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We're shining a spotlight on Okezie Morro, actor and creator of Tàta Storytime, the brilliant new story channel on YouTube featuring stories written by authors and read by actors of African, Caribbean, and African American heritage.
Congratulations on your YouTube story channel, Tàta Storytime! What was the inspiration behind this brilliant - and much needed - channel for kids?
Tàta Storytime is a show that has Great actors reading Beautiful picture books to the camera. I had seen the odd show with actors/presenters reading books but it wasn’t until I had my daughter and was watching shows with her when I realised the distinct lack of books with leading characters that were black. At the time she was 1, and I thought that I wanted her to be able to see characters that mirror her. For me, it wasn’t enough to have a black person reading a book. It's important that the books are written by people that are from that culture and don’t need to do any ‘research’ as such. So that was when I got the idea for Tàta Storytime.Why the title Tàta Storytime?
My family is from the Ibo people in eastern Nigeria. In our dialect, Tàta is an affectionate nickname for a small child. Also, it just rolls off the tongue easily, so Tàta Storytime was perfect.
Adjoah Andoh reading Sing to the Moon by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and illustrated by Sandra van Doorn
Can you tell us a bit about what goes into making an episode? What is your favourite bit, or the most fun part?
Preparation is the key to making an episode. Researching books, contacting authors to get permission to use it, assembling a crew, equipment, casting the actors, creating the music, creating the logo etc. Filming on the day, post-production…
It was a long process with most of it being admin based. My favourite parts are the creative parts so…Creating the music was an awesome day & filming the episodes themselves was fantastic. But without the laborious & meticulous preparation you won’t get to enjoy the fun parts as it won't work. It was all worth it in the end.
One of our favourite bits is the theme song! Can you tell us more about it?
Yes, making the theme song was one of my favourite days of work in the last 5 years. It was so much fun. I wrote the lyrics and worked out a tune in my head…so I needed a young female vocalist, a drummer and a guitarist to bring it alive…and I think I was extremely lucky to find some of the best talent out there. We went into a studio in east London and we created magic. I think you can hear the fun on the track. I’m the male vocalist you can hear. I wasn’t going to be so involved but the guys insisted and I couldn't help myself. We had a blast and it shows when you listen to the song. Big thanks to Jerusha (Singer), Abass Dodoo (Drummer), Kodjovi Kush (Guitarist)…Those guys are incredible!!
We are so thrilled you chose 3 of our books: Chicken in the Kitchen written by Nnedi Okorafor, read by Lucian Msamati, and Sing to the Moon and Sleep Well, Siba and Saba written by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl, read by Adjoa Andoh. What was it about them that made you say, “Yes! I want to bring these stories to life!”
I just loved the magic of Chicken in the Kitchen. So many kids' modern stories I was seeing are very safe and tell a story in a world we recognise. I liked the fact that Nnedi trusts children’s imaginations to go on this journey. From the beginning I knew I wanted Lucian to read this story. He doesn’t disappoint.
Okezie (centre) with Adjoa Andoh and Lucian Msamati
Nansubuga’s books are also just brilliant. Sing to the Moon is incredibly magical and sweet. Sleep Well Siba & Saba is also sweet and beautifully told. One thing they all have in common also is the illustration is first class. I was only going to ask to use one book but when Lantana seemed very open to what I was doing (A lot of other publishers didn't want to help me until I’d made the show successfully) I thought I’d get greedy and ask for more.
First of all, I’ve worked with both Lucian & Adjoa before on stage & TV respectively. Plus I’ve seen them in other things so I know that they are both incredible talents and both Greats of their generation. But still, the level that they brought on set was a real lesson. I can honestly say I didn’t have to ‘direct’ either. They came ready and were brilliant.
When Lucian did his first read, the crew had to do their best not to laugh mid-take as I don’t think we were ready for his Wood Wit character. Everyone burst out laughing when I called cut. It's always a good sign when the crew burst out with laughter.
Adjoa was just incredibly professional and devoured both books like she says those words all the time. Just a real pleasure for me!
Lucian Msamati reading Chicken in the Kitchen by Nnedi Okorafor and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
We were delighted to hear Adjoa sing Papa’s lullaby to Siba and Saba! Who composed the sweet tune she sings?
We just had the lyrics for the song on the page. There wasn’t actually a song we could reference, so Adjoa went away and created the tune by herself and when we came to film she had this beautiful lullaby ready. I just put the finishing touches with my sound designer in post-production and created some gentle music to accompany it.
