This week I was given the pleasure of sitting down to talk with the comedian, writer, producer Kemah Bob. Kemah is funny, gentle, incisive, and inspiring, a wise soul and trailblazer working hard to create safe spaces for femme people of colour in comedy and beyond. Kemah is the host of the FOC IT UP! Comedy Club and podcast, and frequent co-host of The Guilty Feminist Podcast. Our interview touches on: safe spaces for people of colour to experience comedy, the comedic process, podcasting and more. Kemah is the comedy plug, and an all-around delightful human being.
How would you describe yourself?
KB: It’s hard to think about who I am. Without projecting onto it, who I want to be. So, if I can I’d like to tell you who I hope I am or who I hope to become. I’m a person who spreads warmth, who spreads love, and who tries to speak, power and wisdom into those around me. I’m a funny person. I use comedy as a tool to spread that love and to spread that empowerment. So, I think that’s, I hope that’s who I am. If not, then who I’m working toward being.
Talk to me a little bit about the Femmes of Colour Comedy Club. It started in 2018? 2019? I want to say I had heard of it. Like, just randomly someone sent me like a leaflet, and I was like comedy isn’t really my thing, but it sounds cool.
So, I love that sentiment. I love that sentiment of ‘comedy isn’t really my thing’. But, partially because I want to challenge it and I think The Femmes of Colour Comedy Club is here to challenge it. I feel like there are a lot of people that don’t go out to live comedy nights for different reasons. Will I enjoy it is a huge one, right? Am I gonna have a good time? Will I find this shit funny? Will I care? And I think when you’re in the queer experience, when you’re in the Black experience, when you’re in the Brown experience. I think there’s also a bit of risk, so [say] you go to a comedy night that is predominantly Black people on stage Black people in the audience. There’s still this risk of just stray bullets of homophobia and transphobia etc — just ignorance you know. Or say you go to other comedy nights or whatever, then you might be worried about stray bullets of racism etc. So, I think I completely get it. When some people say is it for me? You know, even online when you look at what stand-up comedy is available online, like on Netflix. There isn’t often a lot of stuff that resonates. So, what I hope to do is to provide a bridge between people that do enjoy comedy, and maybe want to see or experience something different, maybe something more like them or less like them. But also provide a bridge for people who aren’t used to going out to see live comedy or even live entertainment. To welcome them into this world, because not only can you come and see these comedians at this night, but a lot of these people put on their own shows, you know, as talented as they are, they’ve not gotten their Netflix special yet, or whatever. But there are other voices out here.
So, FOC IT UP! in essence, what I want to do, and the intention behind it, is just to create a joyful and empowering experience for my acts and for my audience. To show everyone that there is another way, there’s another space, you know, that exists that we’re creating together, where we can feel seen, and we can feel safe, and we can laugh together and have a good time.
I admit to Kemah Bob that I am a bit of a people pleaser and would feel pressured to laugh at a live show. Kemah then talks about the importance of live feedback and enlightens me about the comedic process.
That’s so important. Like, it’s so brilliant that you say that, because feedback is how, how we know, how we know if it’s working or not. So, I think, like, there’s two sides to it. There’s one side, that is, the more that we receive from the audience, the more we feel encouraged to keep going to go further. But what’s important about that is if it’s not it, because we know like all skin folk and kinfolk, etc. Right? So, someone goes up, and we’ve had this on the show before, and I think it’s actually a powerful thing. If someone goes up and they say something that’s not it, whether it’s not funny, or it’s like, ‘oh, I’m not sure I, actually, feel comfortable with the fact that you said that’. I think that live feedback is invaluable. Yeah, I think it’s important to let people know. That’s not it. Or that was it. Because I think also, for me, as a person, as a queer person, as a Black person who feels quite in touch with and in tune with the community. If I go up, and I say something, that’s not it, I would hope the community would let me know.
That is such an important piece, isn’t it? Because of what you said in the beginning about creating this community between yourselves, as well as the audience.
Honestly. And sometimes I think we’ve seen it with certain comedians. Like certain big, big names and they missed the mark. Let them know and then they’re not open to hearing it. And, you know, that’s their prerogative, right? If you don’t want to be compassionate. If you don’t give a shit about how your work makes people feel that not to you, that’s your prerogative. But that’s not me. That’s not the space I’m creating.
So, why did you decide to switch it up and make it a podcast as well as just people coming to the shows?
I think the main thing was this feeling of what the space can hold. I think it can hold maybe 200 or so people at its best and those are people who can afford to come. But I wanted to share the experience, to expand the community, and to introduce these comedians to more than just what the space can hold. And so ultimately, it’s about kind of like opening the arms of the FOC IT UP! Comedy Club, and bringing more people in, and what I’ve experienced with this other podcast that I like, co-host, sometimes. [The Guilty Feminist] Yeah, the experience in the room brings added warmth to people who are at home, and people who are at home, then say, maybe I’d like to come into the room. So, ultimately, I think it’s inviting people in and cultivating a community beyond, you know, beyond the city beyond this country, you know, like, and I honestly do see, FOC IT UP! being a kind of community enterprise that can serve more than just the UK scene, we actually do have FOC IT UP! running in New York at present. It has been produced by someone who was here in the UK doing the FOC IT UP! and moved to New York for work. She’s brilliant. She hit me up and was like, hey, I think the community here could really benefit from the energy of FOC IT UP! and I was like New York doesn’t have this energy already?
