Despite growing up in Nigeria and the UK, actor Tobi Bamtefa received the same stereotypical messaging surrounding what it means to be a man: men are strong, handle their responsibilities stoically, and men never cry. Ever.
Join us as Tobi shares how living with these societal expectations can be stifling and damage men’s mental health. He shares how becoming an actor and being encouraged to participate in the arts was both a protective and threatening factor.
Tobi Bamtefa can currently be seen starring opposite Jeremy Renner in Taylor Sheridan’s MAYOR OF KINGSTOWN. Season 2 is airing now on Paramount+. Brought up between London and Nigeria, after a career as a spoken word artist, Tobi landed the leading regular role of ‘Godswill’ in Rowan Joffe’s series TIN STAR for Kudos Television/ Sky Atlantic opposite Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks. Some of Tobi’s other screen credits include Woody Harrelson’s self-penned, directorial debut feature LOST IN LONDON and HOW TO BUILD A GIRL as well as the BAFTA nominated A CONFESSION (ITV) and the international Emmy winning production RESPONSIBLE CHILD (BBC). Most recently, Tobi did a stunning performance in Inua Ellams’s adaptation of THREE SISTERS directed by Nadia Fall at the National Theatre. Find out more on Instagram @tobibamtefa.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard and calling into the show today we have Tobi Bamtefa. Tobi’s a television actor best known for roles in The Witcher, Tin Star and most recently Mayor of Kingstown, alongside Jeremy Renner. He currently resides in the UK. Tobi, welcome to the podcast.
Tobi Bamtefa: How are you doing, Gabe? Thanks very much for having me, man.
Gabe Howard: Super glad you are here. Now, I want to let you know I’m a 46-year-old man who was raised middle class and a pretty stereotypically blue-collar family. My father drove a semi-truck and my mother stayed home with me and my siblings. Now the messaging that I receive surrounding, showing emotions and being a man were very clear. Men are strong. They don’t complain and they never cry. Were you raised with this kind of messaging, Tobi?
Tobi Bamtefa: Yes. Yes, very much so. But my family are quite artistic. I come from quite an expressive family, so it was more to do with not showing any emotions towards maybe your responsibilities, especially as a man. You must handle your responsibilities and stuff. If you’re going to cry, don’t let anybody see it, that kind of stuff. And you must not show people your weaknesses and things like that. So yeah.
Gabe Howard: I was hoping that since you were raised in the in the UK, I believe you grew up near London, correct?
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah, that’s right. I was born in Nigeria and then I moved to England when I was about ten years old.
Gabe Howard: I was really hoping that people outside of America didn’t have this problem. I know that sort of wishful thinking, but I was sort of hoping this toxic masculinity thing that we have going on was was just stuck in America. But it sounds like it’s really pervasive that men are just simply told you can’t have emotions.
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah. Yeah. I think I think there are there are perhaps maybe some links towards the conditioning, the colonial conditioning that maybe Africans may have may have undergone in the sense that I say this to me, that the view of what a man is was quite repressive, I think prior to colonization. I think there were various expressions for masculinity in African societies. I know that. I know that particularly where my people are from Yoruba man. So where my people are from, I know that can have men who are very multifaceted, also can express forms of vulnerability that is typically seen in, I guess, Western society. And all of that was sort of conditioned out of us through many religions and and education and all of that stuff. And and yet now, now we’re here in this world, in this global world. Now, with those sort of conditioning, I guess the throwback to this conditioning, kind of unpicking all of those.
Gabe Howard: You use the phrase repressive, that it was very repressive not to be able to express these emotions. I love that word. And I felt very much the same way. I had emotions that I wanted to get out, that I wanted to share, but I was specifically told, no, that is a problem. Don’t do it. And of course, you know, I wanted to listen to the people around me. I didn’t I didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. I thought they were guiding me. And I repressed is a very, very good word here, Tobi.
