by Brady Rhoades
W. Kamau Bell, most renowned as the Emmy-winning socio-political commentator on CNN’s United Shades of America, has been characterized in many ways.
TV host. Director. Radio personality. Author. Stand-up comedian. Provocateur. Game-changer.
You might be surprised by how he sees his professional life.
“I think of my work as Sesame Street,” said the 45-year-old, also known for his critically acclaimed podcasts, an FX series called Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and his 2017 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.
“I’m a 21st century Mister Rogers,” he said.
Bell, as thoughtful as he is quick-witted, is interested in facilitating conversations, sans all the hollering and trolling going on in America, circa 2018.
Especially awkward conversations.
Humor is key. It disarms, de-escalates, he says.
“Laughter is power,” he said. “When somebody laughs, they’re giving up control.”
Shades is an adventure and a social experiment. Bell has featured, among others, the Gullah people of the South Carolina sea island, practitioners of the Sikh religion, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“It’s about the people who need to speak and haven’t been heard before,” Bell said.
It’s also about shining a light on groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which Bell did in perhaps the most famous Shades episode. He said he feared for his life when he joined the Klansmen for a cross burning in a field in the backwoods of Arkansas, but again, humor helped him.
“If I can go there and them to laugh, they’re not thinking about killing me,” he said.
There was a bigger picture: Those inclined toward hate took offense at their perception that Bell was mocking the KKK. Other viewers found themselves uncomfortable at the sight of the hooded men, but something strange happened: Many laughed, maybe to keep from crying and maybe because racism—costumed in goofy hats and creepy masks—is absurd.
In Bell’s Private School Negro, a comedy special that first aired on Netflix in June this year, Bell riffs about important and not-so-important things: parenting in the Trump era, woke children’s TV, his fear of going off the grid.
Always, it seems, he is winking at himself and chuckling at the absurdities in life.
Almost as telling is what he doesn’t do: lecture, preach, or scream, even when tackling the touchiest of topics.
Bell was raised in Alabama, Boston, and Chicago by his mother, an author and businesswoman, and father, who started as a bank teller and worked his way up to CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
His father’s motto was, “Nobody’s going to outwork me and I’m not going to take no for an answer.”
Bell graduated from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, then started his career in standup. His talent was undeniable, and so was his work ethic.
He has starred in the hit podcasts: “Kamau Right Now!”; “Politically Re-Active”; and “Denzel Washington is The Greatest Actor of All Time Period.” He continues to host his San-Francisco-based radio show (“Kamau Right Now!”), and in summer 2018, he directed the A & E comedy special: “Culture Shock: Bring Back the Pain with Chris Rock.”
He won an Emmy for Shades, winning another in September for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program. He’s been nominated for NAACP awards, a GLAD award, a TCA award, and more.
An activist for most of his adult life, Bell is on the advisory board of Hollaback!, the National Advisory Council for Donors Choose, and is the ACLU Celebrity Ambassador for Racial Justice.
Bell doesn’t provoke awkward conversations for the fun of it, although he does seem to be having a good time. He’s after deeper, better thinking that tackles the complexity of human beings and doesn’t default to oversimplifications and stereotypes.
Why was everyone shocked by Kanye West’s support of the president—and ludicrous take on slavery—earlier this year?
“Every black person knows that guy,” Bell said. “We’re not a monolith. I know black Democrats, Republicans, socialists, anarchists, and those who don’t and won’t vote.”
Why are folks stunned by the current president and his support system?
Bell’s not, and neither are most African Americans, he said.
“When the right feels threatened, it just declares it is going to invent a time machine to take the country back so that America can be ‘great’ again,” Bell chuckled.
Behind Bell’s easy smile and blerd—black nerd—appearance is a man in the business of improving communities by improving communications in one of the most divisive times in America’s history.
Where there are impediments to social and economic equality and empowerment, especially for African Americans, Bell is there, not as a hammer but as an ambassador.
No name-calling, no trolling.
“If I yell, then you yell, that’s not a conversation,” he says.
It takes a ton of restraint and humor to not yell, because there is plenty to yell about, but it’s not Bell’s style. He’s not just a comedian; he’s a pragmatist. He’s also highly skilled at indirect attacks on social ills.
During the KKK episode of Shades, we see Bell talking with the imperial wizard of the international keystone knights of the KKK on a moonless night on a dirt road in the Deep South, and he’s having some fun with the ultra-serious, uber-uptight wizard: How about the KKK redesign its head-wear to include a mouth-hole? That way people could understand what the heck they’re saying. Muffled speech is as ruinous to communication as screaming at each other.
The wizard gives in.
“That might be a possibility,” he says.
“One step at a time,” Bell says, with a shrug and a smile.