Suli Breaks was a law student with a flair for creative writing before he started performing spoken word poetry in public. Now, he has an online audience of more than 300,000, which includes the likes of Will Smith, and is in the process of planning a worldwide tour. Speaking to TenEighty, Suli discusses the importance of finding your own feet in creative ventures, the responsibilities that come with being an influencer, and what he plans to do with his platform next.
Darryll Suliaman Amoako played a lot of basketball as a kid. When a friend filmed his team, he was dubbed Suli Breaks; a combination of “Suliaman” shortened, and the phrase “breaking ankles” – basketball lingo for messing up a trick during a game.
“It’s like when you slip over – the height of embarrassment,” laughs Suli. “Don’t think of me as a villain!”
Despite its less than flattering inception, the nickname Suli Breaks stayed for good. “I don’t know why – once it sticks, it sticks. If people call me Darryll now, it sounds so strange to me.”
Sitting in a south-east London cafe, you wouldn’t know that Suli is currently planning a worldwide touring stage show. Or that in the past few years he’s built an online audience in the hundreds of thousands. Or that he’s shared breakfast with Will Smith in Los Angeles – a story he retells like he can’t quite believe it himself.
“I was like half an hour late, and I get a text going, ‘Will’s left. He said no wonder this guy doesn’t like school – he can’t keep to a schedule!’” recalls Suli.
“Imagine how I was sitting in the car, stressed out and thinking ‘this is an opportunity of my lifetime and I’ve messed it up’… And then I get there and he was like, ‘Heyyyy I gotcha!’”
Will had seen what Suli considers his “breakthrough video”, 2013’s I Will Not Let An Exam Result Decide My Fate, and shared it online.
While Suli has always been relatively apathetic towards the school system, he recalls excelling in literary subjects. “You can blag your way through those subjects,” he says, “whereas in Maths, you always need to know the exact answer.”
“Law was the most credible option to take, and that point in my life I didn’t really care whether I went to uni…”
Succumbing to family pressures, Suli went on to study law at Sheffield University. “Law was the most credible option to take, and that point in my life I didn’t really care whether I went to uni,” he says. “I just wanted to get my parents off my back but I wasn’t really invested in the decision. I just went along with it.”
But it was while studying on a course he didn’t particularly want to be on that his passion for writing began to give him a means of escape. It offered him another option that initially he wasn’t expecting.
“We were in second year, and there was a show going on at the university,” explains Suli. “The guy in charge of the show had challenged me to this joke rap battle, and I beat him, if you can call what I did beating him! But he wanted to embarrass me a bit and asked me to perform.
“I thought, ‘Ah, this is an opportunity to showcase your abilities,’ but then I was like, ‘I don’t really rap but maybe I can write a little poem coz I enjoy writing’ – it was just less embarrassing than going on stage and trying to rap something.”
The performance was well-received and led to more shows at other universities. The earliest video on his YouTube channel, Cuz I Had A Dream, Init, is a recording of that very performance. It would change the path Suli was embarking on forever.
But he didn’t take this new hobby seriously until his third year. “My girlfriend (my wife now) said, ‘Oh, if you don’t want to do law, at least pick yourself up and do something’, and I thought, ‘I enjoy doing that so I might as well see where it goes’,” he says.
It was through his live performance, as well as a handful of videos uploaded to his Facebook page, that Suli gained his initial following. That was until, for reasons he still doesn’t know, the page was deleted.
“I had beef with Facebook,” he laughs. “Everyone was on my Facebook account. So when they did that I made a video on YouTube called Suli Breaks vs Facebook and posted it onto YouTube.”
By the time the site reinstated his page, he’d switched loyalties. “By that point, I was like, ‘I’ll just upload onto YouTube’ – I wasn’t uploading consistently at that time, it was just a place to put my videos on.”
It was around this time that Suli began working on spoken word films. One in particular, R.I.P, was produced for GlobalFaction’s YouTube channel. The director of the film began to clue-in Suli about YouTube’s algorithms, and how to develop his subscriber base
“He had recently directed a video that had hit a million views, and he said to me, ‘Oh, with YouTube, there’s a science to it’,” Suli remembers. “The video was called Obama Nation by the artist Lowkey, and the reason that video was so viewed was because at that time the most-searched words were ‘Obama’ and ‘inauguration’.”