Tobi Bamtefa: Like you said, you repress emotions that you already have. But the problem is that there is no other way or there is no other examples to teach you how to channel what you are actually feeling. So those emotions that you sort of hold or you’re forced to hold within yourself have no healthy outlet. And then they compound on each other and eventually you get what we know as toxic masculinity. You know, people start expressing themselves in ways that are perhaps not very conducive to humanity, but there’s a reason they’re doing that, and that’s because they have to get this emotion out. They have to express themselves. And a lot of times it’s in quite extreme ways. That’s why I use the word repressed.
Gabe Howard: Tobi, you’re a public figure. Your reputation and how people see you really matters. It matters for how you find work. It matters for how you relate to the public. It just matters a lot. You’re not the average person in this regard. Are you more worried about being seen as weak considering your your public presence?
Tobi Bamtefa: No, I’m not worried about that. I mean, I’m cautious, but I’m not worried because I don’t like the feeling of not being true to myself. I don’t like the feeling of having to pretend that I’m okay with things or pretend that I’m not okay or pretend that I’m okay. I don’t like that feeling so it doesn’t sit well with me and it sort of it knocks me off kilter. So it’s easier for me to just be honest with myself. Because if I’m honest with myself, then I think I’ll be more comfortable around everybody else. So I’m geared towards my own comfort in that sense and what feels soothing to my soul. But in order for me to have that, I have to. I’ve had to be able to sit with myself for a long time and be able to face my own truths and things like that in order to just come to that state of being.
Gabe Howard: I have trouble personally. I’m kind of in your camp. I. I just wanted to live openly with bipolar disorder, because, frankly, I was just tired of hiding it, and it made me feel bad all the time. But many people still, to this day, even with the level that I’ve reached as a mental health advocate, as a as a podcaster, as somebody who’s been in this space successfully for a very long time, there’s still people in my own life and family that are like, well, you know, Gabe, you could just not tell people, Nobody’s going to know. You could just hide it. And there’s this little piece of me, and this is my question, Tobi. There’s this little piece of me that’s like, yeah, I could I could solve myself all this discrimination, all of these stigma, all of these questions, all of this problem by just keeping my mouth shut. Do you ever feel that way that you could just put on a public persona, grab a public relations persis a publicist, and just be like, Hey, I’m a tough guy from the UK and just you could just put that out there. Like, it seems like that would be relatively easy. It seems easy for me. So I have to imagine it’s it’s probably easier for you. Why not?
Tobi Bamtefa: Uhm.
Gabe Howard: Just hide, Tobi. Hide.
Tobi Bamtefa: Because I would know. That’s why I would know it. That’s the reason I would know that I’m not I’m not this tough guy. I’m not Clint Eastwood. You know, I would know that when I’m sitting by myself at home or even sitting with with my wife, with my family. I know that I’m not that person. And I can’t. I don’t I’ve cultivated too much self respect to then sell myself short like that.
Gabe Howard: That is one of those easier said than done things.
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That is right. You are right. It isn’t 100% solution and it’s not a one size fits all either. But what I said is, is what to do with how to find your own way of developing skills that enable you to deal with your life as it comes at you. One of the things I used to do, I one of the things that some of my family members also used to do was we would just if we were feeling any particular way, we were encouraged to just to paint, to make a mess or something like that. And that that sometimes got the angst out. I’m not a painter. I use my words, so I write stuff. And that that also helps as well. But it wasn’t 100%, but it definitely took the steam out of it and it helped me get to the next sort of island, the next sort of sanctuary for dealing with the angst or the anxiety or even the depression that I was that I was going through in whatever period. And it wasn’t something that it’s it wasn’t something I had to understand it from the place of. It wasn’t something that would that would solve itself immediately. This is something that I that I had to consider might take a couple of days, a week, a month, maybe even a year. But as long as I kept I was active at trying to do something that in itself was quite beneficial to me.
