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W. Kamau Bell: Socio-political comedian, father of bi-racial girls, and 'Semi-Prominent Negro'




W. Kamau Bell, socio-political comedian and host/creator of the CNN series,
W. Kamau Bell, socio-political comedian and host/creator of the CNN series, "The United Shades of America."
Matthias Clamer

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As a nation, we are in the middle of a profound conversation about race and justice.  And one of the most influential voices in that dialogue is the comedian W. Kamau Bell. On Sept. 30, Bell’s new comedy album, “Semi-prominent Negro,” will be released. It’s based on his Showtime stand-up special of the same name from earlier this year.

Also this week, CNN announced the renewal of Bell’s documentary series, “United Shades of America,” for a second season. And Bell has recently launched a new podcast with fellow comedian Hari Kondabalu, called Politically Re-Active.

We reached Bell by Skype earlier this week, following the first Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, during which the comedian was actively tweeting. So we started by talking about what the comedian’s role is during a time like this.

Hear the full interview with Kamau Bell by clicking the play button at the top of this post. Continue reading for interview highlights.

Interview Highlights:

On the role of a comedian in society:

I think comedy is effective as a way to break things down and shine light on them and just [ask], Are we all seeing this together at the same time? A lot of times we all are watching something and we can't put it into words. And I think a lot of times the role of the comedian is to put it to words and people go, Oh, that's what it was. That's what I was watching. In some sense it it like the color commentator of sports. It's a way to [say], We're all watching this, but let me give you an insider perspective on what's going on here. Comedy, when it's great, can be the insider perspective.

On the "Politically Re-Active" podcast:

We're comedians. But we're comedians who care about the world, so a lot of times we will have very frustrating conversations about what's going on. But then, because we're comedians, we find jokes as a way to pull ourselves out of that frustration. The podcast really starts as conversations [that] me and Hari have on the phone about what's going on in the world. Out of that, we've created this podcast. And then we always bring on a guest to help us illuminate areas that either we think we know a lot about, but don't, or issues we know we don't know a lot about. 

On being a father of two black girls:

It's super important to me. I think there's two things: One, little girls are often told to be quieter and not be loud and to get control of their bodies. My wife is on this too, maybe even more so me. I never tell [my daughters] to be quiet unless there's a reason to be quiet. I'm not just trying to control your voice and your body. I also think that's because they're black [and] that black people are also told to control their bodies, and state power is used to make us be more docile. So for me, I'm very encouraging of them to be as loud and aggressive. We have a rule in my house that my oldest daughter can't punch anybody but me because I don't want her to hit people. But I also want her to know how to throw a punch. 

On achieving "Semi-prominent negro" status:

It comes about because suddenly you get calls like, What do you think about this big black issues that's going on? It was always very clear to me that, if they were calling me, that meant that a lot of other black people weren't answering their phones. Whether it's Cornel West, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Melissa Harris-Perry or Al Sharpton, they were going all the way down the list. So that's when I decided I think I have what is called semi-prominent negro status. It's the thing where when the prominent negroes don't answer, they get all the way down to me... I was doing an interview to promote my tour that ended up being the [Showtime] special and the interviewer said: Before we get started — and I could tell he was a white guy — Before we get started, when is it acceptable for a white person to use the "N" word? (Laughs) At the time I was like, When did I get put in charge of that? That ended up being the bit that defines the title of the album.

On having an influential platform now:

I think it's important. I can't pretend like I didn't pursue this opinionated agenda style of comedy. So I certainly understand where it comes from. The important thing for me is to remember, just because people ask you the question doesn't mean you always have to have an answer. It means I can refer to other people who I think have the answer. A lot of times, when people talk to me about some issues, I [say], That's great. I think you should connect with Black Lives Matter and Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, who founded Black Lives Matter. We did an episode of "Politically Re-Active" with Dream Hampton where she talks about the post-apocalyptic skills that we all need to have to work in the world.

That's this thing where I feel like I don't have to have the answer, but I do understand that I can be the conduit to the answer. So I think not getting caught up in the title and not getting caught up in believing that, Oh, you think I'm important? I must be important.

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