"The fact is that, no matter where you come from, the minute you step into this country and the minute you decide to live here, you are linked to a whole tradition of race and racism in this country."
W. Kamau Bell is a sociopolitical comedian and host of the hit Emmy Award nominated CNN docu-series, United Shades of America.
W. Kamau Bell talks about his life work as a political comedian and what that means for him personally and professionally.
Emy diGrappa (00:04):
Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences and use stories to explore culture, history, and contemporary issues. You can find us on ThinkWY.org.
W. Kamau Bell (00:22):
How can I take these difficult subjects and make them into bite-size nuggets so then people can laugh?
Emy diGrappa (00:30):
Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa, and this is What's Your WY. Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question why. We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes - Wyoming? And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities? Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your WY.
Today we are talking to W. Kamau Bell. Kamau Bell is a critically acclaimed socio-political comedian, host of CNNs hit documentary series, United Shades of America. The New York Times called Kamau the most promising new talent in political comedy in many years. Welcome, Kamau.
W. Kamau Bell (01:32):
Emy diGrappa (01:32):
So I- we want to get to know you today. We want to find out what your passion is, and why you do what you do. And the first thing I want to know is why W. Kamau Bell? (Laughs).
W. Kamau Bell (01:44):
(Laughs). Um, when I was a kid, I- like, when I- since I was a little kid, there was two things I wanted to be: either a superhero or in show business. At the time I would have said an actor, but then I realized later I wanted to be a comedian. And I was- my dad's name is Walter, so I'm Walter Kamau Bell. He's- he's got a different middle name. But I always went by Kamau. But I thought- for some reason as a kid I thought Kamau Bell sounded too plain for somebody in show business. I don't know why. It's not like Kamau's already a- Kamau's already a pretty interesting name.
Though as a kid, I remember seeing A. Whitney Brown on Saturday Night Live. Uh, he was a comedian- or, is a comedian, he was on Saturday Night Live. And I thought, "Oh, you can do that? You can have an initial?" And so as a kid I thought if I'm ever in show business, I'll W. Kamau Bell. And so really it's like a total tribute to the kid in me who wanted to be in show business.
Emy diGrappa (02:25):
Oh, that's great.
W. Kamau Bell (02:25):
Emy diGrappa (02:27):
And it's great you had that dream way back when, right?
W. Kamau Bell (02:29):
Yeah, yeah. So I think for me it's like, that's how you keep the dream alive, by holding on to the W. (Laughs). Or how I keep the dream alive.
Emy diGrappa (02:35):
(Laughs). And so how did you actually get started in show business?
W. Kamau Bell (02:39):
It's funny to call it show business, is- because when you start out, you're not in show business, you're in coffee shops and bars and night clubs, and- of- eventually comedy clubs. And, you know, I started s- I signed up to go do an open mic. Like, that's where every comedian starts is at an open mic. And you sign up to do an open mic, they give you five minutes or less, and it either goes well or it doesn't, you either keep doing it or you don't. And so I kept doing it.
And that was in Chicago, and then after three years I moved to the Bay Area because I needed more ... I felt like I- there wasn't enough- there wasn't a big comedy scene of standup in Chicago at the time, now there is. And I felt like I needed more opportunity and a place to grow, and so I moved to San Francisco. And I've basically been out there in the Bay Area ever since, except for the two years I lived in New York with- where we did the TV show, Totally Biased.
Emy diGrappa (03:23):
And when they call you a socio-political comedian, how do you define that? What- what do you think that means?
W. Kamau Bell (03:30):
What- oh, for me it's really funny. I'm the one who came up with that distinction, because I was- (Laughs). People were calling me a political comedian, and I felt like it didn't fit. There's a great tradition in this country of political comedy, and I- I'm a fan of political comedy. But for me, there's sort of an expectation if you ... I would do a lot of shows where I'd be late, like ... They'd do like, come to this political comedy show, and there's an expectation of what your comi- of what political comedy is, and I didn't like being defined by that.
