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Gabin Congolo in a blue seatshirt smiling

Up and Coming: Gabin Kongolo

Each month we're featuring up and coming young Welsh artists from a variety of genres. First up it's Gabin Kongolo who plays 'Yemz' in the Grime film, 'Against All Odds' directed by Femi Oyeniran (Kidulthood) and Nicky Walker (The Intent).

Prendy from our Radio Platfform team sat down with Gabin to chat about the movie, being a creative in Cardiff, and the difficulties he's faced along the way.

So, the film comes out on Friday 20 November. How would you describe it?

It's a homage to the UK Grime scene when it first began, seeing what young MC's had to go through whilst trying to pursue a career. I think it's a beautiful film that tells you a story that many people have lived, so people across the UK will relate to it. Grime was the first genre of music we had that we could call our own.

How did the opportunity to work on this film come about?

I was in Coventry, shooting a short film and saw an Instagram post that said: 'The Intent & Intent 2 are making a brand new film and they're looking for people between the ages of 16-19'.

I was 21 at the time, so I remember thinking I was going to have to lie about my age. I wasn't going to miss this opportunity! Then I realised they just wanted people who looked that age so it was all good.

I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and seeing what The Intent and The Intent 2 has done, knew it would be big. It's on Netflix, it's had a world premiere with red carpets and it's become a huge cult film.

So, I applied and they asked me to send in an audition tape. Two days before I had to submit it I just wasn't feeling it and wasn't  motivated at all. But then they asked if I could do a face-to-face audition instead so I went straight down to London and the rest is history!

Did you audition for a particular part in the film?

Yeah, they gave me a character, which is the character I play in the film, 'Yemz'. For a casting call they normally give you a brief of who's who and you apply for the role you want.

But with this, they wanted me to apply for a specific role. I remember reading the script and thinking this character is me but on a whole new level. 

After the audition I went back to university and they called me three days later to say I had the part which was mad! Two weeks after that we started filming, and I've spent the last year working on the film.

Who is your character and what's his role in the film?

My character is called called 'Yemz' and he's the manager of 'Active' who's the main character. 'Active' is a young MC trying to make his way, clashing with everyone on Risky Roadz or Lord of the Mics and 'Yemz' is the guy that sorts everything out. He thinks logically while everyone else thinks with their hearts. 'Yemz' is careful but no-one listens to him but they know he's right because things always end up in chaos.

What I love about my character, is that no matter what he goes through - the highs and the lows - he's always there to support and push either 'Active' or 'Leon' (played by Ty Logan). So, 'Yemz' is the guy that sorts everything out.

 Is this your biggest and most enjoyable role to date?

I think culturally, it's my biggest role. Every opportunity opens a door but this one will open even bigger doors. From the moment I knew what this film was going to be about, I knew it would be massive and speak to a whole generation.

I remember thinking when we were filming just how big this film was going to be. And when I saw the people involved, artists like Jammer, J2K, D Double E, Ghetts. These guys have huge audiences of their own, so imagine when all those audiences come together! I think on a personal level this film has been huge for me too, because it's about something I grew up with. It's about my life as much as everyone else's.

The film features some huge Grime artists. Do you think it's going to help introduce these artists and the genre to a new audience?

Yeah, it will definitely introduce and re-introduce fans to Grime. I hate the saying 'Grime is Dead' because it's always there. It just evolves. This film pays homage to people like Ghetts & D Double E, and shows what these guys have done. Without them, this film wouldn't have happened. I also think that by going online via Link Up TV a lot more people will tap into Grime and it will hopefully get the reach that it deserves.

Gabin as 'Yemz' in the film

How does it feel having the film airing on satellite TV's Channel U?

I didn't find out until the news went online, which was mad. I think it's added another level of excitement to the project, hearing that it will be on Link Up TV and on Channel U. My brothers and I  used to watch Channel U after school and it was such a big part of my life in London. I remember seeing N-Dubz or one of Skepta's or JME's first music videos on there, so for this to be on Channel U is historic.

Growing up in Cardiff, what inspired you to be creative?

So many things...I think I stumbled into creativity by accident. When I was in school I did a drama class. You'd get to go on a school trip, miss a day of school and get to go bowling, get fed and do a performance but I had to wait until Year 9 to take part.

But once I started, I realised I actually enjoyed it and I'd have to take it seriously. So, I did one thing at a time. I did the after-school drama club and joined the school musical where I doscovered my love for music. I'd always loved music since I was young but this is when I thought I could maybe do something with it.

