From hanging out with White rockers in school to witnessing Ku Klux Klan members set a cross on fire (not to mention telling one about his White wife), W. Kamau Bell* has a knack for existing in spaces that don’t always welcome Black people.
But when Bell exits his comfort zone and talks to people on the fringes of American public identity—the Klan, prisoners at San Quentin, Native peoples in Alaska’s northernmost city of Barrow—he teaches the rest of us how much we can learn from one another.
“A lot of this show is about modeling awkward conversations,” he says of “United Shades of America,” his CNN docu-series that premieres this Sunday, April 24. “If we have more conversations with people on opposite sides of the aisle—or in aisles that we don’t usually go to—we create more empathy for each other.”
“United Shades” is Bell’s first TV show since his critically acclaimed late-night talk show “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” which aired first on FX and then FXX between 2012 and 2013. ”Totally Biased” was one of the few shows of its time to explicitly and humorously take on issues like stop-and-frisk and media racism. It also boosted the careers of writer/performers who share his race-focused perspective such as Hari Kondabolu and Kevin Avery (with whom Bell co-hosts the podcast “Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period”).
In his standup special “Semi-Prominent Negro,” which airs next Friday, April 29, on Showtime, he addresses topics ranging from the structural—gentrification—to the personal—his mixed-race family. We spoke to Bell over the phone while he was in his hometown of Chicago for a “United Shades” event. In this interview, edited and condensed for clarity and length, he talks frankly about meeting the Klan, raising Black and mixed-race children and his love of Black rock musicians.
You’re promoting “United Shades of America” and “Semi-Prominent Negro,” traveling for screenings and doing a lot of interviews like this one—you’re a very busy man. How do you feel right now?
My wife and I went through a version of this with “Totally Biased.” This is a very different experience, because for “Totally Biased,” we were living in a new city, we had a very young daughter and lived in a sublet apartment without our stuff. Working 16-hour days was a crazy experience. This is also crazy, but we live in the Bay Area where we belong, and we see our friends and family regularly. So when I travel or am not at home, my wife is also where she’s from, and my two daughters are around people they know. I’m very busy right now, but I’m also aware that we’re doing it the way we want it.
Speaking of your kids, you talk a bit in “Semi-Prominent Negro” about the struggles of raising children—specifically Black children—in an interracial household. Do you think anything about raising children of color has changed in the past couple of years?
I’m aware that my daughters were born in the era of the Black president, and that feels symbolically huge. That he is mixed-race and identifies as Black is a big deal to me. My daughter knows that she’s Black, but she also knows that she’s mixed-race. The conversation around being mixed-race is public in a way that it wasn’t when I was growing up. In my kids’ lifetime, that conversation will probably move to some new place that I’m unaware of right now. I’m just trying to make sure not only that she’s surrounded by Black people, but also by mixed-race people.
Do you think that doing “United Shades” helped you fill gaps in your perspective?
Absolutely. Everything’s a constant conversation, so I’d hate to go, “Now I know all about this.” We did a whole episode in East L.A. about the growing Latino demographic. Sometimes in America, we say, “Blacks and Latinos, they’re kind of friends,” and we make the assumption—even though there are Black Latinos—that says, “[We’re] all minorities.” In reality, our stories’ cores are different. As we explore in that episode, a lot of the Latino struggle is about whether or not you are a citizen, or how you’re treated when you’re not a citizen. As a Black American, my battle isn’t for citizenship—it’s to be treated like a citizen. So they’re battles with a lot of alignment, but there are different ways to talk about them. I don’t want to lump all Latinos together, but for the ones I spoke to in East L.A., there’s awareness that the demographic is growing and a sea change is coming. So there’s a lot of hope and positivity, even in the struggle. I don’t know that Black Americans have that same positivity and hope; we still think it’s a pretty dire situation. Now we use that dire situation to create all the music Americans enjoy. [Laughs.]
So a lot of attention around this show focuses on the series premiere—where you go to the South and speak with Ku Klux Klan members and other White supremacists. Did you ever fear for your life while doing this?
There’s a scene where I’m getting out of a car when I’m going to the cross lighting—and I don’t want to say “cross burning” because that’s politically incorrect, as I’ve learned. And when I was getting out of the car to meet the men and women, there’s moment where I’m like, “Oh shit, oh shit!” [Laughs] That was a real moment with me, as a Black man, going, “What did I get myself into?” Whatever you think you’re going to do as a comedian in that moment, the comedian part of me got very small, and the Black American got very large. Over the course of time, the comedian part grew, because comedy, if anything, is a defense mechanism against the outside world. I learned that lesson very clearly that day, because I realized that if they were laughing, they were less likely to kill me.
Did you get a sense that they were laughing at or with you?
They were laughing with me. I think they tried to make some fun of me a couple times, but for people to really make fun of you, you have to respect their opinion of you.
