For someone made an MBE and with nearly 500k YouTube subscribers, the career highlight that really makes Humza Arshad’s eyes light up was meeting his idol, The Rock.
“That was incredible,” Arshad says excitedly. “If someone said, ‘You can meet only one person’, it would be The Rock.”
Meeting Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in Los Angeles might be a personal high, but Arshad has plenty more to be proud of. After going to drama school, the 35-year-old was an early adopter of YouTube and found fame with his comedy web series, Diary Of A Bad Man.
Arshad describes the main character as “this young British Pakistani Muslim, growing up in South London trying to be bad, but he’s not bad at all, and he keeps getting in trouble – but he learns from it”.
This soon morphed into a series of children’s books based around ‘Little Badman’ and his various adventures – the most recent of which is Little Badman And The Radioactive Samosa (“it’s literally about a radioactive samosa,” Arshad says, laughing).
While the various lockdowns and Covid-related restrictions have been tough this past year, Arshad also admits he’s appreciated the space it’s given him to write. “It’s good, because you don’t have the pressures of going out and doing other things,” he says. “So I have more concentration and more available time to be in my element, be alone in my room and just start writing.”
Arshad released his first children’s book back in 2019 (co-written with Henry White), but he’s always been a storyteller. As a child, he says “I would always find myself lining up all my toys and instead of just playing with them, I would make a film. I would always, at a young age, be obsessed with creating content, creating stories or sketches.”
He was drawn to comedy for its universality. “You can watch a comedy film that may not even be in the same language, may not even have sound – let’s just say it’s Charlie Chaplin,” Arshad says. “You could be anyone from any part of the world watching that, and you can laugh. I think comedy is a great way of being able to make people feel good. So comedy has always been a really big part of my life.”
Humour is something he’s also managed to balance with the more serious business of activism. When he started gaining fans, he says he “realised there was a responsibility that came with it, too. Once I realised I had this influence, I was more conscious of the kind of things that I would do off camera,” explains Arshad, whose parents were born in Pakistan.
“I always wanted to give back to the community and spread positive messages, and that’s how I got more involved in whether it was tackling knife crime or gang violence, whether it was radicalisation or Islamophobia, or toxic masculinity – whatever I could get my teeth into. I just knew I had a voice where people would listen.”
This responsibility comes with a certain level of pressure, of course. “If you think about it too much, you will go insane,” Arshad admits.
Instead, he focuses on the “blessed feeling to know I have this opportunity to help someone else. Even if I could save just one person, for me, I’ve done my job – and I think we’ve done more than that, hopefully.”
He was recently awarded for his work raising awareness around extremism and gang violence in schools in the 2021 New Year Honours list, when he was made an MBE. “That was incredible…. I never really thought it was possible,” says Arshad – who was engrossed in lockdown mode when he received the call (“I was bored at home playing Ludo”).
Once he finally believed what his manager was telling him on the phone, it started to sink in what a big deal it was. “For a young Pakistani who grew up in South London to be able to say that he’s been recognised for the work he’s been doing, and been given an MBE, is pretty sweet.”
However, actually sitting back and enjoying his achievements is something Arshad constantly has to work on. Appreciating the present moment has been a learning curve.
“I’ve been so lucky and blessed to do the craziest things – whether it’s meeting my role model The Rock, or flying to China and performing to an arena that gives you a standing ovation at the end, or being able to speak at the UN or getting an MBE. All these things I’ve accomplished and I always think, ‘Alright, what’s next?’
“If I could go back, I’d tell myself: ‘Sometimes you just need to savour the moment, because tomorrow’s not promised’. Especially with everything that’s going on in the world today,” Arshad adds. “It makes you appreciate life and how much every day is a gift.”
Little Badman And The Radioactive Samosa by Humza Arshad and Henry White, illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff, is published in paperback by Puffin, priced £1 (ebook 99p). Available now.