Amanda Seales Be Knowin’, and You Should Listen

Amanda Seales. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

There are several places where you know you will find black women as the majority audience, consumer, and supporter: Michelle Obama’s sold-out stadium book tour, a Beyoncé concert, Fenty Beauty pop-up stores, marches against police brutality, and Amanda Seales’s HBO comedy special I Be Knowin’, scheduled to premiere on January 26. Seales is a verified multi-hyphenate: singer, rapper, VJ, podcast host, actress, and comedian raised in Inglewood, California, by her Grenadian mother. With a career spanning 25 years in the entertainment business, she has carved a place for herself that leans heavily on riffing off the absurd and obscene in the day-to-day machinations of the world black women are forced to live in. Her one-hour special is a peak moment for the comedian, and one that comes at a time when the comedic skills of black women are finally starting to receive some semblance of recognition.

There’s been more than enough said about being “unfiltered,” with this being the litmus test for any comedian worth their stripes. Seales is an interesting and gratifying presence particularly because she surpasses and redefines this term. Her sensibility is influenced by a master’s degree in African-American Studies from Columbia, a razor-sharp understanding of the role of blackness in mainstream pop culture, and a career spent navigating the tiny windowless spaces left open for black women in the male-dominated, white-centered world of comedy. To say she is unfiltered is a disservice to the intention behind every callout hidden inside a joke and delivered as a witty remark. Her personal experiences of living and loving as a black woman permeate through her work, so when she speaks, she really do be knowin.’

Highlights in the special include collective musings between her and the audience on men who ask women to smile on the street, white women and black hair, impromptu cheer and stepping routines, plus a rousing rendition of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I Be Knowin’ is equal parts a sermon, TED Talk, and poetry slam.

We caught up with the comedian to talk about her special, being the realest, and the divinity of black womanhood.

Congratulations on the special! I just watched it and it was so heartwarming and hilarious.
Really? That makes me so happy! I have three hours of interviews today, so I can’t be crying already.

It was really fun to watch. So I know you’re very particular about your work with how it’s crafted, delivered to the audience, and also how it’s understood. And I know you’ve sold a show before and then taken it back. What made you decide that partnering with HBO would be best for your stand-up?
The thing about me being selective with everything is that I have a really keen attention to detail, a very high standard of excellence, and a genuine dedication to being my most authentic self. So you want to find a place that allows you to exhibit those three tentpoles. When you see the programming coming from HBO, it’s very indicative of a high level of storytelling, and their standard of quality is excellence. Everybody knows that. It’s not just television; it’s HBO, you know. They have literally built their brand by saying [they] are doing something elevated that you wouldn’t expect. And then I am already on a show [Insecure] that is authentically black and that is authentically done in the creator’s voice. So it was that, and knowing that they would let me do what I do. And they did. To be perfectly honest, my content was never questioned, and they really just stood in support of my suggestions when it came to what I needed for marketing and how I wanted things to be presented. The reality is, they were somewhere that let me know very early on that they respected my voice and the uniqueness of my position as a black woman comedian.

When you performed your set on Late Night With Seth Meyers in late 2017, Roy Wood Jr. called it the “realest I’ve seen from a black comic in a long-ass time.” How does it feel being seen as a comedian who speaks truth to power without compromising their message?
Well, first of all, Roy Wood Jr. is my favorite comedian, so any positive feedback from him is always like, Ahhhhh! It’s really empowering. But how does it feel? I say this quite often and I mean it every time I say it: Being a comedian is an honor to me. This is the profession that people constantly say is the hardest profession in showbiz. And to be able to do it, and also simultaneously make it even more difficult by speaking about difficult things, makes me feel very in my purpose. Because I have always felt like I was the one in the room who was willing to challenge the authoritarian. I was the one who was willing to go up against the popular girl. I was the one who was willing to risk looking like a fool. That has always been my role. To find a conduit like comedy to be able to do that but at the same time bring people joy and laughter, and not just teaching, feels like a superpower.

