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Big Zuu’s big vision: Innovating music, TV and the water industry

The rapper and TV presenter is a larger than life character who has turned a tough start into a mould-breaking success story

Big Zuu winking at the camera with a green background (Credit - Sharmarke Abdi) (Image: Sharmarke Abdi)

Some people instantly draw you in with larger-than- life personalities that mean when they talk, you sit up and take notice. The rapper and TV presenter Big Zuu is one of these people. He started in music as a member of the MTP crew before moving into TV, hosting shows including the double Bafta-winning Big Zuu’s Big Eats and Big Zuu’s 12 Dishes in 12 Hours on ITV. He has also co-founded production company Big Productions and launched canned water brand Drip Water, which is sold in Morrisons and WHSmith.

His mother left her native Sierra Leone when she was four months pregnant with Zuu due to the civil war that plagued the West African country for more than a decade. The pair bounced around temporary housing until Zuu was 14. Now 28, he maintains this tough start gave him the hunger and drive to go on to bigger and better things, while his African roots gave him perspective.

“I went to Sierra Leone when I was eight years old for the first time,” Zuu recalls. “Coming from a single-parent background, I grew up complaining to my mum about wanting toys, clothes and games. But then I realised I was chilling here. My version of nothing is everything to them.”

Zuu – real name Zuhair Hassan – studied social science, community development and youth work at Goldsmiths, University of London. In his first year, the lecturer running the core foundation course got him excited to learn, but when she left before his second year he fell out of love with the course.

“I was doing shows, I was working for Uber Eats, I was driving my little ‘ped around and I just couldn’t balance it. I wasn’t connected to the course,” he recalls. Zuu and his fellow students ended up getting back some tuition fees for that second year due to poor teaching. Both the free time and the money allowed him to focus squarely on his passion: music.

“The one thing the average person will tell you when you say you want to pursue a career in music, is that there’s a lot of musicians,” he says. “I think what people don’t see with music is that it’s a business. But plumbing is a business, as well; not everyone makes it in plumbing or makes the biggest plumbing business. It’s the same with music. Not everyone’s going be Jay-Z, not everyone’s going to be Drake. There are some people whose name you might not have heard, but they’ve toured the world and had millions of streams on Spotify and Apple Music.”

Some other things the world has in abundance are cooking shows and water brands. But again, that didn’t put Zuu off. He attributes his mindset in launching Big Productions and Drip Water to the lessons he learnt building his music career.

“I’ve always had the mentality of just do your work and keep your head down,” he says. “Be as creative as you can, put your energy into the right things and what is meant for you will follow. You can’t measure your success against that of others.”

Big Zuu flexing (Credit - Sharmarke Abdi)
(Image: Sharmarke Abdi)

Zuu is a strong and vocal proponent of diversity within the TV industry, not just within race, but class too. Ofcom’s 2023 Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in TV and Radio report found that 28 per cent of employees across TV and radio who provided data are from a working-class background, below the UK population average of 39 per cent. It also found that just 13 per cent of senior managers in television are from an ethnic minority.

“Going from music, where I would work with so many people who look like me and sound like me and are from the same culture as me, into television, it’s a completely different world,” he says. “It made me think, ‘ok, where’s the disconnect from people from my world getting into this industry?’ I was just very lucky that the person who commissioned my show was a black woman [Natalie Rose, then commissioning editor at UKTV].”

One of the ways Zuu is helping to drive change is through his production company. Its growth has been steady, starting with an associate producer credit on series three of Big Eats and then co-producing the show’s fourth series with production group Boom, part of ITV Studios.

Big Productions has also signed a development deal with Banijay UK – the company behind shows such as MasterChef, Peaky Blinders, Big Brother and Pointless – to develop new comedy and factual entertainment formats, as well as scripted, documentary and live event shows. And when it comes to Drip, Zuu is excited about its future, including a deal to become the official water partner of the Eddie Hearn-run Matchroom sport as well as taking on a sizeable investment to be announced in the coming months.

“I never expected to do this stuff with Drip,” he says. “It could be the biggest company that I run, even though it’s so different to what I do.”

He credits the brand’s potential to thinking outside the box in a stale market. “There’s not a lot of creativity [in the water industry]. It has been the same guys for years and years, the same plastic bottles you see all the time.

“The canned water market is something that’s going to grow and become more of a necessity in society. In the same way we went from plastic straws to paper straws, it’s just something we’re going to have to get used to,” he says.

Big Zuu pointing at the camera (Credit - Sharmarke Abdi)
(Image: Sharmarke Abdi)

One moment when Zuu realised how far he had come was during the filming of an advert for Drip celebrating its Morrisons listing. When he was handed a Morrisons uniform to wear for it, he remembered he already had one at home. “I used to work at Morrisons in Victoria stacking shelves and now my drinks are in there – it’s crazy,” he says. He has big plans for the brand; it is due to move into a new office kitted out with a production room, studio and barbershop soon.

Not many British offices include a barbershop, but Zuu’s career shows how shaking up the status quo isn’t a tick-box diversity exercise – it’s good business. “A lot of businesses would really benefit from hiring from diverse backgrounds,” he says. “People that have not got the same experience in those lanes but are hungry to get into that position.”

He gives the example of Drip’s social media manager, who is young and from a minority ethnic background. “She didn’t have a lot of experience within the role but is absolutely just killing it in terms of the business. I’ve taken risks with who we’ve hired because I’ve always gone for young people who may not have the experience but have the drive and the willingness to make a change for their life,” he says.

“With that comes inexperience and challenges, but I think what we’ve gained is a work environment that’s fresh. I think a good business leader is someone open to different ideas but direct with what they want. We have great communication in my team. I listen to them, but I tell them what I want and that’s how we get stuff done.”

Maybe it’s time everyone was a little more Zuu.

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