From then on I was always thinking about how I could take things further. I went to college and I was signed to an acting agency and given some opportunities. I started doing extras roles and getting experience on set which is what I needed. I did some extras work for a BBC Three show called 'Class' and I remember asking myself if this was what I really wanted to do, as I was just sat around for hours.

I was still quite a shy, awkward kid and I realised this was just the beginning. You have to go through these experiences to get the bigger roles and it's all part of the journey. Realising this was the first step for me. Then I went to university and everything unravelled in terms of creativity because it pushed me to do everything I wanted to do. I didn't just have to be an actor, I could be a musician, a poet, make films or do photography.

Apart from drama classes were there any other clubs in Cardiff that helped you?

At the time, I didn't know any. When I was in high school all I knew was after-school drama. I'm not saying there weren't any out there but at the time I didn't want to be pushed in that direction. Aged 14-15 years old it was just something I enjoyed doing, and I still thought I was going to be a footballer! It was only at college that I found my path.

I know now that Jukebox Collective are doing some sick stuff and there's also an acting workshop down Cardiff Bay called The Workshop which is so sick.

There's also Shelley Norton who does Talent Shack on Penarth Road. So, they're the three I know of and I wish there were more. There are so many kids here who would be amazing if they wanted to pursue acting and if they wanted to pursue it, maybe that's something I could look at in the future.

Looking back, what would have helped you or might benefit another young creative looking to pursue a career?

All the time. This is the problem of being a perfectionist or thinking you are. I was 18, thinking I should have started two years earlier so I would be two years further ahead by now.

I wish I'd had someone like a mentor to push me in the right direction. That's definitely something I want to do for others in the future, it's just a matter of when. I think it's important, especially in a place like Cardiff.

The person who pushed me the most was Mr John. From Year 10 to 11 he pushed me in a musical direction and made me realise that I could do it. He pushed me into doing the school musicals and told me I was good.

He also told me something that has stuck with me forever. Him and another teacher, Mr Smith said: "Only 10% of people get the career they really want" and I really wanted to be in that 10% and make it happen. We met for lunch last year and I told him about everything I've done and he thought I'd come so far, which was a nice moment.

Why have you spent so much time in London over the years?

I realised there wasn't much happening for me in Wales. For a black male, there was nothing happening for me at all. During my time at uni and when I was pushing myself in London the transition of more representation on screen was slowly happening. It was great to see and now I'm in a position where there is more work for me.

There was so much more work out there for me in London than in Wales because I guess the narratives  being told in London are ones I can relate to more. And that representation on screen shines through, because I think people are aware London is a very multi-cultural city and they've embraced that for a very long time.

It's only now that Cardiff has embraced it. People have realised that Tiger Bay is actually a thing and are really owning that. I think there will be a time when people really do tell the Tiger Bay story and stuff about The Cardiff Five and when these stories come out, it will be sick.

These stories need to be told and pushed to the forefront. People need to know that we have a history here and once we start doing this in Wales, it's just the beginning of opening doors and accepting what Cardiff is as a city culturally as well as the history behind it.

Considering how multi-cultural London is. Do you think these issues held you back in Cardiff?

I wouldn't say held back. I'd say I was limited by what I could do here. I think at the time when I wanted to take acting seriously I was limited to S4C but I can't speak Welsh.

I'm not trying to tick boxes for anyone so if I'm hired it's because I'm good at what I do not because I fit a requirement. I just think there are very limited options for people like me here.

People are still closed-minded. When they think of a character or a role, they think 'oh he's white'  - they don't think, 'oh it could be anyone'. This is slowly changing which is amazing to see, but I still think it's a mentality that needs to die out.

Do you think Cardiff is changing?

Yeah, I think with the people I know now and people coming up in Cardiff and seeing people older than me, not black but mixed-raced pushing to tell these stories and trying to open doors. It's only a matter of when this happens because these are well respected people, so we can't be ignored anymore.

I feel the same about Cardiff as the whole world. We've been making noise, and there's so much talent in Wales, be it music, acting, dance, whatever so we can't be ignored.

Against All Odds premieres on Friday 20 November 2020 on Channel U from 7pm (Sky channel 373/ Virgin channel 345) and will be available to watch online on Link Up TV.

Listen to Gabin Kongolo's full interview with Prendy on Radio Platfform which also features music from the film soundtrack and some of Gabin’s favourite Welsh artists.