Good point. Did you leave filming for this series—especially as someone raising Black and mixed-race children in this election cycle—with hope for where America’s headed?
There’s two ways that I think about this. One, I think that in general, over a constantly moving timeline, we move to a more liberal and progressive perspective. That’s the macro. On the micro, there’s a lot of lost battles along the way that affect lots of people. For me, coming out of this show, my big thing is, “Man, we’ve got a lot of work to do.” [Laughs.] I’d hate to say, “I feel hopeful; this country’s going on a good path!” Who’s probably going to become the Republican and Democratic nominees? Is anybody that excited about all of this? [Laughs].
People in the struggle, the movement, know that you can’t ever think any war is won because you won a battle. A lot of this show is about modeling awkward conversations. If we have more conversations with people on opposite sides of the aisle—or in aisles that we don’t usually go to—we create more sympathy and empathy for each other.
The series focuses on groups not necessarily considered within the mainstream. Was it your intention to highlight more extreme or visceral aspects of race in America?
There’s definitely that; the second episode’s at San Quentin prison. We did an episode in Camden, New Jersey, about police officers. But we also did an episode in Portland, Oregon, about gentrification. So that’s not an extreme culture, but it’s something that’s happening all over the country. To me, in these eight episodes, we tried to cover as many interesting topics as we could and not as many extreme topics. Eventually you’ll run out of extreme topics, but I don’t think you can ever run out of interesting topics.
You worked with Chris Rock when he co-executive produced “Totally Biased.” We’re curious about what you thought of his Oscars monologue.
It’s hard for me to take myself out of it because I worked with him for over a year-and-a-half. But I think Chris doesn’t want to ever be seen as carrying water for anybody. I think he went out of his way to say, “I’m going to attack what I perceive as being all of it.” People wanted him to represent the cause of #OscarsSoWhite, and I know Chris thinks it’s way less funny if people know where you’re coming from—he really relishes the idea of surprise in comedy. So when he does jokes about Jada, I think he feels like, “I can’t do just one thing.” Would I have done it differently? Yes. Would I ever be asked to host the Oscars? No. [Laughs.]
You never know.
Eh, I know. [Laughs.] But I think [there] was a big moment. He did the jokes about Asian kids, and Sacha Baron Cohen made similar jokes, and what happened? Social media went “Nooo!” A lot of Asian-American actors spoke out against it, and the Oscars had to apologize for those two jokes. I remember when you’d watch the Oscars on Sunday and forget about the whole thing by Monday. What used to take years now takes days. I think that’s really important. It’s an interesting moment for comedy, to have people talking about his monologue as it happened. I’m friends with Chris on Facebook—not bragging, just saying—and I saw people praising him on his page. But on my feed, people were picking it apart. Everybody thinks they’re right, and that’s what seems interesting to me in this moment. I’d love to get two of these people in a room and have them talk it out. The Colorlines piece about his monologue, I thought it was great and super well-written.** I’d love to get [that writer, or another critic] and one of Chris Rock’s friends in the industry to sit down, and I would moderate that discussion. That’s where I exist.
Switching gears, you’ve worked with several Black rock musicians—Living Colour’s Vernon Reid composed the “Totally Biased” theme song, while Unlocking the Truth appear in the opening sequence for “Semi-Prominent Negro.” What draws you to rock music?
I went to a small private school in Chicago—I’m going back in June to give the commencement address, thank you CNN—and I was friends with a couple of White rockers. One was a Deadhead. Another was a Deadhead but also a jazz guy. And there was a lot of Frank Zappa talk. I got thrown into the deep end of the musical bucket. I remember the day that I somehow revealed that I didn’t know Jimi Hendrix was Black. [Laughs.] So it’s the late ’80s and hip-hop is coming into its full self at that point, but I wasn’t hanging out with hip-hop guys. My friend Rob and I went to Rose Records, an old-school Chicago record shop that eventually became a Tower Records and then a Starbucks. Rob buys a cassette and goes back to his car, hits play, and all of a sudden this noise comes out. I could feel my brain rearranging. It was Living Colour’s “Times Up,” and that’s the first time I listened to music and thought, “This is talking to me. These guys broke into my house, stole my dreams and turned it into music.” From that point on, I just scrounged record stores for records by guys who looked like Living Colour. That’s how I learned about Fishbone, 24-7 Spyz, Rage Against the Machine, all of these bands. I felt like an outsider for liking rock music, but thanks to the Internet and social media, there’s Afropunk and all these other things where we’re coagulating. There’s something very political about a Black person playing guitar—we invented it, and we ain’t going nowhere.
“United Shades of America” premieres on CNN Sunday, April 24. “Semi-Prominent Negro” premieres on Showtime Friday, April 29.
*W. Kamau Bell is a former board member of Race Forward, the organization that publishes Colorlines.
**Colorlines editorial director Akiba Solomon did not pay Bell to say this. Honest.