Russell may have a Brand-spanking new one-man show, but it is four historical men who are helping him make headlines. The comedian and actor known as Russell Brand spoke to Helen Herimbi about The Messiah Complex world tour, iconography and leaving certain things to Jesus.
“Come see me in NYC in September,” starts a Tweet by Russell Brand (@rustyrockets), but before you can click on the link, he continues: “(unless banned by then)”.
Brand is only half joking about being banned. After the announcement of his first stand-up comedy world tour, The Messiah Complex (which starts in August), this was Brand’s intention: “In addition to theatres I will be appearing in prisons, drug rehabs, social network HQs, universities, nationalist organisations, mosques, foreclosed houses, protest sites, synagogues and in people’s homes.”
But he won’t be doing any of that in the Middle East. News swiftly came of The Messiah Complex being cancelled in Beirut, Lebanon, and Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, where the tour was scheduled to begin.
As he told me over the phone from London between press commitments: “I’ve been banned because of the controversial material of the show.”
But what is it about the show that has words like “safety concerns” being thrown about?
Well, in The Messiah Complex, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ are the focal points.
“Those four were radical icons who represented revolution,” Brand says in his signature rapid speech, “and I look at how, posthumously, they represent something else.
“Che Guevara is used to sell ice-creams these days and Apple have used an image of Gandhi to promote themselves, but everyone knows the working conditions at the places where they make iPhones are notoriously bad.”
So the answer to whether Brand thinks Gandhiwould think Apple was cool, is something he will unpack in Joburg and Cape Town in November.
“I’ve never been to South Africa,” Brand says, “but Noel Gallagher of Oasis said Cape Town is like paradise so I’m very excited to experience that.”
I ask him if he plans on surfing while here and he cracks up: “I don’t think so. I’m too clumsy to stand on water. That’s the reserve of Jesus Christ, in my opinion.”
It’s not unusual for people to presume what a dead historical figure might think about or do in today’s world. Aaron McGruder (US cartoonist) showed Martin Luther King Jr geeking out over a boneless rib burger on The Boondocks.
US rapper Immortal Technique has famously told those who wonder if Tupac would approve of today’s hip hop: “You don’t know s**t about a dead man’s perspective.”
So what about these four figures interests Brand? Well-known for lending his voice to various political and social causes, does Brand see himself in Gandhi or Guevara?
“What I’m interested in,” says Brand, “is that all of those people have something in common.
They were willing to suffer and, ultimately, die for what they believed in. It’s important to have something like that. Especially now that Nelson Mandela is in a critical position, we all have to remember his example and remember that we all have that ability in us. That we, as a population, have a chance to build together.”
But does Brand, who wrote a moving online essay about seeing Margaret Thatcher watering flowers in a public garden, ever worry that being vocal about his beliefs will take food out of his mouth?
“No,” he doesn’t hesitate. “I mean, I’ve been successful and made movies and all these things, but I’m all about being truthful and then seeing what happens afterwards. Now I just want to do things that fulfil me and only the things that I enjoy.”
With that, he asks me to hold on, and it sounds as though he’s moved his face away from the phone to ask his management reps something.
“Helen, love,” he says in that charming British accent, “how much time were you allocated for this interview?”
I tell him half-an-hour is what had been agreed upon and he apologises that his other phone keeps ringing – it’s likely to be other members of the media. We resume where we left off and I ask him about what faith he follows.
“I try to find inspiration in all faiths. I try to look for greatness in all faiths, just like I have done in the four figures in this show. Hold on one second for me.”
Brand doesn’t wait for me to respond before I hear him whisper-shouting at whoever is in the room with him. There has clearly been a mix-up and he’s dishing out the “Brand” of fury he’s gained a reputation for.
Darn, I think to myself, now I definitely can’t ask him about his 14-month marriage to US pop singer, Katy Perry. Before I can finish my thought, he’s back again, being sweet and all British accent-ey.
So instead, I ask him about the awesome artwork on the tour posters.
Brand is depicted in the likeness of the popular Che (minus the beret) portrait and he’s wearing a necklace that has trinkets of, among others, the Star of David, a swastika and a McDonald’s “M”.
He laughs, the first genuine laugh I’ve heard from him.
“I’m so glad you asked about that! I’m using iconography to talk about meaning. How signs mean things and how even McDonald’s ‘M’ has cultural meaning. When really, they are all just shapes.
“Shepard Fairey – who did the iconic Obama posters (and the Obey street art) – did the artwork.”
But why the swastika? Why mention Hitler in the same sentence that explains that the other four figures inspired the show?
“In the same way all those men are human except for Jesus,” he explains, “Hitler was also human, after all. And I look at how he was destructive and, some would say, evil, and how it’s scary that humans are capable of that kind of thing.”
Brand, who has managed to be a successful, albeit controversial, entertainer, whose cap holds the feathers for stand-up comedian, actor, radio, TV personality and author, will only be 40 in two years’ time.