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W. Kamau Bell Is A 'Wall-Tearer-Downer' In 'United Shades Of America'

May 2, 2021
Originally published on May 2, 2021 10:33 pm

Since 2016, comedian W. Kamau Bell has been traveling the country for his TV show United Shades of America. He asks serious questions, but always with a bit of humor thrown in.

"United Shades of America is just Sesame Street for grown-ups," he says.

The goal of the show is to explore the unique challenges of communities around the United States. The sixth season premieres Sunday on CNN.

Bell takes time to explain issues about race, class and privilege. "I'm going to talk to you about this and assume you don't know," he says. "And if you do know, I'm going to write it in a way that is at least entertaining for you."

He relates to the idea of being a "forever student," he says – always ready to Wikipedia anything he doesn't understand.

As for whether he seems himself building bridges, Bell says he's not sure. "I don't know if I'm a bridge builder or a wall-tearer-downer," he says. "Is that a thing?"

2020 was a crushing year in the United States, but Bell worked through it.

"This is the time when those of us who have a sense of humor really lean into it," he says. "Because how do you get through the world without sort of looking at trying to figure out how to laugh at it? I don't really try to — it's just how my brain works."


Interview Highlights

On whether he struggles to engage with tough issues, day after day

I'm in a very privileged position of being able to think about a lot of this stuff and make content about a lot of it, but not actually being on the front lines of it. So, yeah, I sort of go back and forth between feeling like super lucky and also like, didn't I just want to be a comedian?

On how he thinks of his own role in this time

I see my role as my mother's son and this is how I was raised. And I think there's just a thing that happens — specifically in the Black community, but also other impacted communities — where even if I owned, like, an ice cream shop in town, and was successful as a Black person who owned a business, it'd be my job to sort of also try to create more opportunities and represent the Black community and speak out against injustice just as a Black person who owned ice cream shop.

But because specifically the work I do is actually talking about all these things, then it sort of becomes even more clear that when I talk about them, I have to be clear about what I'm doing, I have to be clear about who I'm putting on the air, how we're framing these things. And be clear with people that I'm invested in this, because I'm not a journalist, which is why I still hold on to "comedian" — I get to have opinions.

On his patience walking people through things

I'm not going to act like I'm immune to [being annoyed when people aren't informed]. But I think for this, in my mind, there's a way to do this where I'm happy to explain this to you — while also feel like [for] the people who already know it, I can sort of go, "Look, now you don't have to explain it to them." Like, I see myself as the go-between. I understand that thing about, like, "I don't want to explain this to you." And so I go, "Well, look, I'll make a piece of content you can send to that person so you don't have to explain it to them. And you can also just get it off your plate."

On his adopted hometown of Oakland

I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue comedy and I didn't have any idea that it would affect my entire life the way it has. ... [I] lived in Oakland, worked in Berkeley, and did comedy in San Francisco. So I got to see a lot of different parts of the Bay Area from the very beginning. And I got to be in a lot of different kinds of conversations because I was in three very different areas. ... I moved when I was 24, but kind of I did grow up in the Bay Area because those conversations grew me up.

On moving around as a kid

My Mom lived mostly back East and up North — Chicago, Indianapolis, Boston. My dad lives in Alabama. So I spent a lot of time in Alabama and I just spent a lot of time moving around as a kid. And then as a comedian, I spent a lot of time traveling around. And I think that has always informed who I am because I'm realizing there are a lot of differences, there's a lot of similarities. But I can also see when I watch Fox News, I know exactly where that's coming from because I've been there. It doesn't seem as foreign to me as it seems to a lot of the people who I know in the Bay Area.

On whether he thinks America's divides are bridgeable

We live in a time when I feel like we have maybe all collectively forgotten that [the attack on the Capitol on] January 6th happened, you know what I mean? ... That was one of the scariest days that I've ever experienced in this country. My kids watched it because it was on TV and we didn't know what was going to happen. ... I think we live in very dangerous times because we are capable of forgetting things like January 6 and capable of sort of like moving on.

We have people in the Congress who encouraged violence on this country and they still are in Congress. ... So for me, I feel like we're at a very dangerous time in this country ... physically dangerous, but also dangerous as like, what happens next?