You were born in England and spent some of your childhood in Nigeria before returning to the UK. What was it like growing up in two different countries, cultures and landscapes? Can you tell us how this cross-cultural experience shaped you?
Although I was born in the UK, my family went back to Nigeria when I was a few months old so I only knew life in Nigeria from 0-7 years of age. I would say when you move from a country where you’re in the majority (in terms of skin colour etc.) to one where you’re in a minority… it's only then when you become aware of your ‘colour’ or ethnicity because you keep getting reminded about how ‘different’ you are. Growing up in the UK was a mostly fun experience but every now and then a kid would call you the 'N' word or some other racist term and it would remind me that I’m perceived as ‘different’ (at least by some). So growing up with that happening, you had to grow a thick skin and quickly. I would say that thick skin has served me well in so many scenarios even to this day. It helped me survive, navigate, and thrive in a world/industry that can be very tough at times. But I do love that I am a hybrid of both cultures. It makes me who I am.Why is it important for children to have access to books, films, and stories that represent cultures other than their own? And why is it important for children from BAME cultures to see themselves represented positively in high-quality books and films?
It's important for kids to know and learn about other cultures other than theirs. One of the issues I had growing up was that some white English kids were very ignorant of African culture and tradition.
Most of the time people are open to learning but sometimes they are closed off. That ignorance can breed fear and fear is what can turn people into racists or xenophobes at the extreme end. If we can start very early and introduce youngsters to other cultures subtly through books it’s so much easier.
Then when they’re an adult and in the work canteen Sally won't scoff at "Kofi’s smelly food”. Plus its just fun to learn about other cultures and broaden the young mind. Well, it’s our mission to make it fun!!Who are the characters in books and/or films that inspired you?
We see books with positive non-BAME lead characters all the time. In fact, we have several in our home. So the reverse is important. All kids should be able to see themselves reflected in literature and on the screen in a positive way. It helps give subliminal messages to the kids that they can achieve great things, dream big, be a good person, etc. Very important especially in the UK, since some newspapers would have you believe that, i.e. most black teenage boys are in gangs, etc. If you grow up only believing the negative is possible, how can you ever aspire for the positive? Some of us were lucky to have great parents to reinforce those positive messages but not everyone is that lucky.
I loved Asterix the Gaul when I was a kid. And Tin Tin. I guess what they both had was a sense of adventure and are drawn to danger. It wasn’t until I was a teen, a young adult, that I saw some inspirational performances from Denzel Washington that inspired me (as Stephen Biko in Cry Freedom and in Malcolm X). These characters were based on real people and opened my eyes to some injustices in other parts of the world. Denzel is definitely one of my inspirations as an actor.
What’s next for Tàta Storytime? What’s next for you? Any projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?
Next for Tàta Storytime...Well, we won't get to produce another season for a while due to lockdown and the need for funding, etc. However, I do envision the next season being bigger and better. But I am working on a smaller project that I can film whilst at home and locked down. Still telling stories but with a little twist. This will be good to keep the channel growing and the audience building.
As for me as an actor…I was supposed to start filming an HBO series prior to lockdown but that has been postponed indefinitely, so hopefully, that will still happen sometime.
And finally, do you have any tips or last words for our aspiring writers, actors and artists?
To actors, I would say trust your talent and believe in yourself. So when you walk into the room for your meeting or audition, you own it. That mental prep has so much more power than you think. And make sure you have fun. That's why you do it, right? To writers or other artists, I would say if you have a good idea, act on it. Don’t delay, keep pushing until its done. Also only tell very close people that you trust implicitly about your idea until you’re ready to tell the world. Good luck to you all!
Thank you, Okezie! You can see Okezie in action when you watch him read Femi the Fox, a pot of jollof by Jeanette Kwayke. Enjoy every episode of Tàta Storytime HERE.
To keep up to date on the latest on Tàta Storytime, follow their Instagram and Twitter. Learn more about Okezie on his personal Twitter account.
Okezie Morro was born in Watford, England. He spent part of his childhood in Lagos, Nigeria, and returned to England when he was eight. Okezie was accepted into the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic art (LAMDA) where he won a scholarship. Just before he finished his time at LAMDA, he landed a role in his first Hollywood film, Red Tails, a World War II epic produced by George Lucas and starring Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard & David Oyelowo. Since then, Okezie has worked steadily in film, television and theatre. In 2018, he was one of the stars in the Netflix series The Mist.