So if you put socio-political on it ... And I knew the phrase socio-political, and I was like, oh, were you talking about sort of like, politics but also identity politics, and culture, and movement. And- and for me that was a much better label. So I- I may be the first self-described socio-political comedian. But it- just for me, it feels like that gives me the ability to talk about, uh, racism in all of its forms, not just how it effects politics.
Emy diGrappa (04:15):
And is your focus on race primarily because you're a black man, and you want to make a statement on that? Or is it all races?
W. Kamau Bell (04:23):
I mean, I think it started out as, you know, comedy ... Every comedian uses comedy as a way to figure out themselves and the world. And it's just about how- what they're doing with that. Like, you know, whether it's observational comedy like Jerry Seinfeld, where you're really always looking- about the- out the outside world, or you're- or it's like George Carlin, where you're talking about America, what defines America. So- or you're talking about, uh, Jim Gaffigan, who's- it's all- it's like- a lot of it's about food and being a dad. (Laughs). You know, so everybody is- has things that they're interested in, and they use their comedy to sort of help figure those things out.
And so for me, growing up as a black man in America, that's the thing I wanted- I was figuring- trying to figure out whether or not I was a comedian or not. And then once I started to do comedy, and started- lived to- moved to the Bay Area and met lots of different types of people and got to hang out with lots of different people, then the- then the scope became much bigger. So I talk about lots of things that aren't just being a black man. Now, I probably spend more time talking about being a black man because I'm still trying to figure that one out.
But I certainly have, like, in my last comedy special, uh, it was on Showtime, called Semi-Prominent Negro. You know, there's stuff in there about gay marriage, there's stuff in there about, uh, transgender people, there's stuff in there ... There's- you know, there's stuff in about, uh, about my kids, and some of that is race related, and some of it's not. And so there's just- you know, I'm just talking about stuff that I care about, and stuff that I am curious about.
Emy diGrappa (05:36):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's really interesting because of our political climate right now. And I think a lot of people are trying to figure out how they feel about race, how they connect with other people.
W. Kamau Bell (05:36):
Emy diGrappa (05:47):
And so I'm- I'm interested to hear about your program that is called Ending Race in One Hour. Is that what it's called?
W. Kamau Bell (05:56):
Yeah, the- the- the full title is the W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. Yeah. (Laughs). Because a title can't ever be too long.
Emy diGrappa (06:04):
And so just give me a snippet of how you end racism in one hour.
W. Kamau Bell (06:06):
I mean, the big thing is that the c- the show sort of revolves around we have to have more awkward conversations about these issues. Like, there's a lot of stuff in the show that is sort of about current racism and about history, and there's a lot of stuff about my personal life. But really the whole thing is we have to start having more conversations about these things, and I think that with everything going on in the country right now, the only way you'll figure it out is to have a conversation.
And a lot of times people stand on their side of the thing and go- and just sort of yell across. Sometimes you have to yell to be heard. (Laughs). So I think when oppressed people yell, that's protest. When the privileged class yells, that's oppression. So I feel like for me it's like, we have to figure out who should be yelling, and who should be listening. And then understanding that just because maybe you feel like you're being yelled at, it doesn't mean that person's wrong, it just means that person hasn't been heard in a long time.
And I know when I say that, then you get some people, uh, you know, white people who feel like, "But I don't, and I wasn't- I never owned a slave! And I never ... " There's all this sort of like, wanting to defend yourself from being sort of effected by racism in this country. And the fact is is that no matter where you come from, the minute you step into this country and the minute you sort of decide to live here, you are linked to a whole tradition- tradition of race and racism in this country.
Emy diGrappa (07:14):
W. Kamau Bell (07:16):
Yeah, I mean it- you know, I think about it like with, uh, a lot of- many Africans who move to this country, like, you know, from other- from nations in Africa, they come here and they don't think of themselves as being black Americans, but the police don't think of- don't look at them as Africans, you know? They don't look at them as- as from Ghana, or from Senegal. They look at them as black Americans because that's what you are in this country.
And so I think a lot of people, you- you certainly should have pride where you come from, and you can feel- you can self-identify yourself, but understand that the minute you step into this pool, whether or not you define yourself ... And this is like, you know, if you're a white person who goes, "Well, I'm really Italian and Polish and German." Well, once you're in this country that ends up being white. That's an identity that was created in this country, was white American.