Will Jarvis and William Troop produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, since 2016, comedian and Emmy Award-winner W. Kamau Bell has been traveling the country asking some serious questions for his TV show "United Shades Of America," but always with a bit of humor thrown in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNITED SHADES OF AMERICA")

W KAMAU BELL: (As self) How can us Black folks play a big role in creating the most futuristic future when technology is working overtime to hold us back in the present? How can we write the codes and the algorithms? Who owns these tech companies? White do they look - I mean, what do they look like?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's a sneak preview of Season 6 of "United Shades Of America," which premieres tonight on CNN. We always like to check in with W. Kamau Bell, and he's with us once again from Oakland, Calif. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us again.

BELL: Yeah. Thank you for having me. Specifically, thank you. I mean, I'm happy to be here, but I like talking to you.

MARTIN: Oh, thank you. So congratulations on the new season. I take it this past year hasn't dampened your sense of humor.

BELL: I mean, this is the time when those of us who have a sense of humor really lean into it because how do you get through the world without sort of looking at - trying to figure out how to laugh at it? And I don't really try to. It's just how my brain works.

MARTIN: Well, you know, when we spoke last June, we spoke as protests for Black Lives Matter were really exploding, like, all over the world. And since then, not only have you been working on a new season of the "United Shades Of America," you also finished another season of your podcast, "Politically Reactive." You had a YouTube series, Talk Boring To Me. I just hear from people who aren't in the news who don't have to engage with these issues, that sometimes they just feel like it's just too much. And I just wonder, did you ever feel like it's just too much?

BELL: Oh, I mean, yes. I think there's sort of this thing - I wish I could just grab my wife and put her on. She would (laughter) be able to make this clear that, like, you know, I spend a lot of time of my day just being like, how do I do this, and how do I process this, while at the same time recognizing that I'm in a very privileged position of being able to think about a lot of this stuff and make content about a lot of it but not actually being on the front lines of it. So yeah, it's - I sort of go back and forth between feeling, like, super lucky and also like, didn't I just want to be a comedian?

MARTIN: Well, remind us again, though, if you would - we've talked about this before, but for folks who haven't heard those conversations, how do you see your role in this moment? I mean, you are a comedian, but you are also a thinker. You are also a person who thinks a lot about social justice. You think a lot about how society works. Does that make sense?

BELL: Yes.

MARTIN: So I don't make it too sort of fancy-shmancy, but you are sort of a philosopher of the way society works, but you are a comedian. So how do you see your role in a moment like this?

BELL: I mean, you know, I just thought about this earlier. I see my role as my mother's son, and this is how I was raised. And I think there's just a thing that happens, specifically in the Black community, but also other impacted communities where even if I was - owned, like, an ice cream shop in town that was successful, as a Black person who owned a business, it'd be my job to sort of also try to create more opportunities and represent the Black community and speak out against injustice, just as a Black person who owned an ice cream shop.

But because specifically the work I do is actually talking about all these things, then it sort of becomes even more clear that when I talk about them, I have to be clear about what I'm doing. I have to be clear about who I'm putting on the air, how we're framing these things, and be clear with people that I'm invested in this because I'm not a journalist, which is why I still hold onto comedian. I get to have opinions.

MARTIN: Well, I do want to play a clip from the first episode, which I think kind of gives a sense of your style. And in it, you're talking about one of the big debates to come out of the protests last summer - defunding the police. And I want to listen to a bit where you talk about what that means with James Burch. He's an attorney and activist in Oakland. Let's play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNITED SHADES OF AMERICA")

JAMES BURCH: (As self) Defund the police means we're taking money away from this current system where it's failing and investing in other systems that we think will succeed. It strips all that away and says, just look at the numbers.

BELL: (As self) I just think it's sort of beautiful. My dad would be happy to hear this - he's a numbers guy - that the accountants will save us.

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: (As self) Maybe the antiracist accountants will save us.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know why I love that clip, is that you explain the issue. And that is often a part of your work, is explaining the issue, kind of walking people through the issue. One of the reasons I mentioned that is that it's not a secret that a lot of our public discourse is polarized right now, very polarized. It's either - like, you're either with us or against us, no matter what side you're on. And one of the things about your work that I noticed is that you still take the time to walk people through things. And I just wondered - you've held on to that, and why is that important to you?

