Kweku Mandela. Photo credit: Ylva Erevall.
Kweku Mandela believes his life isn’t his own, but rather, “it’s the life of those who are yet to be born, those who are going to inherit this earth,” he told Emerald. Having the last name Mandela comes with a lot of pressure to do great things. But Mandela has handled it well.
Mandela is a film director and producer known for Inescapable (2012), Dreamland (2019) and Mandela’s Children (2013), a film about his grandfather Nelson Mandela. He is also the co-founder of the non-profit organization, Africa RISING, which provides pathways out of hunger and poverty for small farmers.
As he continues to expand his grandfather’s legacy in the field of human rights, Mandela is on a mission to make the world a more equitable place. He believes there are many changes that need to be made in the world, cannabis included. While his own personal relationship with cannabis has evolved, his feelings on how the plant and people using it should be treated have remained the same. The world is changing, people are changing, and yet there are still many in prison for cannabis possession while others are making millions in the legal industry. Emerald spoke with Mandela about his relationship with cannabis, social equity, the novel coronavirus pandemic and more.
Editor’s note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Emerald Magazine (EM) What is your relationship with cannabis?
Kweku Mandela (KM): At the moment it is very distant. I smoked throughout my youth pretty much every day. I was very enamored by it. It was a big part of my life. I kind of stopped doing that when I was 20, I kind of grew out of that. I still take edibles, but that’s about it.
EM: Why do you take edibles?
KM: I mainly do it for anxiety. I think it’s hard for my brain to shut down.
EM: What are your favorite cannabis products?
KM: Edibles, mixology and food. I’ve always been fascinated with that way of engaging in cannabis. I think especially with New Jersey legalizing recreational use of cannabis, there is a huge opportunity for cafes and restaurants who are struggling right now because of COVID to re-invent themselves.
EM: What are your thoughts about New York not legalizing cannabis, even though it’s so popular there, with New Yorkers smoking more weed than any other city in the world, according to a 2017 study by industry management company, Seedo?
KM: I think every state has to figure out when the right timing is for them. Sometimes [legalization comes as a result] of the leaders; sometimes it’s because of the community advocating for it. New York is such a global city that eventually, I think they will come to the realization that they need to find a way to actually make it accessible and legal to use. In a lot of ways states have laxed their laws to where it pretty much is legal, and is no longer punishable by jail time. But there is still a lot of work to be done.
EM: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) finds that Black Americans are arrested at four times the rate of white ones for cannabis — despite equal usage rates. What are your thoughts on the fact that there are so many white people profiting off of cannabis, while there are so many Black people in jail for cannabis related “crimes?”
KM: Those are the big things that need to be righted. It’s totally unacceptable that people are being jailed for possession or selling cannabis while others are able to make a profit. All of us in society need to be up in arms about how this is still continuing. A lot of states have changed their laws and are expunging their records, which is great. But then there’s still the problem of how they get back into society. The ownership of cannabis whether it be recreational or medicinal use, really needs to be intertwined with how do we empower these communities. There’s a lot of work to be done — but there are a lot of people, particularly young people, who are advocating [for change].
EM: Speaking of young people, what do you think of today’s youth and how they’re fighting for change?
KM: I think it’s amazing. Social media is this catalyst that can spread information, [and] help people understand things they didn’t understand. It can be used as a very powerful, progressive tool. But I think we shouldn’t get it twisted and think that social media is somehow taking action. It may be showing action, it might be sharing information — but it’s not necessarily changing anything. Change comes from you being on the ground. Change comes from you picking up the phone and calling your local representative, if you even know who that person is.
The reality is, the internet is a great tool. But it’s just that, it’s a tool. It’s not gonna pass a law. It’s not gonna get someone out of jail. That comes from hard earned actions; individuals picking up the phone, going out and protesting and marching, learning about these systems and how they can play a part in them, and ultimately understanding the world that we actually live in.
EM: What do you think politicians today are doing wrong?
KM: They could start by […] inspiring people, focusing on the things that we share rather than the things that divide us. You know, it’s hard; we live in a world where often borders and differences are often used as catalysts to separate people, to say that one is better than the other. But our fundamental nature as human beings is not that. Our fundamental nature is to come together, to nurture. We just forgot that along the way.
It’s important I think for the citizens of any country in the world to always remind their leaders of that. And that act of citizenship, of participation, in life is so vital and I think we do it too infrequently, often because we are distracted so much. And again, COVID has allowed us to take away those distractions and so we’re starting to see people really activate and grow into this larger community that wants to see change, wants to participate.
EM: Your grandfather, Nelson Mandela — a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the first Black President of South Africa — was a powerful voice for change. You share the same last name, and because of that, you too have a voice of power. What does it feel like to have that influence?
KM: I think we all have that platform in different ways — we all come from different backgrounds, different legacies. Our parents have expectations of us, our grandparents have expectations of us, our great grandparents have expectations of us. We all have to choose how we want to utilize that. What traditions do we want to carry on and what new ones do we want to make? I think for me, I’m still figuring out a lot of that, as we all kind of do. But I’m very aware that people do listen when I speak. I’m very aware that I have the ability to impact the community. I want to do the little that I can. You know everyone says to make the world a better palace, but I wanna do what I can to make the world a more equitable place.
EM: Do you feel pressure to behave a certain way or be involved in certain things because of the Mandela name?
KM: I used to, and I think that’s part of the reason I smoked so much. I enjoyed hanging out with my friends more than I enjoyed hanging out with myself when I was younger. It’s easy to — this is maybe the downside of cannabis — it’s easy to become numb. It’s easy to forget the real world, and I experienced that a lot when I was younger because I did feel a lot of pressure.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to not only live with the pressure, but also understand it and use it in ways that make me happy. I feel good about it, and I think that’s the most important thing you can do.
EM: One last question, are you tired of having to be an activist, of always having to fight for change?
KM: Everything in life gets to be not just exhausting, but hard to continually do. You need to find an outlet and ways to renew and refresh and ultimately keep yourself inspired and motivated to carry on. I don’t know if I necessarily believe in that word, activist. I believe I’m a human being. I believe I have a voice and I believe I have a choice to do things I believe in. If someone wants to label that as an activist, great, good for them. I live my life in a certain way. I hope it has a positive impact on the people around me. I do that because my life is not really my own life. It’s the life of those who are yet to be born, those who are going to inherit this earth. If I leave them a shitty earth then I’m a shitty person.
Kweku Mandela continues to advocate for change and growth of not only American policies but for issues worldwide. In November 2020, he participated in Africa Rising International Film festival, of which he is a co-founder. The theme was “Film for Change,” which showcases how films and their storylines can start conversations about change. For more information on this festival and his non-profit organization check out africa-rising.net and ariff.me.