Comedy as activism: Abena Dapaah
Sitting at a table in the midst of passing students in The Scrounge at the Perkins Student Center Wednesday afternoon, Abena Dapaah takes the lid off the steaming cup of coffee she just purchased, peering into its off-white contents and nods.
“I like my coffee pale enough to have privilege,” she says with a smirk, pausing for a moment then laughing. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding!”
Over the last four years, Dapaah has become known for invoking this type of cutting, daft, yet socially conscious comedy, connecting with people on campus and online—boasting more than 6,000 followers on Tumblr and 1.5 million loops on Vine.
A senior and triple language major studying Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish and minoring in theater performance, Dapaah allows her heightened understanding of culture to influence her humor.
“I want to make my humor accessible to a point that all people will see my jokes and all people will laugh,” she says.
Born in Ghana, the root of Dapaah’s all-inclusive approach to humor can be traced back to her upbringing in West Africa. The youngest of three children, Dapaah spent the first half of her childhood attending school, writing stories, making art and running barefoot with neighborhood friends.
When she was nine months old, her mother won a lottery, and the prize was an all-expenses paid trip to the United States. Intending to immigrate to the United States anyway, her mother took the trip and moved while Dapaah stayed back with her siblings and father.
Her father eventually joined her mother in the United States, and a few years later, Dapaah and her siblings followed. Shortly after her eighth birthday, they boarded a plane and flew straight from Ghana to the JFK Airport in New York City—it was here that she was reunited with her parents and essentially met her mother for the first time.
The family soon settled into an apartment in New Castle, Del. where Dapaah attended school, graduated from Christiana High School in 2012 and enrolled at the university.
By her freshman year, Dapaah had taught herself to play guitar and began writing and recording music, soon posting songs online, along with videos of herself performing short sketches and telling jokes.
“I wrote a song called, OTCF—it actually stands for ‘Ode to Chinese Food,’ and it’s about waiting for my Chinese food,” she says. “If you did not know that, you would think that’s a song about someone getting their heart broken—but literally it’s just me waiting for food.”
Dapaah’s videos quickly began garnering attention online, as well as on campus, and have consistently maintained a substantial following. The content of her videos range anywhere from absurdist, off-color abstract, to literal plays on words, embracing puns and irony.
For Dapaah, each joke is the result of a writing process that centers on the importance of finding common ground for everyone to laugh at, rather than victimizing someone by perpetuating problematic generalizations.
In essence, Dapaah’s comedy is a poignant response to the racism and ignorance that she has encountered as a student.
“The racial climate on campus is not something that I think is getting better,” she says. “A lot of students don’t acknowledge it.”
Looking forward, she takes a long sip of her coffee and nods.
“The thing about being a person of color, it’s wild—I always have to think about my race. I don’t have the luxury of ever forgetting that I’m a black person,” she says. “For me, everything I do, I have to think—if I perceive myself in this light, it’s gonna affect other people’s perception of other black people.”
By choosing to laugh and making others laugh at content that is not exclusive, Dapaah feels she has tapped into a level of activism that radiates positivity and contributes to the larger discussion about race in America.
“That’s why I like abstract humor, I like things that are absurd,” she says. “Absurd humor is not something that ever has to victimize anyone, it’s humor that stands on its own and is just purely funny. It’s not funny because someone is a punchline.”
Taking a look at the passing bodies filtering in and out of The Scrounge, Dapaah explains more about her intended audience.
“They’ll just see the joke, just a pure, relatable joke, and it’s gonna make them feel normal in their experiences. That’s what I hope to achieve through humor.”
Setting the empty cup on the table, Dapaah smiles brightly.
“My humor is activism,” she says. “It’s my own convoluted form of activism.”