BELL: I mean, it's funny. I was just on a program this week talking about 50 years of "Sesame Street." And in the program, I said that I feel like this show, "United Shades Of America," is just "Sesame Street" for grown-ups. Like, so I very much relate to that idea of like, I'm going to talk to you about this and assume you don't know. And if you do know, I'm going to write it in a way that is at least entertaining for you because I get that I'm sort of - like, that's my role. And that's - I relate to that. I'm a person who will Wikipedia everything just to be like, I don't understand this. So I relate to the idea of being a forever student.

MARTIN: In this first episode in this new season of "United Shades" - as we said, it's about the state of policing in America - much of it takes place in Oakland, your adopted hometown. And in the course of it, you mentioned some of the history of Oakland. The Black Panther Party started there, for example. Is there any way in which you think living in the city has shaped your perspective both as a comedian but also as a person who has chosen to engage in a lot of these hot-button issues?

BELL: Yeah. I mean, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue comedy, and I didn't have any idea that it would affect my entire life the way it has. So I moved to the Bay Area and lived in Oakland, worked in Berkeley and did comedy in San Francisco. So I got to see a lot of different parts of the Bay Area from the very beginning. And I got to be in a lot of different kinds of conversations because I was in three very different areas. And it was in those conversations and meeting those people - like, people say, did you grow up in the Bay Area? I was like, well, I moved here when I was 24, but kind of I did grow up in the Bay Area because those conversations grew me up. So yeah, this is - in some sense, this is a love letter to that part of the Bay in Oakland that has really grown me up.

MARTIN: But you also grew up grew up in Alabama.

BELL: Yes.

MARTIN: And that has to be part of your consciousness as well. Going back to what you said at the beginning, you are your mother's son. How does that part of you, you think, influence the way you talk about these issues?

BELL: Well, my dad's the one who lives in Alabama, so I'm also my dad's son, it turns out (laughter). The thing that has led me here, I think, is because I did grow up - you know, my mom lived mostly back east and up north - Chicago, Indianapolis, Boston. My dad lives in Alabama, so I spent a lot of time in Alabama. And I just spent a lot of time moving around as a kid. And then as a comedian, I spent a lot of time traveling around. And I think that has always informed who I am because I'm realizing there are a lot of differences. There's a lot of similarities, but I can also see when I watch Fox News, I know exactly where that's coming from because I've been there.

MARTIN: So that's what I'm interested in, is I think that you see yourself as a bridge. You're sort of trying to help people understand each other, kind of see each other with fresh eyes and be maybe a little kinder. Your humor is this old saying from one of those legislative follies, it singes but doesn't burn.

BELL: (Laughter) Yes. Spoonful of sugar, I guess. I mean...

MARTIN: Yeah.

BELL: ...Yeah. I don't know if I'm a bridge builder or a wall tearer-downer (ph). Is that a thing? (Laughter) Like, I think that there's a way in which I'm sort of taking a piece of myself everywhere and using that piece to sort of go, hey, I know you think this thing about this place, but let me explain it to you. And that's in my life separate from the show.

MARTIN: But how do you think it's going, though? Because as I mentioned, that - you know, we seem to be in this very polarized moment where people don't agree on basic facts like who won the election, you know, and things of that sort. And obviously, some of that is stoked for political reasons by people with political agendas. But nevertheless, that is the reality, is that people aren't agreeing on basic facts. As a person who travels around and, like, makes it a point to talk to people outside of his own bubble, as we are so often encouraged to do but which we very rarely do, how do you think it's going? I mean, do you feel this is bridgeable?

BELL: I mean, I think it's even bigger than what you said about - like, that everybody's entitled to their own facts. I mean, we live in a time when I feel like we have maybe all collectively forgotten that January 6 happened. You know, we have people in the Congress who encouraged violence on this country, and they still are in Congress, like, you know, sleeping through Joe Biden. So I feel like we're at a very dangerous time in this country as a nation - physically dangerous, but also like dangerous as like, what happens next? And I think this episode about defund the police and policing in America is a part of that. If we don't fix this policing problem in this country, then I think the whole idea of America starts to become a wrap.

MARTIN: That was W. Kamau Bell, the Emmy Award-winning host of "United Shades Of America." Season 6 premieres tonight on CNN. Kamau, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

BELL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.