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The Global African: W. Kamau Bell & The Crisis in Detroit

August 28, 2015

Host Bill Fletcher gets Kamau's thoughts on comedy and Bill Cosby, and then turns to two activists to get an update on the economic crisis in Detroit. teleSUR

Host Bill Fletcher gets Kamau's thoughts on comedy and Bill Cosby, and then turns to two activists to get an update on the economic crisis in Detroit. teleSUR


Story Transcript

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk with the comedian W. Kamau Bell about his work and give an update on Detroit, Michigan. That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks again for joining us.


FLETCHER: It is often said that comedians are the most honest members of society. By exposing social problems through the venue of comedy, the best funnymen are able to get us to laugh while thinking deeply and hard.

W. Kamau Bell fancies himself as a sociopolitical comedian, examining issues like class, race, and gender as a way of getting at important truths in a humorous way. We spoke to Kamau to get his thoughts on comedy, Bill Cosby, and the role of the black comedian.


FLETCHER: Let’s just take it from the top. What is it that drew you into comedy in the first place?

W. KAMAU BELL: I mean, I think every kid has a thing that they’re real excited about. You know. And some kids want to be basketball players. Some kids want to be rappers. I wanted to be a comedian. That was just–like, I remember Saturday Night Live. And my mom always said I would do anything she asked me to do if she promised I could watch Saturday Night Live.


BELL: So that was just a thing that I was always–just that was my thing, that and superheroes. So once I realized I couldn’t actually be Spiderman, you know, like, that’s not actually a job opening, I shifted into comedy.

FLETCHER: Something I’ve always wondered about comedians is about ego. You know, I mean, it’s the thing about ego is that you have to be able to withstand criticism. I mean, you’re up there, and there’s not always applause.

BELL: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s–you just have to be able to process it. I don’t think–some people have–I think different–every comedian has a different way of handling it. Some comedians don’t hear criticism. They just sort of keep doing what they do. For me it’s about processing it and sort of, like, okay, taking it in and then putting it back out again. And so for me it’s, like, I can’t pretend, like, when I get criticism or if I bomb that it doesn’t affect me. I just have to sort of, like, shake it off. A friend of mine early on in comedy said, you know what, after I’d had a really bad show, like, one of those shows where you’re like–it’s the first time I headlined, but I didn’t have the time. I was supposed to do an hour. I think I did, like, 35 minutes. I walked off stage, walked out, like, walked off stage, walked to the parking lot, walked to the hotel, didn’t say goodbye to anybody, and I called my friend. He’s like, you know what you need to be–he said, you know what you need to be a quarterback in the NFL? I said what? He said, a short memory. And so that was always–you need to be able to sort of–like, quarterbacks in the NFL get burned all the time, but they have to be able to get–even the best ones, but you have to be able to sort of just, like, let it go. So I think I’ve–you know, I’ve gotten better about that. It’s still pretty hard.

FLETCHER: Right. I mean, it seems to me that in the face of that kind of pushback, there really has to be something deep inside you so that you can go forward.

BELL: Yeah, I think so. I think a lot of people–I think the reason why a lot more people aren’t comedians is because they’re happy doing other things.

FLETCHER: Yeah. So who inspired you? Who were your heroes or heroines in the field of comedy?

BELL: That’s become a complicated question in the last year. Bill Cosby, you know, you say bill Cosby now, it’s–you know. But when I was a kid, Bill Cosby himself and The Cosby Show, I felt like–.

FLETCHER: Absolutely.

BELL: And then Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live. Like, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy were very big for–I mean, they’re big for a lot of people. But I think as a young black kid growing up, like, they were both sort of living their lives and just sort of really–I think Eddie Murphy was, like, a rockstar. Like, I knew–I was like, I’m never going to be that. Like, there’s just something about Eddie Murphy that feels like–whereas Bill Cosby felt like a person. But I thought, I think I can be a person. You know? And also he was really smart. I really liked the fact he was really smart, but also silly. And I felt like that’s something I could really–not if–that he could play from the top of his intellect and the bottom of his intellect in the same routine. And I felt like that’s something I really enjoyed doing, sort of, like, being–sort of using the top of your intellect, but also being goofy. And I think that’s a real place I like to live.

