Photo | John Nowak/CNN
The comedian talks activism, podcasts, and self-care
W. Kamau Bell is an American “socio-political comedian and dad.” His work involves race relations in America, what being Black in America means, and a myriad of other intersections. His show on CNN, The United Shades of America, recently won an Emmy. Bell also has three podcasts: Kamau Right Now, Denzel Washington Is The Best Actor Of All Time Period, and Politically Re-Active. Despite being an extremely busy man, Bell also just released a book—The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau.
The Strand had the chance to talk to Bell before his performance at this year’s JFL42.
The Strand: How does it feel to be a reporter, though comedic, of colour in America, especially in light of current events?
W. Kamau Bell: That’s funny because I don’t think of myself as a reporter. Because I’m on CNN, people will often refer to me as a reporter or journalist. I am still a comedian, it’s what I put on my tax forms. An actual journalist once said to me: “I think what you do is ‘investigative comedy’” and I was like “THAT’S IT!” I’m using comedy to investigate and learn things.
Do you think of your work as a form of activism?
I’m aware that the work that I do is not the real work of activism—there are actual activists out there doing the boots-to-the-ground work. I think that the work I do can be valuable because it can highlight issues. The episode of United Shades of America that won the Emmy was about Chicago. We did a long extended section about Black Lives Matter and talked with the various activists involved there. Talking to them on CNN and talking about Black Lives Matter on a network where a lot of other commentators and pundits get it wrong, it was important to me that we do it right. I don’t think of it as being the work of changing the world, but I do think I help highlight how others are changing the world. I also teach people watching at home who then go, “Oh, I didn’t know Black Lives Matter was that.”
As a person of colour living in North America, I often feel as though white people are always asking me for my opinions. And in my experience, it can become very overwhelming. How have you balanced the importance of commentary with the need for self-care?
This is my job and I understand that I’m always in the position to be helping people through things they don’t understand. What I’ve started doing is pointing people to the right resources. Like I’m not gonna explain this to you—I’m gonna send you to this person, or link you to that article, or this Twitter thread. That’s how I’m gonna help you understand. There’s a great Twitter and Facebook account called White Nonsense Roundup (@nowhitenonsense). Basically, when people are really coming after you online, sending you accusations and questions, you can tag them and the white people who run White Nonsense Roundup come in and they handle it. That’s huge part of self-care, letting someone else handle it and feeling like it’s okay to redirect them.
On your show, United Shades of America, you travel to various communities in the US and talk to people in their environment and let them be comfortable. Why do you think it’s important that you portray the other side like you do?
It’s clear [to the audience] what my opinion is when I sit down with the Klan or Richard Spencer. The part that people think is silly is that I let them talk at all. You may be at home going, “I know exactly who Richard Spencer is because I’ve read all the articles and the blogs,” but most people don’t know what those viewpoints are and don’t realize how dangerous they are. Those viewpoints are important because they are a part of this country—and frankly, they always have been—and right now they’re active in the White House. People get frustrated when I don’t yell at these people. But no, I want these people to talk; I want them to get comfortable and say what they’re gonna say.
How do you feel about podcasts as a form of informing the public?
Right now, in the 21st century, there are so many ways to put out your art and your message into the world. For me, I’m pursuing the path I’m interested in. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and that’s why I have three podcasts [laughs]. I don’t think it’s important how you do it, it’s important that you do it in the way that feels best for you. When I meet people in arts and media and they complain about another podcast, I kinda think they’re wasting their time. If you want people to hear what you have to say, the podcast has been invented for you to do that for very little overhead. I think there’s no such thing as “too many podcasts”; the more podcasts the merrier. If your podcast is good and you’re active enough, you’ll find an audience.
You also just released a book: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. Is there any reason why you chose to tell this story— which is a more personal story— in this form?
I grew up in a house that was filled with books. To me, books are like artifacts. With everything that’s gone down in my life in the last five years, I really thought that it was time for me to catalogue all of that. I had to ask myself, “How did I get here?” It just so happened to be at the same point where we, as a country, are asking ourselves “How did we get here?” It was written very quickly and very frantically, and it feels kinda hectic. And I kinda had to tell myself, “Well, the country feels hectic, so hopefully this is okay.”
How can university students—and student publications like The Strand—make any bit of a difference?
I think the great thing about university is that you get to experiment and try different styles of writing. The thing I would do is really take the opportunity to push yourself as a creator and a writer. Like, as a journalist, think: “What’s in the world that’s not in the world and how can I make that happen here?” And how quickly can you turn it over? Cause the faster you write, the more you write, the better you’re going to become as a writer.
For me, I always look for the story that’s not being covered or the people that aren’t being covered or the angle that’s not being covered. That’s what I’m trying to do with United Shades. Like, “I don’t know much about Puerto Rico, I don’t hear people in my life talk about Puerto Rico… maybe we should go to Puerto Rico.” And Puerto Rico isn’t necessarily in the top ten stories that people talk about, but for Puerto Ricans, it’s always number one. Sometimes, it’s about the obvious thing. Like, we should talk to Muslims because this country is always talking about misunderstanding Muslims. So, I think those are the two things—either covering something that is covered a lot but is misunderstood, or covering something that isn’t covered at all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.