Yeah, you think New York, you think the comedy club scene is thriving…
Right. So, it was very interesting to me. And yeah, she’s been having a good time getting it going and building it. And that’s like, it’s really beautiful. But um, yeah, like, I see, FOC it UP! being something that can be utilised in different communities, to empower performers of colour, who aren’t cis men, and to empower and bring joy to people offstage who would like to hear from those folks. So, to be able to expand that beyond just who’s able to show up to the live shows. That’s why I wanted to create the podcast.
How do you source the comics to come and perform?
Man, I’m almost weird about it. I keep my eyes peeled. I want to do more to cultivate trans and non-binary talent and comedy. I think statistically, you know, I think the weird, like, right wing media makes it sound like half of, you know, the half of the world is trans or something. Statistically, there aren’t that many of our trans siblings out there and that’s reflected in comedy as well. The people that we do see out there are white for the most part. But I keep my eyes peeled, I keep my nose to the ground. And if I see a performer of colour out there, I make note of them.
And it was important to me that in this first season, we didn’t have any repeats, we have, 36 people. So far, two people have gotten sick, and have had to drop out. But we put 36 different comedians, you know, and so my desire and hope is that people’s awareness increases, of course, I want there to be familiar names and faces, like, right, those people that you’ve seen on TV, we just had Shazia Mirza on. And one of our audience members, was remarking on how her and her mum, cause Shazia has been in the game for like 20 years. She was saying that her mum used to take her to Shazia’s shows when she was younger and was so happy to see her. Yeah. We also have people like Desiree Burch, who has been holding it down for a little minute. We were meant to have Ninia Benjamin on, who’s in 3 Non-Blondes, but she was ill. So, we’re gonna book her in for a future season. But we also have Sophie Duker, who’s a good friend of mine, and who just won Taskmaster, as well as people who’ve been in the game for like, less than a year. So, it’s important to me that we have a range of people, not only experience wise, but as far as their background. You know, there aren’t that many East Asian stand ups out there.
There aren’t many that are non-cis men that I know of… [Kemah proceeds to rattle off the names of about 10 comics whose names my transcription butchers apologies]
Um, so I know of…Evelyn Mok, Su Mi, Yuriko Kotani [and more]. But basically, if they’re out there, I’m on it. I keep my eyes peeled because I want everyone to feel represented. I think it’s important that we hold down diversity in this space, as well. So yeah, I basically just keep my eyes peeled. And if I see a new person, that I’ve not seen their stuff, I’ve not heard of them, and make note of them. Yeah, and try to see what they’re about.
You’re the plug!
Look, I just think it’s important because people love to play, and white producers and promoters sometimes like to play and act like there aren’t more than like me and Des and Sophie out there or something, you know, or Thaniya Moore or Sikisa, like these names, will get thrown around and tossed around so much. And I appreciate the work. I appreciate the opportunity but there are other Black women out there. You know what I mean? There are other Brown women out there, etc. So, I think it’s important that we don’t allow people to try to act like we’re not there. Because we are here and we’re incredible.
ON THE LATEST EPISODE AND COMEDY FUBU
There’s real funny shit in there so in this third episode we have Michelle de Swarte, who has such a beautiful and fun perspective. She began her career, or like, I don’t know what to call it like her professional career. Uh, as a model, and she always jokes that like, oh, when I was younger, I was so fit. She was like, I didn’t wait in line at the club. I just be like, let me in. Then around 35 I was like shit; I need to work on that personality. I love her! And then we have Njambi McGrath, who grew up in Kenya, who’s had like, quite serious experiences that she actually wrote a memoir about called Through the Leopard’s Gaze, because when she was a kid, she was beaten almost to death and left for dead. And when she was in Kenya, and she had to, walk through like grass and kind of face off with animals and strangers to find safety, like all this stuff. In her set, she talks a bit about, the differences between Kenya and the UK, and how Kenya won a war to gain its independence and all sorts of beautiful stuff like that. We have Esther Manito, who’s half British half Lebanese, and she talks about her experiences as an Arab woman who’s from Essex and shit. It’s just the perspectives that people share, I think are still valuable and are so interesting, you know, and even if you don’t align with them, to me, it just feels different than some guy called Tim talking about how annoying his wife is.
FOC IT UP ORIGINS AND PAYING HOMAGE
But it’s always important for me to give credit where credit is due and FOC IT UP! would not exist without the FOC IT UP! Cocoa Butter Club. Period. When was created, me and Sadie Sinner, the creator and curator of the Cocoa Butter Club were flatmates. I was still finding my feet as a comic as a human, as a queer person in so many things, she welcomed me into the Cocoa Butter Club family. She was putting on I think it was a spring extravaganza and programming this day-long experience/festival for people. We had an hour and she asked me if I wanted to programme a comedy show in that hour and she helped me name it. She came up with the name FOC IT UP! I was like, I want it to be like Femmes of Colour, but I don’t know like FOC fuck [laughs]. So, it really wouldn’t exist. without the love and generosity of my friend and the brilliant space that she’s created, that showed me that you can do this. You don’t have to be sheepish about it either. You can probably radically say this space is for these people. If you are not these people, you are welcome in this space, but don’t expect us to prioritise your experience or your needs.
Anything else you want people to know?
KB: Please listen to the podcast. And so as much as I want people to come and be a part of the live shows, if you can’t or even if you can, like to support the podcast, and to share it, and to help it, because I think it is a good thing. I’m trying to make it a great thing. Yeah, so I just want to encourage people to listen and tell their friends.
Get tickets to the next live show and podcast recording of FOC IT UP!
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