FLETCHER: Two of my favorites, hands down, were Richard Pryor and Robin Williams.

BELL: Richard Pryor’s like Michael Jordan, that it’s only arguable if he’s not the best. Like, it’s not–if you say Richard Pryor’s the best standup comedian of all time, you can win the argument that way. Now, some people may go, well, I prefer–you know, like, Michael Jordan is the best basketball player. Well, I like Kareem. That’s fine, and there’s nothing wrong with Kareem. But the people’s champion is Richard Pryor, and the people’s champion is Michael Jordan.

So I think the reason I don’t relate to him in the same way I relate to Eddie Murphy is ’cause when I was a kid, Eddie Murphy almost seemed like he was my age. You know what I mean? And Richard Pryor–and Bill Cosby was talking about being a dad and having kids, and, like, I can relate to that. As a little kid, Richard Pryor’s a little bit–.


BELL: People when they see mixed-race children have a reaction to it that they don’t have when they see children of the same race or one race. How can I explain it? Remember the first time you saw an iPad and you freaked the fuck out? You were like, oh my God, look at that! That’s amazing! I want one of those! That’s so cool! It’s from the future! The future is now! I didn’t know I wanted one until I saw one! That’s how people react to mixed-race kids. When I walk down the street with my daughter [incompr.] like, oh my God! Look at that! That’s amazing! It’s from the future! I want to get one of those! Look at it! Look at it! Look at it! Look at it! Look at it!


FLETCHER: You know, I went to see the film Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip with my parents and my wife, and you remember how that film begins.

BELL: Yes. Yes.

FLETCHER: Right? So it’s like, I’m sitting there watching this film right next to my mother. And Pryor starts by talking about fucking, right? And it’s like, I’m sitting there saying, you know, how is she dealing with this? You know. But she did. But the thing that really struck me in that was when he goes to that whole discussion about discovering that there are no niggers. And for me that was actually a transformative moment. It was like it just sort of clicked all of a sudden as to what he was saying, as someone who had for years, you know, as a comedian, had been using the term nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, and he just stopped.

BELL: You know, I think it’s funny. I’ve talked about this a little bit. It seems like there’s something about being the funniest black man in America that that’s a hotspot. Like, it doesn’t–you don’t get to keep it that long. It’s something pushes you out. Like, it just seems like when you are a black guy with loud opinions, whether they’re political opinions or cultural opinions, it just seems like that–like, if I think about just Richard Pryor was the funniest black guy in America, and, you know, he has internal demons, but also I think something about being in that spot, because you suddenly–when you’re the funniest black person in America, you suddenly become a spokesperson–

FLETCHER: That’s right.

BELL: –for the race, in the way that Seinfeld’s not a spokesperson for any white person or any Jewish person or any Upper West Side person. He’s just Seinfeld. Now, Jewish people can have pride in him, but he’s not–they have other spokespeople, whereas with black people, we don’t get that many spokespeople a lot, so we have to sort of really find them. And so it’s, like, a thing. Like, when I think about Lebron James, like, Lebron James came into the NBA not really having what I would say–not having an outwardly political persona. I remember the day that Lebron James did the decision was the same day that Oscar Grant’s killer Johannes Mehserle was found not guilty or found guilty of, like, a very small charge. And I remember watching the decision on TV. And I had to TVs, ’cause this is how I rolled, in two different rooms. So I was standing between both rooms watching the decision and watching the Oscar Grant–the Johannes Mehserle decision, and I was like, these things need to–like, they need to–Lebron, you’re on TV talking about nothing. You’re talking about nothing. You’re going to the Miami Heat. But do this. And eventually cut to several years later, Trayvon Martin, Lebron encourages the teams to put the hoods up. He’s wearing the Black Lives Matter T-shirt. And I think some of that is that when you’re a famous black person in America [incompr.] you get invited to be a spokesperson or you get pressured to be a spokesperson. Now, not everybody takes that pressure. You know?