Tricks with tags and keywords, as well as a better understanding of the platform, helped his channel to grow. His uploads became more regular and his audience grew as a result.
“Some UK vloggers had started up by that time, but they hadn’t really ‘blown up’,” he recalls. “2012 was when I had my big break, so maybe I can credit them for shifting the dynamics of what people appreciated.”
Why I Hate School, But Love Education was uploaded in December 2012 and went viral. It was followed five months later by I Will Not Let An Exam Result Decide My Fate, which currently stands at five million views. The two videos are connected in their contempt for the modern-day school system and the pressures within it.
“Prior to that I had written on my wall, like, ‘get a million views’, and that kind of stuff, so I had been waiting for it, but you’re never really prepared,” he says. “When it took off it was… yeah, it was great.”
The first video was inspired by the format of Jefferson Bethke’s Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus. Suli liked how it took a universal but weighty subject, dissected it, and turned it into something he could relate to, and so was inspired to do his own take on it.
“Normally, Christianity and Jesus Christ can be seen as synonymous with one another but Bethke detached that…”
“Normally, Christianity and Jesus Christ can be seen as synonymous with one another but he detached that,” explains Suli. “He shifted a lot of people’s mentalities and made them think, ‘That’s interesting.’ So I guess I did the same with education and school – they’re seen as being synonymous with one another and I detached them.”
While he’s often praised for his originality, Suli admits that his work is often influenced by other poets, writers or creators. Discussing the line between originality and plagiarism, Suli references when Jack and Finn Harries were accused of plagiarising Casey Neistat (which TenEighty wrote about in Is Originality Dead on YouTube? in August 2015).
For Suli, the line often comes down to context. “I think that, although they may have copied him, we need to put it into context and understand that these kids were very young,” he says. “When you’re young and you are first trying to get into something, the automatic inclination is to copy whatever you see.
“I think they’re going to keep growing and developing and that particular year maybe it was a bit too close to the edge,” he continues. “But, as long as they aren’t doing it consistently, like all the time, then I feel like the context is that they’re still trying to learn.
“It’s only when these people have grown and matured and they’re like ‘oh this is what gets views’ and they copy it that I get more like, ‘Nah, that’s not that cool’.
“Now, I kind of fuck with the way [JacksGap] operate online,” adds Suli. “They do what they want to do – like, right now, they seem very concerned about filmmaking and the environment, and they’re just following that. I love that. I mean, they could be doing stuff like challenges and that, but instead they’re like, ‘This is what we care about, this is what we’re doing’.”
According to Suli, individualism is key to finding your originality. “When you’re a kid, you become so enamoured with a person that you want to do everything exactly like them. I used to like basketball players and when they would wear their clothes like this, I would wear clothes like that. But the beauty in them was their individualism,” he says. “Me just kind of replicating that kills the beauty of it.
“Do you. Just do you. That’s what I gravitate towards…”
“Do you. Just do you,” states Suli. “That’s what I gravitate towards. I want to learn from you. I want to see you reflect each other and be inspired by that.”
It’s this kind of creativity and individualism that Suli appreciates within the YouTube community. While to the outside observer it may seem that Suli is a little disconnected from the YouTube world we know, he assures us he is very much plugged in.
This year he has worked on a project with Adrian Bliss, and cites Ben Brown, Louis Cole, and Emily Diana Ruth as creators whose work, and company, he enjoys. “There are certain people that I can just vibe with but we don’t mix in the same circles all the time. It’s not deliberate,” he says.
“There’s a lot of cool people like Charlie [McDonnell] and his girlfriend [Emily Diana Ruth], who’s a dope filmmaker. That’s who I love meeting in the community, because I’m like: ‘Wow, you’re real’.
“I’m cool with the Gleam Team,” Suli continues. “They’re representing their side of the story and I like that.”
And on previous TenEighty cover star Emma Blackery, he says: “She has no filter and I wish I could be like that, but I’m too scared to cause controversy. My videos already cause enough discussion as it is!”
