TBB Talks To … Nathan Addai Creator of Mental Roots

Nathan Addai is an animator, poet/rapper, podcaster and budding director.

He is passionate about using artistic expression in representing the marginalised, by addressing topics like faith/spirituality, ethnicity and identity. Nathan has won various awards and commissions for his animated work. This includes a commission by the BBC and Rural Media’s New Creatives scheme, to create the Mental Roots short film.  

Mental Roots is an animated journey into the mind of a young black man wrestling with his identity.

Nathan Addai – Creator of Mental Roots

Please introduce yourself …

I’m a multifaceted creative of Ghanaian descent, raised in London and currently based in Derby. 2D animation and fine art are my main specialisms, but I also enjoy expressing myself through spoken word poetry, live-action film, podcasting and music. I believe in creating art that not only looks good but does good. My work frequently explores morality and social issues, which is motivated by my Christian worldview.
 
Why Mental Roots?
 
The idea for the Mental Roots film concept initially came around the end of 2019. At this time, I was becoming more passionate about representing black British experiences in animation, as I could see close to no example of it on a mainstream level. Mental Roots was my initial attempt to help change that, birthing the idea of the first-person, black male narrative in the film. The classic story The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka inspired me to explore the theme of mental health, and the ostracisation a young man can feel as a result of the stigma.

As I researched further into history and statistics around mental health in Afro-Caribbean communities, I saw that black men were the most vulnerable group. It saddened me that we were the least likely to get – or seek – the needed professional support, but at the same time I was not surprised. As a young black man myself, I felt a responsibility to address this issue in a way that was down-to-earth and provided a positive resolution.
 
Tell us about your team …
 
I found an opportunity to rework the film concept through Rural Media/BBC’s New Creatives scheme, at the start of 2020. After my successful pitch to New Creatives, I gained some funding and a small but talented team to work on the film. Anna Campbell – Rural Media’s Producer for the New Creatives animations at the time – was a massive help in guiding me through the creation process. Anna helped enlist the team Sipho Ndlovu (spoken word artist who mentored me through the poetry writing phase), Michelle Brand (award-winning 2D animator) and Chris Reed (Rural Media’s sound designer).

I brought on board Hashim Diriye, a fellow Animation Degree Graduate, who really helped me with the hard labour of the frame-by-frame colouring and compositing! Our Zoom calls in the production phase during the craziness of COVID-19 really kept us going. My London-based friend and musician Jesse Francis did an impeccable job on the music production. Another friend, Brits School alumni Callum Embers-Manning, provided touches of background voice acting alongside Sipho, to make the world of Mental Roots more immersive.
 
What does the story of Mental Roots mean to you personally?
 
I have seen both in my peer circles and in the media the all-too-common trope of black boys and men being misguided, misunderstood and struggling. I have always been grateful that in many ways, my life story doesn’t fit what seems to be the ‘typical black male experience’ – lack of a father figure in the home, peer pressure from gangs, exposure to crime, etc. Because I’ve had many positive role models and maximised the opportunities given to me, I want to empower other young black men – and women – to beat these odds and do the same.

With that being said, it is hard to make a positive change in the world around you when you don’t properly take care of yourself. My own complex relationship with work and ‘hustle culture’ motivated me to reflect on the importance of mental health awareness through the creation of the film. Interestingly, this became even more real as the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests kicked off in 2020, whilst Mental Roots’ production was underway. The timing of my film could not have been more perfect, in my opinion. The international conversation about race and well-being reassured me that I was on the ‘right path’. Mental Roots represents what I hope is the start of a creative and conscious revolution. The start of us realising that there’s no victory without vulnerability and that there’s no outlet like wholesome creativity.
 
Tell us a memorable moment from idea to final edit?
 
There were a few memorable moments – to name a few; the laughs over Zoom, my Producer Anna tearing up at some of the later edits, and Hashim and I racking our brains over Photoshop. One funny memory though was that because there was too much reverb in my bedroom, I had to cover myself with my bed quilt when recording my narration. The things some creatives do to save money.
 
Which scene best defines what you love about this project?
 
The scene of the young guys meeting on the council estate sticks out to me because it really sums up the bravado and social dynamic between many black boys growing up. The musical element to that scene is undeniably British as well, so it is one of the more overt details in the film where I try and leave a Black British imprint in the medium of animation. I really look forward to making more animated content depicting black Brits’ relationship with music.
 
What’s next?
 
The Mental Roots short film has now birthed a multimedia creative brand with the same name! Whilst making the short film, I realised there’s a lot more I have to give in using animation to further uncover the ‘roots’ behind mental health factors in Afro-Caribbean communities, and maybe even other marginalised demographics. I started the Mental Roots Podcast during the film’s production – already 2 seasons deep – and I plan to continue with that.
 
Mental Roots film already has a sequel – the animated documentary, Black Female Living, released in August 2022 on the Mental Roots YouTube channel. This film uses some interview footage from the Mental Roots Podcast, exploring black female experiences. I plan to make more short animations like this in the Mental Roots series, collaborating with other creatives of various practices (especially minority-ethnic).
 
Lastly, I’ve spoken to many academics, youth workers and mental health/healthcare practitioners who see lots of value in using my work to engage and support underrepresented demographics. I’ve started to do a few workshops and commissions on the side to more closely engage with ethnically-diverse groups around mental health.
 
How do we keep up to date with you and your work? 

The Mental Roots brand tag is @mentalrootspod on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and Facebook. For those who want to commission or work with us, we’re on LinkedIn too! Feel free to DM or email mentalrootspod@gmail.com to share how the Mental Roots content impacts you.


Catch Nathan’s film Mental Roots at the BFI Future Film Festival – find out more here

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