BELL: And so, suddenly he’s wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt at the Shootaround. He didn’t say too much, but he was wearing the shirt. And I think when you’re a comedian, I think that pressure plays on you in a different way, because when you’re a comedian, you just want to be funny, like, and you don’t always want to be correct.


BELL: We know gentrification’s bad, ’cause there’s white people upset about it. There’s white people [incompr.] right now like, I have lived in this neighborhood for two years! Two years, God damn it! I remember when that art gallery was a coffee shop. This is bullshit.


FLETCHER: So I’m thinking about your ideas about Cosby, and I’m thinking about demons and the demons that seem to, what, haunt a lot of comedians, and they surface at weird times and among people that you’re not expecting it, issues of depression, for example, among comedians. What is it? What is your take on the Cosby controversy?

BELL: I mean, as a father who has two daughters, the last thing I ever want my daughters to think is that they can’t tell me if they’ve been sexually assaulted or that I’m not going to get their back. So I certainly–in that sense I have to stand up as a man and say, if there are women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby, then we need to investigate these claims. And these women–and it’s in the dozens of women–deserve to have their claims investigated and deserve to be heard and listened to, ’cause many times when women claim they were sexually assaulted, people don’t listen to them.

I don’t think you can sort of walk this line of, like, I’m just going to keep showing up and giving art to people and speaking at things. I think that’s not the guy he told us he was.

As far as comedians and demons–but again, having said all that about Cosby, I still can’t excise the kid in my heart who responded to Bill Cosby himself and The Cosby Show.

FLETCHER: Oh yeah.

BELL: When I was eight years old and I see Bill Cosby himself, like, that’s the funniest person I’ve ever seen in my life.


BELL: I want to do that.


BELL: And The Cosby Show for me was big. Like, it was for a lot of black people, ’cause there’s a sense in the media that all black people came from the hood and lived a hood lifestyle. And some people do, and there’s nothing wrong with that lifestyle that you [incompr.] But my family reflected more the Cosby Show lifestyle of, like, black people talking about black stuff and you’re expecting an education and you’re expected to–. And I’m not saying that life is better than the other. I’m just saying that, like, that–I was like, oh, yeah, that’s the life I lived, sort of a middle-class lifestyle. I’m lucky to have this life. So I can’t–we have to–people have to make a choice. Do you sort of excise him from your life and don’t ever listen to Bill Cosby himself again and stop saying his name? Or do you sort of create a space where you’re like, there’s the art and there’s the artist? I for instance don’t listen to Miles Davis because of–.

FLETCHER: Because of–right.

BELL: Yeah.

FLETCHER: Right. I understand.

BELL: You know. And I still listen to Miles Davis, but I also don’t–

FLETCHER: I do, too.

BELL: –but I also don’t–if I turn on Miles Davis and my friend goes, mmm, I go, alright, let me turn it–you know, like, I–we have to be sensitive to other people’s things, especially people who are our friends.

So I do think–I don’t think comics have more demons. I think comedians get more access to their demons, because comedy does not encourage a mature, well-developed lifestyle. Comedy encourages you to stay up late, sleep all day, get a drink or two or nine after the show, hang out with people that maybe you shouldn’t be hanging out with. Go on the road by yourself, you get lonely. Then everybody handles that differently. Some people it’s alcohol and other substances. Some people it’s other people they shouldn’t be with. Some people it’s sort of turning inside of themselves.

FLETCHER: Well, I’d like to segue into final question. What would you say to a young person who’s eight, who’s in their teens, that is saying that they want to enter the world of comedy, they want to be like Kamau Bell? What would you say?

BELL: The advice I give to–whenever I have comics who say, I want to be like you, I always say aim higher, ’cause I just feel like just, you know, set your sights even higher than you think you can set your sights, because you’re probably not going to hit that. You know what I mean? Michael Jordan’s probably mad he wasn’t a better basketball player. Actually, we know he is, ’cause he gave the Hall of Fame speech. But that–so first of all, just aim as high as you possibly can, aim higher.