However, Suli admits that events such as VidCon – while enjoyable – can be a little overwhelming. “There’s a lot of people in YouTube mode and I can’t deal with that,” he says. “I enjoy having genuine conversation, I don’t like it when it becomes all about industry. Don’t get it twisted, that stuff is cool, but sometimes it’s a bit too much for me.
“I just think it’s not really my scene. I can’t be that happy all the time, you know what I mean?” he laughs.
Within the UK YouTube community, Suli has unwittingly taken on the responsibility of being one of the site’s few black representatives. With the exception of Olajide ‘KSI’ Olatunji, there is a noticeable disparity in prominence between white creators and creators of colour. But it’s something that Suli doesn’t find entirely surprising.
“I think it’s just like, even if you look at Hollywood, there’s the big #oscarssowhite debate,” he explains. “If that exists in Hollywood, then obviously on a smaller-scale level – something like YouTube – it’s going to happen.”
Suli believes the US has a more diverse range of YouTubers and that the most popular creators from the UK are white and middle-class. “But that’s because a lot of the people that subscribe to them are from that background,” he points out. “There’s a relatability factor, you know?”
A lot of Suli’s friends watch YouTube but very few of them subscribe to channels. “It’s only now with the emergence of channels like Copa90, KSI, etc, that young guys are finally finding it cool to comment on YouTube. Most of my friends are like, ‘Who’s got time to comment on your vid?’” he laughs.
“Most of my friends are like ‘Who’s got time to comment on your vid?!’”
He is also quick to note that diversity is not as much of an issue within different YouTube genres. “If you were to look at the beauty vloggers and girls of that scale, girls like Patricia Bright, Sammi Maria, Gracie Francesca, Jennie Jenkins… There’s a lot more diversity in that section of YouTube.
“I see someone like Superwoman [Lilly Singh]: because of her background, she appeals to a mass Asian community and, as far as I’m aware, apart from maybe Aziz Ansari, I don’t see many mainstream figures like that,” says Suli. “YouTube allows figures that Hollywood has filtered out to come to the forefront.”
In some cases, Suli’s ethnicity has been a contributing factor to things he gets offered to become a part of. “When I speak to the guys from NCS [National Citizen Service], who I’m an ambassador for, they always say: ‘We’re really glad to have you on board because we’re trying to encourage diversity’, and it’s hard to find YouTubers from diverse backgrounds.”
As well as being a representative for the black community, Suli was raised Muslim by his mother with his two sisters. His black and Islamic heritage are something that he’s proud of, but it means he represents not one, but two minorities, both within the UK and on YouTube.
It’s a pressure Suli wasn’t entirely prepared for, and something he’s been forced to confront as a result of his online audience. “The way I approach religion is I don’t try and impose anything on anybody, you know what I mean? So I don’t think it’s fair for them to try and use my views to blanket everything,” he says.
Suli’s wife, Linda, is Christian and they got married in a church last year. Suli occasionally attends church because he enjoys learning about other faiths. “But then people are like, ‘Why are you going to church? How can you get married in a church, you’re supposed to be Muslim!’”
When Suli considers the pressures that come with being an influencer, he ultimately feels that his audience, regardless of their religion or background, shouldn’t look to him for validation. “I’m not here to enforce your beliefs, you know what I mean? You believe whatever you want to believe and be secure in that. Don’t try and believe my beliefs then wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing.
“Don’t try and believe my beliefs then wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing…”
“As a person, all I can do is my ideals the best,” he continues. “As long as those are good, strong, moral standpoints, people can learn from my example. I’m not trying to come out as the poster child for being a black person in the UK, or the poster child for being a Muslim. I’m just trying to be who I am and go from there.”
And when it comes to the faith, he witnessed those around him expressing it in different and individual ways. “Everyone within my household is Muslim, but my sister wears a hijab, my mum doesn’t wear one, and my younger sister wears like a full niqab, full hijab,” says Suli. “They all have different reasons for wearing different aspects… so they all represent different parts of the religion. Then with my mum, I could speak about that and understand that.”
