The standup comedian, actor and podcast host talks about growing up a Black, Muslim woman in New York and what it’s like fasting for Ramadan in a COVID-19 world.
“Give it up for my Afro,” yells Zainab Johnson, as she takes the stage of the Seth Meyers show before launching into a set about racist friends, dating as a Muslim, and growing up in a massive family— difficult topics handled in an off-kilter, candid style.
I first encountered Johnson via YouTube algorithm recommendation. The ease with which she combined thought-provoking social commentary, with light-hearted playfulness was impressive and I was instantly a flight-heartedn watched all her videos. What moved me most was how she chose to speak honestly, openly and unapologetically about who she is as a Black Muslim woman.
Born and raised in Harlem, New York, Johna Black Muslim woman out Muslim family with her parents and 13 siblings. Her large family, she says, gave her a built-in the community and she didn’t feel the need to put much stock in the relationships outside the home.
“There were times when I needed my space to think and breathe and I didn’t have that,” Johnson says about the experience. “It’s like the best thing and the worst.” It’s these early experiences with her family that she credits with fueling her creative content.
She studied math, becoming part of the first generation in her family to graduate university. Her goal was to become a teacher because, as she puts it she didn’t know any better. “On T.V. it seems like teachers are doing OK,” says Johnson. “But once you get into the world of teaching you realise, oh no! This is like slavery.”
At college, Johnson made a close friend who talked her into moving to L.A to be famous together. “Every friend of a celebrity that we know, they’re also a celebrity, so I thought ‘oh ok, I have to be famous too!’ (laughs).” Sadly, it was around this time her father passed away, an event which motivated her to move quickly and without regrets. She hopped in her car and drove across the country and as she puts it “just sort of figured it out.”
Last year, Johnson was named one of Variety’s Top 10 Comics To Watch. She currently co-hosts the Netflix show “100 Humans” and is a series regular on “Upload”, an Amazon Prime original series by Greg Daniels (co-creator of Parks and Recreation). Aside from her work in stand-up and acting, she writes and hosts her own Podcast, Honest Tea with Z.
Zainab Johnson Stand-Up Performance