At just 28, Nick Mutuma is something of a veteran on screen. He is the only original cast member of MTV Shuga that is still in the show five seasons later. Cast as Leo in the cool educational drama series, the Kenyan actor doesn’t take this feat lightly.
“I am always thankful that I’m still a part of this show because I think it’s a great show,” he tells me. “I love the fact that this is a show that Africans own. Whether you go to SA or to Lagos or wherever, it’s a dope show and young people really appreciate it.”
“More importantly, it addresses social issues that every young person is going through so it’s impactful like that. I love the fact that they’ve kept me in the show, but I want to do one more season and just bow out.”
“Here’s a spoiler alert,” he pauses as if thinking about whether to tell me or not. “Leo goes back home this season. He is tired of running way. So hopefully, Shuga one day goes back to Kenya and if it does, whatever happens to Leo, that will be my last season.”
While that may be sad news for MTV Shuga fans, it’s definitely not a loss. It’s actually a win because it frees up Mutuma to do more work. For instance, this interview takes place during the tail end of his latest visit to South Africa. He is in town to shoot a movie.
“My role is more of a supporting role in a South African film with a Kenyan twist,” he says of the film. “I’m not at liberty to talk about the project much, but there’s a new pan-African wave happening. People have realised that Africa has the potential to be united states. If you make a movie that resonates with people on the entire continent then it’s a win for you.”
However, it’s of grave concern to him that even in such undeniably African films, the lead roles are often given to American and European actors. “To be honest, it still gets to me,” he says. “If you look at projects like Sense8 – it’s a huge series for Netflix. The story takes place in different places including Kenya. But the guy they have acting as a Kenyan is from the UK.”
“We have very capable actors in Kenya,” he exclaims. “I guess it’s up to the actors to build their profiles and become bankable. Avenues like social media have really changed the game because they really do show how influential you are to your core audience and beyond. It shows whether you’re doing something with your life or not.”
With just under 133 000 followers on Instagram and 23 000 followers on Twitter, Mutuma’s influence ranges far and wide. I ask him if this, coupled with people identifying him as a key character on an educational programme, makes him act more responsibly than a typical 28-year-old would.
“It only got real to me when I was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Kenya,” he shares. “I realised I have to be responsible with what I post and share and, most importantly, I have to stand for something. Social media has morphed from me putting out my life to putting out my work and what I stand for: pan-Africanism and the growth of the film industry in Kenya and Africa as a whole.”
He has already begun his journey with this growth by working with Nigerian director, Dolapo “LowlaDee” Adeleke on a web series called This Is It. The series, which is about the challenges of newlyweds, was recently picked up a major Naija TV network. I ask Mutuma why he wanted to be involved with a web series.
“I think online content is the future,” he admits. “I just loved what This Is It is about. The director, Lowla, and I really connected from the start. These days, it’s not uncommon to see an African artist have 3 million views on YouTube.”
He adds: “To be honest, there was nothing I’d done in the last two years that excited me. I thought I was always being typecast as the bad boy, the pretty boy. I wanted a role that matched up to where I was in my life. In your late 20s, you start thinking about marriage and slowing down and settling down. This role was just speaking to that.”
It’s interesting to note that even he, as a man, feels objectified and it doesn’t feel good when the roles are reversed.
So he tells me about the kind of character he would really love to tackle. “My dream role would be to play a villain,” he laughs heartily. “That would be interesting. I’d want to play a bad guy but in an African context.”
Showcasing the continent is a passion for Mutuma. So much so that it’s an integral part of his future plans. He tells me: “Actors are creators and we have the eye and potential to direct so I think that’s the direction I want my career to start going in. I want to just put out great content. I have a short film I’m directing that’s loosely based on the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Kenya. Hopefully, that will be out in August.”
We’ll look out for it.
* Catch Nick Mutuma on MTV Shuga Down South every Wednesday at 8pm on MTV Base.