How did your work with your live black pop-culture music and comedy game show, Smart Funny & Black, your time as a VJ, and your role on Insecure prepare you for this special?
The fact that Smart Funny & Black is a live show and that we were on tour last year was an incredible way to prepare. It allowed me to grow my fan base organically from the ground up. I write the show, I host the show, I do stand-up, I sing, I do commentary with guests, and we have a different show every show. So I get the opportunity to work out my thought process and have it get better. And the other stuff that I’m working on — be it Insecure, writing my book, or hosting my podcast, Small Doses — have let me create a synergistic career where everything serves everything. So it never feels like, Oh, this is the other thing I’m doing. It always aligns, and I think for multi-hyphenates that is the pot on the other side of the rainbow.

So in the special, you say every experience is a black experience except when it is anti-black. When you’re a black person, anti-blackness determines so much of how you choose to exist in this world. Take for example code-switching, which black people do just to avoid dealing with micro/macro-aggressions in white spaces. I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts in more detail on this statement and how anti-black experiences influence black experiences.
Well, I think that there can be these problematic dichotomies that are created within blackness that determine one’s experience as more black than another — on the basis, oftentimes, of a juxtaposition against oppression. So in a nutshell, a lot of people want to say who’s more black than who based off some white shit. And the reality is that there are a number of black experiences that are authentically black because they are being lived by someone who identifies and loves their blackness. So as far as I’m concerned, as long as you’re living your best black life, you’re having a black experience. The only thing that makes it not a black experience is if you are anti-black. You see what I’m saying?

I get you. It clicked.
So we have individuals who identify as black but are against blackness and against empowerment and self-love. I don’t even say their names because they are like Voldemort to me. So that’s what I mean by every black experience is a black experience unless it’s anti-black.

In the very beginning you say the special is not for “rapists, racists, sexists, narcissists, folks that are calling the cops on black folks when we are just living our lives,” “Trump voters,” “people who don’t believe white men can be terrorists,” “transphobes or homophobes or xenophobes,” and a lot more. And you say the show is “for my sistas.” Why was it important for you to highlight that this was first and foremost a space for black women?
Because no one cares about us. You look at this R. Kelly shit, and you see that no one cares about us. And it’s like, we gotta care about us. If nobody else is going to care about us, we’ve got to care about us. And my special looks at different experiences that sistas are having that oftentimes do not get acknowledged. Because then you have this idea that there is only one kind of black woman, you know, and she’s only in one kind of space, but we are everywhere, doing everything, and we are consciously having to consider our black womanhood at all times. And that’s what the special speaks to.

It’s been over 50 years since Moms Mabley made an appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Since then I could maybe count on my hand how many black women comedians have achieved visibility and props comparable to that of lesser-talented comedians. Black women are skilled comics, but they are always sidelined. Do you see that changing, or is the landscape still as limited as it was during Moms’s time?
I don’t think it’s the same as when Moms was on the stage, but I do think there’s still a slow-growing willingness to give us visibility on major platforms. I think that there are definitely folks who are saying, “Well, Amanda, you are getting visibility because you’re a lighter-skinned black woman.” And that has really bothered me for a while, but then I realized that if the oppressor’s ignorance is what allows for doors to be open for other black women, then fuck it, okay. Because at the end of the day, I’m really just a vessel, and I consider it my work as a conduit to tell stories that don’t get told.

So in this case, I hope the unapologetic blackness of my special, and the response of black women to it, provides one more opportunity for these racists to see that we need to get behind black women. Even at the very least because they make money. Because we can’t pretend like that is not a part of the conversation. But if we are going to get really deep with it, black women basically were the source that serviced this country with its workforce for hundreds of years. So we were seen as very useful in only a very specific way. So for us to now be individuals with voices, unity, and power is frightening to people. It can be frustrating to people, and for all intents and purposes it was always apparent, because for us to be able to be strong in those settings, we had to have something else within us that was innately divine. We here, and that’s a fact.

So on that point, what would your inner Suge Knight say to TV execs who think black women comics can’t carry a TV special?
Watch me.

Amanda Seales Be Knowin’, and You Should Listen