Emy diGrappa (07:55):
Oh, wow. That is interesting to look at it deeply like that. I just finished a program called 500 Years of Latino History in the United States-
W. Kamau Bell (08:04):
Emy diGrappa (08:04):
... and it is that same thing, that depending on where you're from and what side of the country, if you're from the East, then anyone who speaks Spanish from the East is Puerto Rican, or if you're from Florida-
W. Kamau Bell (08:17):
Emy diGrappa (08:18):
... everyone who speaks Spanish is Cuban, or-
W. Kamau Bell (08:18):
Emy diGrappa (08:19):
And just those same kinds of-
W. Kamau Bell (08:20):
Or from California, you're Mexican. (Laughs).
Emy diGrappa (08:22):
W. Kamau Bell (08:22):
Yeah, so ... And it doesn't mean that you have to decide, well, I guess I've gotta be Cuban if you're not Cuban, but it does mean you have to be aware that the whole ... Race is a social construct. And the people in charge are the ones who get to decide who's who. And it doesn't mean it changes who you are inside, but it does mean that you should be aware of who you represent when you're in the world.
Emy diGrappa (08:41):
Right. What is your passion and goal in doing this talk about ending racism in- in an hour? What do you want people to walk away with?
W. Kamau Bell (08:51):
I mean, to me, I'm a comedian first. I mean, you know ... Well, I'm probably a black man before that. If- if people don't laugh in the show, then the show has been- is a failure. So for me it's like, how can I take these difficult subjects and make them into bite sized nuggets so then people can laugh. And then have something that they take away from the show, hopefully many things, that they can then start a dialogue with somebody else that maybe they wouldn't have started before. You know? So I think that's the goal, is to get people to talk about the things they saw.
Even if they don't agree with me. Even if they're like, "I don't agree with any of that." Then go talk to somebody about it. Don't tell me on Facebook or Twitter. Go talk to somebody about how you saw this show and you didn't agree with any of it, and maybe they'll go, "Oh, well, I agree with you. I don't ... " Or maybe they'll go, "Oh, I agree with some of it." Or maybe they'll go, "No, I think you're wrong." Have a dialogue. And I think that, you know, especially with everything going on in the country, white people have to be prepared to have that dialogue, or ...
And I mean, I'm talking about, you know, the white people who would identify as being, you know, on the left, or good, or who aren't voting for Trump, have to be ready to have some difficult conversations, in the same way that like, as a man, I've had times in my life where women have had difficult conversations with me about sexism and- and what they perceived as my sexism. It would be easy to go, "I don't think you know what you're talking- I think ... " But then you're- then you're sort of cutting yourself off from growth, and also cutting yourself off from a friend.
Emy diGrappa (10:01):
Right. Being able to have an open mind and have a friend who's different from you.
W. Kamau Bell (10:05):
Yeah, and being able to have your course corrected if your- if your friend says- your friend or your wife, in my case, goes, "That's not- you're not- I think you think you're doing this right, but you're not doing this right."
Emy diGrappa (10:15):
W. Kamau Bell (10:16):
And I think people get caught up in not waning to be embarrassed, or not wanting to feel shame or guilt, and I feel like, what's wrong with those emotions? Embarrassment, shame, and guilt are great fuel to change and to make things better.
Emy diGrappa (10:26):
And so going from your political career and launching into your television career with the United Shades of America, correct?
W. Kamau Bell (10:35):
Emy diGrappa (10:36):
How did you start that show, and what- what is the purpose of that production?
W. Kamau Bell (10:41):
The idea is that, you know, the- sort of the- what they call the elevator pitch in show business, is that CNN sends a black guy to places that- that you wouldn't expect a black guy to be, or you absolutely think a black guy shouldn't go. (Laughs). You know?
So, in the first season I went to Barrow, Alaska, which is the northernmost tip of- of- of North America. You can't go further north without being on the water. And that's a place you just don't expect black people to be there. There are black people there, but you just don't expect them. So part of it was like, me learning about Barrow, Alaska.
