"I’m so grateful that this is my first step into the acting world – it’s completely mental and nerve-wracking," says Adwoa Aboah with a huge grin when we catch up over Zoom. "I couldn't have wished for a better TV show, not only because I've been such a fan of it since the beginning but also just because of what it stands for and the talent that it has celebrated and pushed forward."
The show in question is Netflix’s Top Boy, which has launched the widely celebrated acting careers of Michaela Coel, Letitia Wright and Micheal Ward, an influential streak that its newest recruit, top British model-turned-actor Aboah, doesn’t take lightly. A spot on its roster is almost guaranteed star status.
Back when Top Boy first hit our screens in 2011, fictionalising the gritty turf war between gangs in the drug market of an east London housing estate, it marked a groundbreaking turning point for lesser seen portrayals of Black British life. Shining a spotlight on poignant topics such as Black mental health and poverty in London, it made for uncomfortable but authentic and necessary viewing. A tangled Shakespearean web of crime, ambition, love, family, betrayal and loyalty, it has since won awards for its visceral storytelling, gaining cult status and a famous fan in Drake, who ended up reviving the show with Netflix in 2019.
Historically the series has been credited for its nuanced portrayals of Black boyhood and manhood but this season, notably, it turns its lens towards its scintillating female characters. One of whom is no-nonsense drug dealer Jaq (Jasmine Jobson) and her new girlfriend, Becks – the complex character Aboah is stepping into.
"Top Boy has always been reflective of what's going on in society," says the 29-year-old west Londoner. "Far too often, female storylines are dropped into film and TV and we don't really get to know their backstory and journey. Over the last few years, whether it be the #MeToo movement or the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, it feels like everyone's invited now, and we've heard so many personal stories coming from women about what it's like to live on this planet. The women of the show, Saffron [Hocking], Jas [Jobson], Simbi [Little Simz] and Joséphine [de La Baume], they're so talented. Even though it's called Top Boy, there are definitely top girls and this is their moment."
Aboah’s face is already globally known, having dominated the modelling industry working with major fashion players such as Versace, Chanel and Miu Miu. At the same time, she has risen to prominence through her outspoken activism for young women via her online mental health non-profit, Gurls Talk, which has since expanded into a festival and podcast. She’s been recognised as a ‘Next Generation Leader’ on the cover of TIME magazine and is an alumnus of the prestigious Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. Next in her line of sight: an established acting career.
Top Boy has always tackled wider social issues but this season it goes in on the prime minister, post-Windrush deportation and gentrification – the nitty gritty of the cruelty and humanity of modern Britain. And through the timeline of Jaq and Becks’ budding relationship – from first date to trusted confidante status – we’re privy to one of the show's first fully fleshed out queer romantic storylines. It’s an intentional decision that one of the most watched shows on UK television explores the tenderness, interiority and tribulations of the lives of its queer characters. More so, it refuses to shy away from the prejudice and violence experienced by the LGBTQ+ – specifically the Black LGBTQ+ – community. Early in the series, Becks and Jaq are subject to a shocking and violent homophobic attack, a daily reality for many.
"It’s important the way it’s shown and how it was written, because we were just holding hands and we had this very brief kiss at the end of an amazing date," says Aboah. "It doesn’t even matter what people are doing at the time. You might not think these things happen, and it might seem brutal, violent and exaggerated, but it happens like this every day. Obviously, I've never had to go through that but I was able to tap into moments in my life where I felt discriminated. After the death of George Floyd, the conversation around race and gender has become a lot more nuanced. When I was doing my research, I spoke to friends that I have in the queer community and we shared our unspoken energy of walking around the world in a society that still has lots of work to do."
Arguably, the character of Becks – an affluent, middle class millennial – is a rarity in Top Boy, which so often focuses on the socioeconomic disparity and despair that riddles the streets of London, on the doorstep of immense wealth and widespread gentrification. We see Becks’ polished townhouse and expensive furniture, and the collision of worlds when she starts dating Jaq, but there is no judgement. Jaq and Becks are kindred spirits because they are strong, queer, Black British women, which transcends class or lifestyle – an important nuance that Aboah doesn’t want people to overlook. Top Boy obviously isn’t a stand-in for the experiences of every Black Brit but Aboah is excited for people to see a multifaceted spectrum of experiences – people from all backgrounds who look and talk like them.
"I’ve definitely battled with this idea of identity and ethnicity," Aboah pauses. "I've been told, 'You're the whitest Black person I've ever known.' It’s so important that Becks comes from that world and is a Black British woman, like I am. I'm from west London and I've definitely come from a more privileged background but I've grown up with all different types of people. I think those two worlds do collide more than we think. My character is a Londoner and she might be a bit bougie but she's street smart because she was brought up in the city. Like all of us, we have these moments in our life where she’s attracted to that kind of chaos and maybe she's looking for something different, which I think is very reflective of what we all go through in life, trying to find our person."
Top Boy season two is out on Netflix on 18th March