And also, it’s–there’s no shame in not being a standup comedian. So if you find that that life is not doing for you what you want it to do, you don’t have to pursue that life. There’s other ways to monetize your funny ability that aren’t standup comedy. And so there’s no problem with always checking in with yourself and checking in with your goals and saying, is this the thing I want to be?

And if you do think that I want to be a standup comedian and I want to be better than W. Kamau Bell, then I would encourage you to do things I didn’t do, like really depend on yourself more and don’t depend on others around you. Like, I wish I’d started doing–like, I’m a very–at this point I’m a very DYI performer. I will book my own shows. I rent my own venue. I’ll get my own people together. I wish I’d started doing that sooner. I just think don’t depend on the industry. Marc Maron, a brilliant comedian, said this to me: show business is not your parents, so don’t expect show business to care about you or like you. Even if they like you sometimes, they’re not always going to like you. So really–and also build a stable base for a life to do this from.

FLETCHER: W. Kamau Bell, thank you very much for joining us on The Global African, and particularly right before your performance. We really appreciate it.

BELL: Yeah.

FLETCHER: Thanks very much.

BELL: It’s too bad it wasn’t funnier.

FLETCHER: So thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment. So don’t go anywhere.


FLETCHER: In August 2014, thousands of people took to the streets of Detroit to protest water service shutoffs. Now, one year later, the city council has voted to increase water rates by 7.5 percent. That amounts to a $5 increase per month.

This is ultimately the result of poor financial management by the city’s leaders over the past several years. In the past, the city has cut deals with major Wall Street firms to secure lending, with high interest rates to boot. As a result, creditors have been pressuring the city to pay back its enlarged debt in full.

Another major aspect of the city’s financial woes is the stadium deals the city has pushed through with the hopes of economic development. In fact, the state of Michigan’s one of the top providers of such subsidies, providing $6.6 billion a year. These investments do not end up favoring the city, and taxpayers end up on the hook when these deals go bad.

We’re joined now by Monica Lewis-Patrick and David Bulloch. Monica Lewis-Patrick is one of the founders of We the People of Detroit, an organization that fights for the rights of Detroiters to have access to water. And David Bulloch is a pastor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church. He’s also the founder of the Change Agent Consortium, a national coalition of faith, labor, civil rights, and active citizens.

Welcome very much to The Global African.

So one of the things that we’ve been covering a lot on The Global African is this fight around austerity. And it seems that Detroit is right in the bull’s eye of a major fight around austerity. And I wondered if you could speak some about that and about this particular issue about water shutoffs.

DAVID BULLOCH: Detroit is ground zero for the fight, I guess, between prosperity for all and austerity measures that ultimately benefit some–I mean, the bankruptcy–largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States of America, the attack on pensions and pensioners, the destruction of health care benefits for city workers, really taking their rights away, even in terms of their ability to negotiate during and after that process, to massive transfers of assets and changes in work rules and funding formulas, ultimately, that benefits those who are already beyond wealthy and really, really puts a burden, an undue burden on those who are middle- to low- to no-income.

And so Detroit, I think you’re right about that. Detroit is ground zero for this whole question of austerity versus prosperity.

FLETCHER: It would help if you could explain to our viewers where did this issue come from, this issue of shutoffs. I mean, I know that in any city there’s always going to be some shutoffs, but it seems like it’s an epidemic in Michigan and in a number of other places.

MONICA LEWIS-PATRICK: Well, what we know right now is that water is the new gold, that the city of Detroit sits on 21 percent of the world’s freshest water, surface water, that we also are strategically placed in such a position that we are sitting on international waters. So we sit right across from Canada. So that is open and very much prime kinds of opportunities for trade and commerce. Twenty-three percent of the commerce that comes into America comes in by way of Detroit. So Detroit, as we continue to hear this national narrative of how Detroit was not fit to lead itself and how it let Detroit go bankrupt, you also had many millionaires and billionaires sitting and waiting in the cut for what they knew was going to be a financial bubble that was going to thrust some of the most black, brown, poor communities into crisis, and then being able to exploit that crisis for their own personal gain.