Gabe Howard: As I’m listening to you talk, I’m thinking about the similarities and the differences in our upbringing. The similarities are we both receive sort of this, you know, men are supposed to be emotionless and stoic and strong, but then the differences are you were encouraged to seek out art and painting,
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: And those are not stereotypically male activities.
Tobi Bamtefa: With my family. Like I said, I come from a very artistic family, so there are singers in my family. My father is an actor. So is my mother. My mother is also she’s not just that she’s an artist and she makes things with her hands. My dad’s cousin owns an art gallery in Nigeria. We were exposed to all of these different ways, all of these different forms of expression, self expression. It’s it’s almost like you mentioned, in order for you to even access your emotions, you need to have the words for it. You need to understand the terms so that you can so you can see what it is and know what it is. It was that we also played basketball as well. I played basketball at a national level, but sports wasn’t the only access or the only thing that I knew to use to express myself. I guess I was fortunate with my my family’s upbringing, but where I had issues, perhaps not an issue, but where I may have struggled with anxiety and things that that was in my failure to succeed in these endeavors. That was the pressure. We had to take the responsibility if we were going to do certain things. We have to do it with the mentality of success. And if you didn’t success, you would consider the failure that could stop. So it sort of took the expression out of it. So I had to sort of almost I don’t want to say do it in secret, but I kind of had to do it without being able to express myself, but also expressing myself in the meantime at the same time, but not a bit not being allowed to fail. I don’t know if I’m making any sense.
Gabe Howard: I really do think that you are making sense, Tobi. It sounds to me like you are allowed to pursue artistic endeavors, but toxic masculinity sort of sat on top of it, right? You were allowed to pursue
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Acting and art, etc., but you better not fail. You better win.
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: So it became less about the enjoyment and more about the winning, which and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like that probably made it a less enjoyable activity.
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah, yeah. For the most part, because a lot of it also was to do with the environment. Like I said, I come from Nigeria and I moved to England, so there was a bit of a survivalist mentality. In that sense, I think since talking to talking to other Africans in the diaspora, it’s sort of something that prevails within that, within the African community, especially the West African community. There’s this if you’re going to study something, if it wasn’t the three major subjects, it was you had to be like really successful in whatever it is that you did, right. But like I said, that is the survivalist mentality prevailed simply because there was also other things that we had to deal with. Looking for a job was particularly difficult, having to go to school and people are spitting at you like that kind of stuff. Like I was having to deal with stuff like that. Then you also have responsibilities at home. I have a younger brother. I have to protect him from the bullies and the staff and the people outside. And you know, if I knock, you knock your your confidence down a little bit with some with some unsavory words or unsavory pieces of advice that, you know, is clearly not true, like things like that. It was almost like you don’t have the energy. There’s no space to feel bad about what these people are doing. What you need to do is you need to survive. So don’t cry. You can cry later, but don’t cry now. That that was that that was kind of what stuck in my head. So I guess that was just going into a little bit of detail about the emotional, the emotional dance that I had to do in my artistic expressions.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with actor Tobi Bamtefa from Paramount+’s Mayor of Kingstown. Recently here in the States, we had an NFL player who almost died on the field. It looks
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Like he’s going to be fine. And that’s wonderful. But here’s the thing that struck me, Tobi. You mentioned about you’re not allowed to cry. You’re not allowed to cry. You’re not allowed to cry. And yet I watched it. I’ve seen you can go in YouTube. But right now, these players, these NFL football players, right. The man in the arena, the strongest, most toughest men we have in America were openly crying. They weren’t trying to hide it. They were they were scared and they were crying on national television. Is this a moment where we’re starting to see this this get better?
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah, I think I think that’s fair because that’s a very real situation occurring right in front of their eyes. So you would be remiss to not cry and be really cold. I think people would probably look at you really odd if you had no emotions towards that because at that point you are looking at a situation of life and death. There’s not really much else that matters, especially if it’s a loved one. Yes, these are men with big muscles and they are lifting considerable amounts of weight and they’re able to break bones and run at speeds that we can’t even fathom and stuff. But they are at the very heart of it. They are also human beings with families and love. They have love within them. It’s good to be able to see that that is the most important part of it. None of them will be doing what they’re doing. If it wasn’t for the love that they have for the game, the love that they have for their families, the love that they have for their teammates.
