on-one marketing. It worked incredibly well: Many of those people still come to my shows.
You have published a video nearly every week for the last three years. How many hours do you work every week?
I don’t separate my work from my fun, so I don’t count the hours. But I could easily spend 12 to 18 hours on each of my YouTube videos. But it is so much fun that it doesn’t feel that long.
Now that you are successful, are you still nervous sometimes?
When I met Angela Merkel this summer together with the other Chancellor fellows, I was very insecure – imposter syndrome really hit. I doubted myself and felt I didn’t deserve it. The important thing is to put yourself and your work out anyways. And to then learn from mistakes and misperceptions – often work that I am critical about is perceived very well and vice versa.
Starting a comedy show abroad seems to be one of those moonshots you undertook. Humor differs so much from one country to another. How do you get Germans to understand your jokes?
I am lucky to be not just US American but also the child of Nigerian immigrants. Growing up, my parents never understood my jokes. That’s how I learnt to speak to them in a different way, leaving out very specific notions of contemporary culture and focusing on universal experiences. This is exactly how I address my audience in Germany.
You want to return to Atlanta at the end of your fellowship. If somebody there told you “You’re acting white” again, what will you reply?
I will probably not hear it anymore. People don’t use it for adults because we are no longer as easily impacted and malleable. But if somebody said that to me again I would not even reply. Such a comment speaks more to who they are than to who I am. They would want me to react so I would not do them the favor.
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