This is not just about water, but this is about water and land and political power. Detroit is 83 percent African-American. We had the highest home ownership and equity in our homes up until the late 1990s. And so we had a history of paying our bills and being responsible citizens and participating in all of the requirements of equity that government touts as being citizens.

FLETCHER: Monica, we heard something about a grand bargain that was made mention of that took place in the fall. What exactly was this grand bargain, and was it a bargain?

LEWIS-PATRICK: Well, I refer to it as the grand theft, because what happened is that they were able to restructure the debt in such a way that the burden was laid on the backs of the pensioners, and then you had them be able to take very valuable assets of the city of Detroit, like the DIA, the Detroit Institute of Art, and make these agreements with foundations and nonprofits that they would agree to be able to cover the expenses that were connected to those entities in order to be able to garner oversight. And so that’s something that they’ve wanted for a long time was to be able to have ownership without paying the cost of that ownership and that maintenance. And so they agreed that they would be able to cover that particular expense.

You also had them restructure and give away very expensive assets of the city for pennies on the dollar. You have Hantz Farms be able to commandeer riverfront property for pennies on the dollar. You had Mr. Ilitch be able to renegotiate a deal where the citizens had already stated that they could not bear the burden of another recreational facility here in the city without the millionaires and billionaires encumbering some of that expense. He was able to negotiate a deal with the governor to put a tax on the citizens of Detroit to the tune of $160 million in the middle of a bankruptcy. You have Dan Gilbert, who is being touted as the restructional God of the city of Detroit when he in actuality has taken $300 million of HUD dollars that were meant to keep Detroiters in their homes to be able to put on roofs and doors and windows and create sustainability in terms of paying any back mortgage expenses. And so now you have that money that was meant for Detroiters being used by them to clear land for their development projects.

And you look at all of these pieces together, I would also add to the wider issue is that the water is not only about owning and controlling the water, but it’s also about being used as a tool of gentrification, because in the communities where they’re shutting off water, they’re shutting off mass blocks of communities. They’re not just going in and shutting off one individual because that person hasn’t paid. There are some people that don’t owe a water debt, and because of where they live, they’re also being denied water.

FLETCHER: So what’s the nature of the resistance, the popular resistance to these attacks? What’s going on both in Detroit–but I’m also interested in what’s going on in the rest of Michigan, because these attacks on Detroit or Flint or a number of other cities, they have ramifications for the rest of the state.

BULLOCH: Yeah. Well, I think the nature of the resistance is the nature of resistance at all times in history, and even in recent times. It pulsates, it ebbs and flows. You have a core group of folks, though, in Flint, in Benton Harbor, in Detroit, [incompr.] Highland Park that have been fighting for years. Let me just say that, because sometimes people say, well, folks in Detroit laid down and the emergency manager came in. That’s not true. We repealed Public Act 4. We won that. The governor came in and changed the law, indeed broke the law. But there were thousands of people who have been fighting now for at least four, five, six, seven, eight, nine years–if you then add to that list folks like to JoAnn Watson and others, folks who had been fighting for it for decades–. So I think the resistance is strong and growing. You’ve got some very, very savvy–I wouldn’t even call them activists. I’d call them generals, like Monica Lewis-Patrick and others, who are on the forefront of organizing in Detroit and connecting the dots across the state and building coalition across the country, indeed internationally.

And I think really what we are waiting for in Detroit is just another seminal moment, just another opportunity for the flames of the fire to erupt. But let me be very clear. The flames are hot. They’re burning. Folks are strategically organizing. And we are not done fighting in Detroit. And like we have won in the past, I believe we will ultimately win, because we’re not going to stop.

FLETCHER: Monica Lewis-Patrick and Reverend David Bullock, thank you both very much for joining us for The Global African.

BULLOCH: Thank you for having us.


FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time. Take care.


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