Michael-Akolade Ayodeji: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Image description: Michael, clad in a patterned shirt and a beret, smiles for the camera.

In a crowded corner of a high street coffee shop on a cold January afternoon, Michael and I eventually had the opportunity to sit down and catch up, after initially having to postpone this long-awaited conversation. 

“I’d be more than happy to be interviewed for an article, but only under one condition – that we don’t mention anything about the Oxford Union at all,” he said, when I first reached out  a few months ago. Immediately, I agreed, knowing full well that there are already far too many articles and headlines about ‘Oxford Union Presidents’ – past, present, and future, floating around within the press. Michael and I both agree that we want the work we do to be genuine and original. 

‘Genuine and original’ is perhaps how I would describe my perception of Michael, using fewest words possible. But Michael’s personality and passion for his work, perhaps deserve more than just ‘a few words’. 

So I ask if we could expand on this when I tell Michael to introduce himself. 

“I’m Michael, I study PPE at University College, and I like poetry, music, and theatre. I hope to pursue a career in acting, or in music, and I fundamentally believe in artivism. That is, using art as a form of activism, because I’d like to eventually live in a world where I can use music or my creative talents to make social commentary. I’d like to introduce to the wider public certain perspectives of the world, and other people’s experiences, which we might not have initially been aware of,” he says. 

“But I chose to study PPE mainly because of my interest in politics, especially based on personal experiences. It has been an important opportunity for me to learn, and to think about why the world is the way it is, and why it can sometimes be unfair,” he continues. 

“I fundamentally believe in artivism. That is, using art as a form of activism, because I’d like to eventually live in a world where I can use music or my creative talents to make social commentary. Music and art have always been, and are always going to be a part of me. I see myself as a very artistic person, with aspirations of an artistic career, but there is definitely a lack of cultural capital for those who come from similar circumstances, like mine.”

Having grown up in difficult circumstances, Michael explains how he initially did not consider going into further education. In 2018, he came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and as a mature student. During year 11, he completed his GCSEs in one year after being out of formal education for almost 3 years prior. Michael’s education was later further interrupted due to visa complications as a child of immigrant parents, and he spent an additional few years working to survive and ensure that he was able to continue staying in the UK.

“Frankly, I didn’t think much about going into further education at all. But eventually, what made me really want to do it was the fact that I was denied it. I think that when you don’t have the opportunity to do something, that’s definitely when you begin to appreciate it more,” he emphasises.

“I see myself as a very artistic person, with aspirations of an artistic career, but there is definitely a lack of cultural capital for those who come from similar circumstances, like mine. For example, I didn’t grow up in a world where my parents took me to the theatre as a leisurely activity, and children of immigrants are often expected to be doctors, lawyers, engineers. We are actively discouraged from going into artistic careers, especially due to the inherent lack of privilege and access to these spaces in the first place,” he says. 

Michael explains how eventually, he began to get involved with running poetry workshops for Mind UK, a nationwide mental-health based charity. “I did those workshops in Coventry when I was taking time out from my studies, and they were specifically targeted for students who grew up in care, and from underprivileged backgrounds. It was important to me to provide a space where people could creatively and safely express themselves.” 

Throughout his time off, Michael also had the opportunity to pursue a course with the Peter Jones Enterprise Academy on social entrepreneurship, and undertake a brief internship with MP Nick Bowles from the then Department of Innovation and Skills. 

“When I worked with Bowles MP, it was mainly with a team of Oxford graduates and PPE-ists, and that was when the idea of continuing my further education became something I seriously wanted to pursue,” he says. He explains how the team had been very appreciative in recognising his talents and hard work, and had encouraged him to return to education and complete his A-Levels and apply to Oxford. 

“Frankly, I didn’t think much about going into further education at all. But eventually, what made me really want to do it was the fact that I was denied it. I think that when you don’t have the opportunity to do something, that’s definitely when you begin to appreciate it more.”

“But a lot of different complications meant that I could barely afford to financially survive when I went back to doing my A-Levels. At one point, I was working in a warehouse from 10pm till 4am, and then going to school the next day, it was exhausting. And when I first got my Oxford offer, I eventually had to take another year out and re-apply again, due to issues with student finance,” he explains. 

Upon arriving at Oxford, Michael continued his involvement with activism and lobbying for underprivileged groups. He has been an advocate for the Student Union’s Liberation Campaigns such as Class Act and DisCam, and aims to raise awareness on the intersection between class and disability. 

“I also think there should be more focus on accommodating neurodiversity, because at Oxford, it can seem as though people are talking about it all the time,” Michael continues, “but it also seems like nobody fully understands what it is – myself included.” 

“Do you have ADHD by any chance?” I ask.

“Oh yeah, definitely,” he says.

I laugh and excitedly respond with, “oh gosh, me too!” 

We continue to talk about his advocacy and activism, and he tells me about his involvement with the Bail Observation Project in Oxford, which aims to aims to scrutinise the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, to publicise its concerns, and to propose ways in which it can be improved. Michael is also part of the Cameroon Conflict Research Group, which strives to raise awareness on ongoing turmoil within the region.

“I am using my time at university to do the things that I’ve always been interested in, because I find that it’s a lot easier to get involved in making small changes within the Oxford community. It is also a lot easier to make small attempts to fix things within the system, instead of fixing certain things in my life that I cannot control.”

When I ask Michael about his immediate plans after graduation, he does not hesitate to tell me that he is ready to go back to making music, theatre and poetry. “I definitely want to continue giving poetry workshops, making films, and starting a social entrepreneurship to make all these opportunities a lot more accessible to people like me,” he says. 

“Part of the reason why I also struggled a lot when I first came to Oxford was realising that I had become disconnected from who I thought I was, and what I wanted to do. So when I began to get involved with the creative scene here, it definitely brought me back to feeling like myself again.” Among the productions he had been involved with are the short films ‘Black Lives Playlist’ in Hilary Term of 2021, Lost Connection’, and ‘Blink’, in Trinity Term of 2021. 

“I am so lucky to be here, and I want to make the most of all the privileges laid out in front of me,” he continues.

“Music and art have always been, and are always going to be a part of me. But I still need to improve my thinking on social issues before I go out to produce the creative work that speaks about those things – and I think that my degree in PPE might  be able to help me understand these issues better.” 

He explains further, “I am using my time at university to do the things that I’ve always been interested in, because I find that it’s a lot easier to get involved in making small changes within the Oxford community. It is also a lot easier to make small attempts to fix things within the system, instead of fixing certain things in my life that I cannot control.” 

In an affirming conclusion to our conversation, Michael tells me, “we live in a world with inherently flawed systems, and I probably can’t fix the entire system. But I often ask myself, ‘what can I do to help people, and make the world a better place, whilst I’m still here?’” 

I reflect back on everything he has told me, and realise how Michael has inevitably answered his own question.

We part ways with reassuring smiles, no longer in the crowded coffee shop, but instead, I am led out through the gates of University College and eventually find myself back on Oxford’s high street.

 

Image credits: Rachel Ojo