And then also I had hung out with the Ku Klux Klan, which is a place you don't think a black guy should go. And n- you know, I lived to tell the tale about both places. You know? So it's really about getting outside of my comfort zone. And then also- then on TV having awkward conversations with people about their experience and my experience, and- and kind of coming to some new conclusions.
Emy diGrappa (11:24):
Has that been popular?
W. Kamau Bell (11:25):
Yeah. The show has been- has been a quote-unquote hit, whatever that means in the 21st century, and CNN has really gotten behind it, and I've had a lot of great experiences, and it started a lot of new conversations through the show. Like, when the show airs I generally live-tweet it, and I get to have conversations with people about what they're seeing. And not everybody agrees with everything that happens in the show, and I don't agree with everything that happens in the show. (Laughs). Even some things I did, I'm like, yeah, I wouldn't do that again.
But it- it's sort of a model for how to have productive conversations. And at the same time it's funny and we try to make sure that like, people get to enjoy the ride. It's not just about shoving medicine down your throat, it's about like- like at the end you go, "I think I might be smarter. That's weird. I didn't realize that was happening."
Emy diGrappa (12:02):
(Laughs). Do you have an opportunity to write some of your own scripts and things like that?
W. Kamau Bell (12:06):
Yeah, I'm involved in all th- the- I'm an executive- luckily I'm an executive producer on the show, so I'm involved with ... Nothing that comes out of my mouth doesn't have me look at it, or rewrite it, or write f- from the ground up. But if we move forward to the second season, which I hope is gonna happen, it looks likely, I hope to get even more control over that stuff. So ...
Emy diGrappa (12:23):
With United Shades of America, how do you see yourself going forward in your career? Wh- where do you see yourself?
W. Kamau Bell (12:29):
You know, I'm pretty lucky right now that the show came out and the show has done well, and that it looks like we're gonna get a second season. And so I just want to do more and better. Thin- everything we did in the first season, I just want to do more, and a better job of, and- and push myself to go to places that, you know ... We did the Klan in the first season. Where it's like, then the question is, where else can I go that is that extreme, and where I can engage people in conversation?
So I hope to do an episode at the border, you know. And when I say the border, obviously in America we mean the- the Mexico-American border, not the Canada-America border. But yeah. Hope to do something at the- at the border, and, you know, engage with people down there. And been there once, but I'd like to do something more down there. And you know, there's lots of other places where I haven't been.
Also, other communities that we'd like to feature, hopefully something with, uh, LGBTQ community. That's a lot of different groups when you say LGBTQ, but maybe several episodes involving that, and also something with Muslim-Americans. You know, everything that sort of is in the news. And all people who are in the news for, I feel like, the wrong reasons, or aren't getting a fair shake of the news, are people I'd like to talk to.
Emy diGrappa (13:29):
How do you e- experience success in terms of, how do you know you've changed someone's life, or their mind, or opened their mind? Especially because being a performer, you kind of sit apart from people. I mean, you have your material, and people come to your shows, but when do you experience that feeling of gratitude?
W. Kamau Bell (13:45):
I- I put the work out there, I feel like I keep my ear to the ground, I hear what- you know, how it's generally resonating. I think you can't pay too close attention that, because if you do that you're gonna be pushed back and forth by each person who goes, "That was great." "That was bad." "That was great." "That was bad." But just generally get a sense of what's going on.
Also, am I proud of the work? Like, I think that's important too. If people love it but I don't like it, that doesn't feel like success to me. So for me it's about like, do I really feel like we did something new here? Do I like the work that we put out there? And are people receiving it well?
Now as far as changing people's lives, I think it's- it's an impossible goal to attain. I think this is a new narrative that I've put out there ... The- these narratives aren't out there ... Not new to me, but these narratives aren't out enough in mainstream media. I think we did something good.
Like, we did a whole episode in San Quentin with inmates who- lifers in prison, and I felt like I haven't seen this on mainstream television before. Sort of really going, is it okay for these guys to be in prison for their lives, considering what their crimes are and how long they've been in prison, how much they've rehabilitated themselves? And that was something I was like, I don't think I've seen that before.