Growing up in a female-centric household has affected Suli; he believes it’s left him more open to female sensibilities, which is often visible in his work. “A lot of the pieces I started writing, a lot of the ones that started getting attention earlier on, were a lot more sensitive towards the female perspective of situations. So I would write poems about why guys treat girls a certain way, and why they shouldn’t.”
He also feels that his mum and sisters’ influence helped him to become open to different views and ways of thinking. “If I grew up in a household of guys, you wouldn’t know exactly what’s going on in someone’s head,” he explains. “But because I grew up in a house full of females, who were more open about their emotions, there was always different influences and different stuff that they were experiencing.”
Their influence has lead Suli to use his platform and poetry to tackle more sensitive world issues. In October last year, Suli released poem Wish I Had Said Something – a poem influenced by his sister that addresses Islamophobia within the UK.
“I feel like the narrative is always told from a certain perspective. I sit there and I watch Jihadis Next Door or Islamic Britain and I’m kind of like, ‘That’s only one perspective of the narrative being told’.
“My little sister will call me and tell me: ‘Someone just pushed my friend in front of a bus because she was wearing a hijab’. And I’m like, ‘Why does no one ever tell that side of the story?’ So for me, I feel like I achieved what I wanted to do from a standpoint where there’s more to one side of the story and add a different perspective.”
His sister, who Suli names as one of his biggest supporters, backed his decision to release the video. “She actually said when she saw that she felt very emotional,” he says. “I feel like, as an artist, my responsibility is to tell not just viral or popular stories, but important stories.”
For Suli, the video signalled a major shift in how he created his work. “I want to tell stories that matter to me,” he says. “Before, I told stories that were inspiring or super viral wordy. Now, I tell stories that are important because I feel they are the ones that connect with people and really last.”
“I feel like, as an artist, my responsibility is to tell not just viral or popular stories, but important stories…”
This new outlook is due to culminate in a stage show this summer tentatively titled Not A Role Model – a phrase that graces the title of this feature, and currently also his Twitter profile.
And if you couldn’t tell by the title, the responsibility that comes with being famous online is something that weighs on Suli’s mind. When asked if people approach him and tell him people say their work has affected them, he sighs and says: “Yeah… All the time.”
“I was in Sheffield last week, and this guy in his forties said, ‘The reason I’m back in university is because of you’. Someone gave me Muhammad Ali’s book in South Africa, and said, ‘The reason I quit my job and started this company was because of you’. That’s really empowering – but at the same time, if someone quits their job and starts this company, and then it goes rocky and they see me partner with a company, they can be like, ‘Why did you partner with that business? You should only work for yourself’.”
The show will be workshopped in London and, once the format is polished, Suli plans to hit locations such as Sheffield and Birmingham before going worldwide. “South Africa, hopefully,” he says. “Right now we’re just figuring it out internally.”
But it’s important that he gets Not A Role Model just right. “I like spoken word poetry, that’s my thing. But theatre… that’s an art form,” says Suli. “I feel like my biggest thing is to set an example.”
He hopes that the development of his work from screen to stage will encourage his younger audience to see more theatre shows. Suli thinks that many people from his background probably don’t realise that going to the theatre costs the same amount, or less, than most gig tickets.
“I really want to play a paradigm shift and one of the people I’m really looking at right now is Shakespeare,” he says. “It’s like being in a rock band and not looking up to the Beatles. It doesn’t make sense!”
Beyond the show, what’s to come for Suli Breaks? “I only have a vague idea of the future, I just want to go with the flow,” he says. “Something impactful and something great. Outside of that, you know, who knows?”
Photos by Olly Newport.
More exclusive Suli pictures:
- Suli Breaks TenEighty April 2016 Cover
- Suli Breaks TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 01
- Suli Breaks TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 02
Or why not check out our exclusive interviews with our previous covers stars:
- Mawaan Rizwan: Send in the Clown
- PJ Liguori: The Storyteller
- Hazel Hayes: Kill Your Darlings
- Ciaran OBrien: Pulling Focus
- Emma Blackery: The Jekyll and Hyde Within