Gabe Howard: Tobi, I really want to draw attention to what you said about crying. Is the right response. Being emotional is the right response. This is playing out in real time because the alternative, you’re absolutely right, is to just sit there and not care.
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: And you can say, well, they care on the inside, but not on the outside. But I mean, now we’re just having a semantics argument. If I turned on the TV and saw that moment and they were just all standing around looking at their watches, wondering when they could go back to the locker room or resume the game, we think, wow, they’re all a bunch of sociopaths. But at the same time, if they’re openly weeping, if they’re crying, if they’re hugging each other, comforting each other, there is a contingent of the population in America that’s like, why are they being this way? They’re being wimps. They’re being it just is this the one of the big problems facing men that no matter what you do, there is a large contingent in society that’s going to criticize it.
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah. Yeah. I think that that people will always say stuff anyway, so you might as well just be free to do what you want. But also, it’s really important to acknowledge that I said this earlier, what somebody says, what somebody says about you or about whatever you’re going through says more about them than it does about you. So people who do say things like that, I like to look at those kinds of comments and who is saying those kind of comments. And I wonder what kind of person would say something like that, because it’s clearly not about me. What are you going through that would enable you to say something so far removed from the current situation you are looking at? You know, how can you look at somebody who is literally on the verge of life and death and then turn around and say, oh, well, you know, they’re men, why are they being wimps? Blah, blah, blah? Like, how cold do you have to have been? What kind of upbringing do you have? Those kind of questions come to mind for me. And when I do that, I saw analyzing that person and like I said, it sort of it kind of takes me out of a situation. I no longer take it personally for you to have said what you said. Well, I don’t know what you’re going through by. You need to sort that out. That’s how I see it.
Gabe Howard: You know, Tobi, I think about the older generation a lot, especially being a mental health advocate. I watch, you know, my dad, my grandfather, my older, you know, uncles. And again, in my family, stereotypically blue collar, they do act like men. Right. The stereotypical men with all of the problems that go with that. And here’s one of the things that fascinates me a little bit. If I come home and they’re doing any sort of physical task, you know, mowing the lawn, working on the house, painting the first words out of their mouth is you can help me. You can help me come over here. You can help me. They’re doing something physical. They see me walk up. They’re like, boom, asking Gabe for help. But if they have any sort of emotional problem, mental problem, it’s like pulling teeth. It’s the whole family knows they’re upset. They know they’re upset. They know that they’re scared, angry, whatever emotion. And you can’t get it out of them for nothing. You know how many boxes I’ve carried up into the attic just because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I have to beg my father to tell me what’s bothering him. What
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Are your thoughts on all of that? Do you have this problem in your family too?
Tobi Bamtefa: I guess it was more with my uncle, actually, my mother’s younger brother. He passed away a couple of years ago. But it wasn’t until after he passed away that I think I understood why he did things like that. So my uncle was a bit of a motorhead. He loved cars, engines, big engines, that kind of stuff. And he would always try to. I think every time he asked me to do some sort of manual or some sort of manual labor, maybe asking ask me to do something like that. It felt like was his way of trying to ask me for help on a deeper level. It was an emotional ask that he couldn’t express. That was the only way he knew how to express it. It had to be disguised as manual labor. We have to be doing something manly in order for me to get in touch with my emotional side. And even then it’s like it’s almost like you’re reading between the lines. So you kind of have to be a little bit of a mind reader. But I was too young to understand that then. But now, in retrospect, I feel like my uncle was drowning. And every time he asked me to help him move boxes or help him empty this house or whatever it was, or maybe help him come and fix the car and things like that. It was it was that. And it’s not like we were saying much. He would just say certain things and sometimes there will be it would say something one comment, which is completely unrelated to the task we had, and I would be thrown for a loop trying to understand why he said that. It wasn’t until after he passed away and after I reflected on, I’ve been reflecting on his death that I guess I kind of understood really. Like, yeah, he was really trying to reach out and he just didn’t know how.