And I- we showed it at San Quentin so the inmates could see it, and they loved it, and they've invited me back to do other programs there. And I just feel like I c- I'm not gonna sit here and say I changed somebody's life, but I feel like that did what I wanted it to do, you know?
So- but yeah, I think you always have to be sort of pushing for more, and better, and stronger, and faster. Like, you can't get caught up in the success thing. I have two young daughters, so until they can, uh, pay their own rent, I don't think I'm gonna consider myself a success. (Laughs). They still need me to be out in the world making things happen.
Emy diGrappa (15:10):
Oh, that's wonderful. Well I have one more question. I want to know who are your heroes? Who inspired you to speak out and- about not just being a comedian, but being a political activist, in a sense?
W. Kamau Bell (15:23):
These labels are sort of hard to sort of hold on to. I- you know, because for- for me it's like, I think about it like, tax form says comedian. (Laughs). Like it doesn't say like a political activist or- and the people who put those labels on me, I appreciate them, but I also know that like, activist is a full-time job. I sort of always cringe around activists listening to me talk and going, "Oh, you think you're an activist?" Meanwhile they're out in the streets, you know, so-
Emy diGrappa (15:42):
W. Kamau Bell (15:42):
... or- or getting up at five in the morning to get, uh, you know, fliers together, and organizing online campaigns. So I feel like I'm an artist who cares, you know? So, uh, at one point in my bio, a publicist put activist in there, and it was out there for several months and I was like, I can't- I can't- I don't like that. I mean, I'm proud of the work being used for activism, and I'm proud to align with activists, and I feel like if they want- if activists want to call me an activist, that's fine. (Laughs). But I feel like it's like, you can't award yourself a black belt is how I feel about it.
Emy diGrappa (16:09):
W. Kamau Bell (16:09):
Uh, but as far as being vocal and speaking out, I feel like co- very comfortable about that. Like, my mom is where this starts from. My mom is a person who I felt like always sa- said what was on her mind, and always had, uh, strong opinions. And if people didn't wanna hear those opinions, and- after she tried to speak out about them, she was like- she would move to the new place. She'd be like, "All right, well, I'm not gonna waste my time here." So she just, uh ... That all comes from my mom.
And then also my dad is a great example of being a person who was born into, you know, in southern Alabama, in absolute poverty, and just sort of like, willed himself ... He still lives in Alabama, but willed himself into not absolute poverty. Like it- has worked with Fortune- a Fortune 500 company, and it- had a very successful career in insurance, and I got to see that over my lifetime, for him to go to a guy who sort of was semi-employed, to a guy who's like, I have to lift myself up by my bootstraps, and not take no for an answer, and then not take yes for an answer. (Laughs). Like, you know, if you say yes, say more yes. Say yes again. So I think my parents certainly are a part of that.
And then, you know, I- there's just- you know, there's any number of people who- I- you know, if I start naming people, it's- there's so many people I'll leave off. But like, Muhammad Ali was always important to me as a- as a- as a- as I grew into manhood. I mean, knew who he was as a kid, was- knew he was a hero, but then as I read more about him and the struggle, and giving up three and a half years of his professional career for the movement? Whatever we think about an athlete being a hero now ... Like, Lebron James is great, he's not giving up three and a half years of his career for the- for- you know, for a movement. And I'm not trying to insult him, I'm just saying that like, Ali's the only person who's ever done that.
You know, and then you have like Malcolm X, and I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I feel like that- that book changed my life. So certainly Malcolm X. And then there's many comedians who I sort of look at and go, you know, like ... Chris Rock was a hero of mine, and then I got to work with him. So, you know, there's any number of people who, over the course of my career, who either have personally done something, or just by the example they put out in the world sort of give me something to look towards.
Emy diGrappa (17:56):
Wow, it's been great getting to know you.
W. Kamau Bell (17:58):
Well thank you for having me.
Emy diGrappa (17:59):
Thank you, thank you for being here.
W. Kamau Bell (18:05):
Emy diGrappa (18:05):
Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your WY, a product of ThinkWY, Wyoming Humanities. This has been executive producer Emy diGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information, go to ThinkWY.org.