One of the the main themes in W. Kamau Bell‘s upcoming book, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian is the topic of coming up as a Black Nerd, aka “Blerd.”
Bell, an executive producer of two televisions shows, host of a popular podcast that celebrates Denzel Washington, and community radio show activist, spoke with SF Weekly about contemporary young, Black artists being accepted by doing different, his CNN “day job,” and how his local radio show on KALW keeps him connected to the Bay Area. (This Saturday, May 6, from 2 to 4 p.m., Bell will be in conversation with Adam Mansbach at Starline Social Club. Tickets are $40 and can be found here.)
You have described the Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period podcast as a “charming workshop” for working Black actors and actresses to discuss the culture and the craft of acting and the business behind the show. Does that make you keep close tabs on the awards shows?
It’s hard for me to get adjusted to the fact that I’m supposed to watch all the award shows. Years ago nobody expected me to watch the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. I’m happy for Viola Davis, obviously. I’m happy for Moonlight. Of course, I think Denzel should win every acting award, but I’m biased about that.
Do you ever think he will eventually do the podcast?
The podcast has been around long enough where we have seen other people ask him about it. And he’s never given any indication that he was even excited to hear that it existed. In fact, I keep waiting for one of his people to reach out to us and say, “Shut it down.” Believe me, if he wants to shut it down I’m fine with it.
What did you think of the acclaim for Donald Glover’s Atlanta?
I’m happy whenever creator-driven projects get love. I think it’s better for everybody — especially people in Hollywood who are trying to make their own thing. I’m happy for Issa Rae with Insecure. Maybe she didn’t win any awards, but in one year, she went from having a niche thing to having a hit on HBO. That’s mainstream. And Donald Glover has aggressively gone his own way. He could have been a guy who just does sitcoms and movies. But he went his own way. I was watching him perform on The Tonight show as Childish Gambino with no shirt on. I was just like, “Damn!”
The great thing about Issa and Glover — and I’m older than both of them — these people didn’t grow up feeling like they couldn’t be themselves. They could be Black the way that they wanted. This is the generation that grew up behind me that just said, “Do your own damn thing.” I’m just happy to see Donald Glover get the role as Lando Calrissian because he was Childish Gambino first. He didn’t play the regular Hollywood game.
It’s interesting and gratifying to see the same guy do that record and Atlanta, and both projects are legitimate in their own right. When I was watching his performance on Fallon, if I didn’t know who Donald Glover was, I would think there is this other guy named Childish Gambino doing this whole other thing.
So your CNN show, United Shades of America, is doing a second season. What was the feedback on the first season?
The feedback has been better than I ever imagined. I mean, thanks to the 21st Century, you can get all aspects of feedback immediately! Whenever you are shooting the first season of a show, you always hope you can get the the second season. And then we started to pick up all these crazy awards. Crazy to me, because I did not expect to get all these award nominations. Emmy nominations and a couple of Image Awards.
These are all of these mainstream things that I never imagined myself being in. Even after I had Totally Biased, which was cancelled. I never imagined myself being in these places. It truly is an honor to be nominated for an Emmy. I totally did not expect to win. For me to even be asked to be at the Emmys with my wife just gave me some type of assurance that the past two years of my life, especially after Totally Biased, that I’ve made some good decisions and surrounded myself with some good people.
So between performing stand-up and doing your CNN show, which maintains a national platform, you still do your monthly live radio show, Kamau Right Now, on KALW in San Francisco. I heard the episode where you had on Alicia Garza from Black Lives Matter. And when her name was announced, the crowd just erupted. Like she was the reason everybody was there. No disrespect to you.
They should be! I feel like I’m still learning that show. We have only done it, in a calendar year, 10 or 11 times. I feel like every time we do it, I’m fairly new. But I’m happy to see that it has become this thing on it’s own. When we took it to Nourse Theater there were over 1,300 people in attendance — which, to me, is huge since I really didn’t promote it. I just put it up in certain places. … The show keeps me connected to the Bay Area, which was real important to me when I came back from [living in] New York. It also gives me the opportunity to meet people in the Bay Area that I might not meet regularly.
So when I’m sitting across from Alicia Garza, and I hear her talk, it’s like, she’s right there. Forget that it’s a podcast or radio show. That in it of itself is where I want to be. So yeah, I get to hear Alicia Garza talk, and also other people at the show or listening to the podcast get to hear her as well. I think for me the great thing about being on radio is that somewhere on radio or online somebody is just listening to KALW. The show is on once a month, so the daily listener listens every night. So all of a sudden this thing happens, and either they agree with the people on the show or not, to me there is a lot of power in hearing what is actually said.
Alicia Garza has become a divisive figure amongst people who are racist or struggle with their own racism. So when that person hears this huge ovation from 1,300 people for her, it’s like, yeah. That’s what’s up. That’s whats happening. If I had less to do, I would do that once a week and make it my main thing. I’m just happy that Matt Marks over at KALW chose to collaborate with me.
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian comes out today, May 2.
On Saturday, May 6, from 2 – 4 p.m., Bell will be in conversation with Adam Mansbach at Starline Social Club, 645 W. Grand Ave., Oakland, $40. Tickets here.