Kae Kurd has the classic observational comedian's personality of the insider-outsider, “never able to fit in completely anywhere, but because of that, I've been able to fit in everywhere”. As assured speaking in the Houses of Parliament as he is “going into a room with 'roadmen', gangsters or whatever”, the 27-year-old arrived in the UK as a six-month-old asylum seeker, his Iraqi-Kurdish family having fled Saddam Hussein's genocidal regime.
Born Korang Abdulla, his former schoolmates and employers invariably “butchered” pronunciation of his name. So he got accustomed to friends introducing him as “K, he's a Kurd”. Once announced on stage as Kae Kurd, he found he quite liked it, adopted it as his Twitter handle and a professional moniker was established. “I'm not complaining” he says. “It's nice to have some separation of your identity and stage persona.”
In tandem with being the country's only professional Kurdish stand-up, he is, he ventures, a “chameleon”, performing gigs in mainstream comedy clubs, on the black circuit and on a Muslim comedy tour, all in a single weekend.
He was brought up in Brixton, where his “primary school alone had 300 different languages”, he recalls. “You're seeing people of every single colour, race and nationality and you're able to talk to them and understand their culture. You're having to think about Christmas but also Diwali, Eid, we were learning about Judaism, all of that sort of stuff in a very comprehensive way. Because I was almost the only Kurdish kid, I had to fit in with everyone.”
That upbringing informs a genuinely multicultural perspective, enabling him to mock virtually all creeds and faiths with impunity.
“When I do jokes about any sort of culture, to various different audiences, people can tell by my confidence it's not coming from malice or a place where I'm trying to punch down” he says. “If it's talking about the urban community, they understand I'm part of it. So it's almost like I'm taking the mickey out of myself.” He can be playful with ethnic and religious stereotypes because he's “actually tried to integrate and embed myself. They feel I could be one of them because I'm specific in my references”.
Beginning his career on London's black circuit in 2011, Kurd quickly adopted a hard-and-fast delivery. “There aren't the sort of dingy little rooms you might associate with starting off in comedy” he explains. “You're doing massive gigs to about 300 people and you've got to bring an A-game. Sometimes there's a lack of material there. But you'd be hard pressed to find better performers because you need to come out all guns blazing. If you don't have the crowd within the first 30 seconds it's going to be a long 20 minutes.”
Moving into more mainstream clubs required an adjustment. “People would enjoy your set but there wasn't a DJ playing sound effects, you didn't have people slapping on tables” he explains. “I supported Dane Baptiste in Guildford and wasn't getting anything from them, I thought I was dying. Then I got lots of tweets after the show telling me I was great. Middle-class audience are much more willing to listen and would rather hear a compelling story than joke-joke-joke. It's interesting trying to adapt.”
Nominated for best newcomer in the 2016 Chortle Awards, Kurd has picked a timely moment for his solo Edinburgh debut.
“We're in the middle of one of the biggest humanitarian crises since the Second World War,” he states. “It's the right time to hear a different voice talking about the refugee struggle … My brothers and I were encouraged to read, to think freely and to encourage ideas. I've seen them almost get into a punch-up over economic policy.”
Writing in the i newspaper, Kurd anticipated the surge in the youth vote ahead of the general election. “For years I lamented that you didn't have rappers and grime artists talking about politics” he says. “But suddenly seeing young people sharing these videos on social media, I became quietly confident that something was changing, that they were getting engaged. It's a myth that they didn't care. It's just that they weren't spoken to in the correct language before. Finally, someone did and they responded in droves.”
Volunteering after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the emotion “really resonated, as anyone who's ever lived in a council block would empathise with the residents, it could have been any one of us”. He reserves his most fulsome anger for those in the media and political establishment who vilify immigrants and asylum seekers. Nevertheless, he eschews agitprop.
“With any serious topic, I try to approach it in a way that's easy to digest and understand,” he says. “It's not going to make people angry but it will make them think about it in a different way. I am angry about the way refugees in particular are demonised. But for me, fighting fire with fire isn't the best course of action. Trying to make a joke out of the situation and portray it in a different light will hopefully make people think about it in a different way.”
As both a refugee and a Kurd, someone “without an independent country, your whole existence is about trying to find an identity or to speak up for your identity,” he adds. Having literally spoken for Kurds at the start of the war against ISIS, helping to launch the emergency appeal fund in Westminster for refugees displaced by the conflict, informing MPs about his own experiences, he's sanguine about representing his community.
“Doing something like comedy, you're always going to be seen as a mouthpiece,” he reflects. “I don't find it particularly hard, I just feel it's important to be knowledgeable about things when you're asked so you don't look a fool and you can represent in the best way possible. It's not a burden, it's a responsibility.
“A lot of people don't even know who Kurds are. So I have to portray my family heritage positively. I'm not expecting audiences to fight for Kurdish rights after seeing my show. But just being aware of them is enough. I want Kurds and people with Kurdish parents to be able to explain themselves as being 'like Kae Kurd'. Rather than having to hide who they are, just because it's hard to point to on a map. Do you see where I'm coming from?”
An observant Muslim, he's found the hate crime spike since the Brexit vote and recent terror attack on the Finsbury Park mosque unsettling, albeit less as a performer. “I've been told that some people find me physically intimidating when I'm on stage, which I don't understand” he says. “I rarely get a heckle and when I do, I just tell them to be quiet and they do.
“But my mum wears the hijab, so she's quite visibly Muslim. A lot of these people target women because they're the most visible aspect of the religion on the streets. It tells you something about their mindset that they'll tend to attack older women with headscarves rather than a comedian on stage.”
Both his parents fought in the resistance against Saddam. His father was in the Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan's military forces, with Kurd's eldest uncle commanding many battalions. Consequently, the comic jokes about the moral authority his father brings to bear on him.
From distributing anti-government leaflets in his teens, hiding all night from the Iraqi army before coming home for school, to enduring chronic lung damage from chemical weapons—“the whole left side of his lung is effectively not working and he's disabled by it”—to witnessing his friends die in front of him, his father's memories are a constant reality check.
“Only when I got older did I appreciate what they went through,” he admits. “I remember going paintballing, not wanting to get hit, then realising that he'd done that with real bullets. I don't think I've got the same sort of strength my parents had. It's like they've had to make three or four lifeplans in one.
“So when I think about my career, I just think 'fuck it', things will work out. My parents survived bigger things than a 20-minute set in Oxford not going well.”