W. Kamau Bell on Growing Up in Boston, Donald Trump’s Rise, and Tom Brady
The contentious nature of the 2016 presidential election doesn’t surprise W. Kamau Bell. The veteran comic and host of CNN’s United Shades of America, who performs in Boston this weekend, had a feeling things we’re going to get crazy ever since Donald Trump first dropped his hat into the ring. Ahead, Bell talks about growing up in the city, the rise of Trump, and how white athletes like Tom Brady could make an impact on the national anthem protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick.
Have the Boston comedy crowds treated you well over the years?
The city’s always been good to me. I don’t think I’m playing like the spots that have been notoriously rough in Boston, like the Ding Ho and those Chinese restaurants that I heard about from the ’80s. I play places where the people coming in know me. I like getting back to Boston. I have fun every time I’m there. It’s a good comedy town to me. I lived there as a little kid, so it’s always fun to get back.
When did you live in Boston and what was that experience like?
I was like between the ages of 5 and 12, something like that. I lived in Mattapan. I went to the Park School as a little kid. I was known as the “other black kid.”
Having traveled across the country to talk to people like KKK members for your CNN show United Shades of America, are you that surprised by the rise of Donald Trump and the state of the 2016 election?
No. I’m not surprised by it at all. Me and my friend Adam Mansbach during the [primary] debate wrote an op-ed piece for Salon magazine talking about whites against Trump. White people, this is bad. Come get your boy. People said, “Well, it’s going to be Ted Cruz. Trump’s not even going to win. What are you going to do then?” We were like, “We’ll deal with that if it happens.” Turns out, we were right. I’ve seen this train coming for a long time and I felt a little bit like a the boy who cried wolf. Nobody believed me, but it turns out, there’s a wolf at the door. There’s an orange wolf at the door with tiny paws.
Do you think the national anthem protests started by Colin Kaepernick would have more of an impact if they were joined by more high-profile white athletes like a Tom Brady?
I think that would be awesome. It’s like Martin Luther King Jr. When Martin Luther King Jr. first came out, white people were actually afraid of him. Then Malcolm X showed up, and they were like, “Oh, wait a minute. Where’d that Marty guy go?” Suddenly now Martin Luther King Jr. is every guilty white person’s favorite topic of discussion during conversations about racism. He’s like the hug they can bring into the conversation. Certainly it would be much harder for black people and brown people and oppressed people to get racial justice without white people being involved. But I think we can’t act like we can’t do it without them. I certainly believe that, yes, if Tom Brady was to come out and say, “I’m also going to take a knee during the anthem,” that would be an international news story. Now, Tom Brady is also famous for having a Trump hat. I don’t know if it’s going to be him, but there are plenty of other white athletes who could be sympathetic to the cause.
From John Oliver to Larry Wilmore, the comedy landscape in 2016 is filled with comedians who mostly tackle political topics. As someone who also talks a lot about these subjects, do you feel comedy has a power to shine a light on important issues?
Those are the kind of comedians that resonated with me the most when I watch comedy. I was always a fan of comics who were sort of frustrated with the state of the world and had something to say about it. Whether it was Bill Hicks or George Carlin or Richard Pryor. I think Chris Rock’s special “Bring the Pain” was the one where I remember going, “Woah!” I’m a fan of the history of comedy.
W. Kamau Bell performs at the Wilbur on Saturday, October 15.
This interview has been edited and condensed.