Gabe Howard: I think it’s an incredible point that if you have a strong emotional health and you have strong mental health and the people around you have weaker mental health, rather than being angry at them about it or, you know, brand them as being too masculine or having toxic masculinity or all of the phrases that come up a lot, why don’t you look at them as having a deficit that you can help with, seeing as you know, you’re in a place of stability? I think it’s a beautiful story that you bring up. And even reflecting on my own life, I think of all the conversations I had with the strong males. I’m just going to go with strong
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah. Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Men in my life that came after a day of work while, you know, they’re sipping beer and they’re like, Yep, yep, things are going okay. Well, I wish
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: I had a little bit more money, though. And I’m like, Wait a minute, what are you opening up?
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: I probably missed these opportunities.
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah, you could. You could quite easily feel guilty for missing those. But at the same time it’s like sometimes it could just be they needed an ear. And also, there is only so much I can understand just from from my own perspective, because we’re we’re all sort of going through this this life, trying to figure it out as we’re going along. There isn’t really a blueprint for our individual lives. Our individual lives, you know, plan out and stuff. So, yeah, there’s there’s a lot of figuring out we have to do is just, I guess one of the things that we as humanity has to cultivate is the skill of listening to understand, not just understand on a basic level, but to have much deeper understanding. And maybe the only way we can exercise by really understanding ourselves and coming to terms with our own truths, but not to also feel bad guilt can be a very unhelpful, unhelpful feeling to have When you’re trying to understand somebody. You can only reach somebody and they can only reach you on the level that they’re at. They can’t reach any more or less than that.
Gabe Howard: Tobi I think that’s a beautiful sentiment and I really do feel that we’re having more conversations about mental health and we’re having more conversations about men’s mental health than we ever had before. I’ve been a mental health advocate for well over a decade, and I can honestly say in the last 18 months, more men have stood up and said, Look, I need help. I want help. I’m searching for help. I want to openly discuss this. And it’s okay than ever before in my career. And I think that is wonderful. I want to thank you for being willing to talk about it, because after all, it starts with prominent men being willing to stand up and say, look, this is important and it’s okay. Let’s get through this together. So kudos to you for helping be one of the people who are leading that charge.
Tobi Bamtefa: Thank you. Gabe, thank you very much for for this platform to be able to express that because too many people have lost their lives simply because they weren’t able to express the angst and the anguish that they were repressing. And it’s it’s really sad because we’ve lost I’ve lost people. I’ve had people who are currently in the grips of of that kind of turmoil. And I just want to be able to say to them that it’s okay to say it, to say what you’re feeling. It’s okay to express what you’re feeling, and it’s okay to also find other ways of expressing what you are feeling. It was beneficial for me to have a safe space in order to do that also. So yeah, I found my safe space and I cultivated my safe space.
Gabe Howard: Tobi, thank you so much for being here. And for all of our listeners, check out Mayor of Kingstown on Paramount+ right now and also check out Tobi’s Instagram. It is @Tobibamtefa. It’s very, very, very, very cool, right, Tobi?
Tobi Bamtefa: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. I’m on Instagram. I’m on the Twitter as well. All the same type of I’m for. Yeah, I just doing some promo stuff where Mayor of Kingstown season one on Paramount+ and season two is coming out right now on Paramount+. Catch it all on there. And yeah, I just just look out for some more stuff that I’ve got planned and hit me up on that.
Gabe Howard: Thank you, Tobi, so much for being here. And a big thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which is on Amazon. Or you can get a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free. And hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show, share in a support group shared on social media. Hel send a text Sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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