Aisha Brown is Toronto’s reluctant comedy trailblazer

As her stand-up special The First Black Woman Ever hits Crave, the Scarborough native talks imposter syndrome, identity politics and taking shots at the Fords

AISHA BROWN: THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN EVER (Aisha Brown, Bruce Hills). Written and performed by Aisha Brown. Now streaming on Crave.

In her Crave stand-up special, Aisha Brown pays homage to Viola Desmond, the face on Canada’s $10 bill. Desmond was arrested at the Roseland Theatre in Nova Scotia for refusing to leave the whites-only area. She paved the way for Black women like Brown to have a voice in Canada.

“She probably wouldn’t have done that if she knew how much I was going to talk about dicks,” says Brown, simultaneously landing the punchline to her Desmond tribute and hammering home her own ambivalence about being positioned as some trailblazer.

Shot at Just For Laughs in Montreal, Aisha Brown: The First Black Woman Ever both celebrates and satirizes the comic’s accomplishment becoming the first among her demo to have a special on Crave. But after savouring the pseudo-milestone for a minute, Brown gets back to business: making jokes about dicks – both literal ones and Doug Ford – while also tackling racial and social issues from her unique, Scarborough-bred perspective.

Brown spoke to NOW about The First Black Woman Ever, her struggles with mental health and how she uses her voice in the current landscape.

When we recorded our comedy podcast back in October, you were very anxious about having a Crave special on the way. Has that changed now that it’s out?

It’s a really tough climate to be a person who sells opinions. They are jokes. But they are couched in things that I really believe. That seems to be what’s getting everybody in the most amount of trouble lately: to have an opinion and to be able to put it out in the world.

I’m still very nervous about that, especially because the world doesn’t seem to love hearing when Black women are vocal. I’m not Gayle [King] of Oprah and Gayle fame, but she was getting death threats for asking a question last week.

The Kobe Bryant thing? [In an interview with WNBA star Lisa Leslie, Gayle King asked how Kobe Bryant’s rape accusation impacts the late NBA player’s legacy. Many, including rappers Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent, viciously attacked King online for asking a question they felt was poorly timed.]

It’s a crazy story but it does bring up an interesting issue with misogynoir. There’s a lot of sexism and racism that combines together when a Black woman is public with her feelings, thoughts, opinions or just doing her job. That rests on my head a little bit. That’s why I don’t really engage in social media. I don’t really want to feed it.

You do kick a certain hive in this show. There’s a Rob Ford joke that made me say “woah.”

I don’t feel like the Fords are concerned about people that look like me. I’m not terribly concerned about the Fords.

Doug Ford wants everybody to be sensitive to him and his concerns. He wants extreme empathy. But he’s shown no empathy to anybody ever. He’s shown no empathy to autistic children no empathy to children in general no empathy to university students. I really have a hard time caring about the feelings of a man who has never shown that he has feelings to begin with. [The joke] was a shot. And I don’t care.

You call this show First Black Woman Ever. I feel like you’re sarcastically tapping into something in today’s media and marketing: breaking down trivial barriers sells. That’s the hook people need nowadays. The hook used to be “If I ruled the world.” Today it would be “If I were the first Black or Brown person to rule the world” because identity politics have become so commodified.

First Black Woman Ever is a tongue-in-cheek way of addressing the issue that it seems to be important to a lot of other people that I am one of very few. I find it reductive. It also fuels an imposter syndrome that already exists within me. “Am I only getting this because I’m Black?”

I felt like being a brat about it. It’s also not that huge of an accomplishment to be the first Black person to film a Black thing on a network. It’s silly to celebrate it, which is why I did.

I think a lot of artists are getting frustrated with always being branded by their identity and called up to discuss race. We discussed this in our podcast on the state of comedy. Some comics cited that frustration as the reason they didn’t join us on the podcast. The media – myself included – doesn’t always want to talk to you about dick jokes but rather issues concerning race. At the same time, you are a brilliant cultural commentator so I’d be a fool not to ask you about such issues.

Talking about race in general has always been interesting to me. It affects me. There’s that thing that everyone quotes: “the personal is political.” It’s just funny that for some people it’s all they see. I like to talk about race and issues that dance around race when it’s my choice to do so. But when I’m streamlined in that direction, I get resentful.

No matter what you do, if you’re a person of colour and you have a position there are people who want to say that you only got that position as a result of some overreaching diversity quota. The problem is that if we keep hyper-focusing on this one aspect of who I am, its impossible for me to even feel worthy of the opportunities I have.

I am seeing people who have used diversity and identity politics as their brand to come up. But then they’re pigeonholed and that’s all people want to hear them talk about.

It’s funny. Everything is marketable. I have a hard time criticizing somebody for using what used to be a disadvantage and making it their advantage.

It’s always hard to feel worthy no matter who you are. Unless you’re a complete narcissist, it’s hard to feel you deserve things. I used to have this conversation a lot with a friend who is now very successful. He said to me: “For all the times you feel embarrassed or ashamed for getting an opportunity because you are a Black woman, think of all the times that you were looked over because of that.”

Tell me about what goes into getting up onstage and talking about your struggles with depression and anxiety.

I don’t feel shame about mental health. I’m at a point where I’m not going to feel bad about having something that I think is kind of normal for the times that we live in. I judge people who aren’t depressed or anxious. Like, are you not paying attention? It’s terrifying and sad out there.

What’s mind blowing is that you’re dealing with emotional issues that people usually deal with in private. But you’re dealing with it on a stage. Does that make it harder?

Yes and no. Talking about it, no. I’m the arbiter of what I talk about. It’s not like anyone has a gun to my head and says you have to tell everybody everything. I don’t tell everybody everything and I don’t have to.

I won’t say that comedy has been an easy career for me with the anxieties that I have. Performing and having to live and die by what other people think of me is not a healthy place to be. Nobody who is in arts and entertainment is a hundred percent okay with the effect that immediate feedback has on them. I’ve certainly had my ups and downs with it.

But it also does help to talk about it. The more you talk about it the more you realize, “I’m not isolated in this.”

You are one of the few media personalities who are not really active on Twitter or Instagram. You don’t put yourself out there.

No. I don’t.

Which is funny, because you do put yourself out there in your comedy.

I feel like society has a sickness right now. And social media is making it worse. I have problem avoidance issues. I like to avoid problems until they come barreling into me and I have to deal with them. That’s part of it.

The other real part of it, when I was active on social media, it brought out the worst parts of what I felt about myself and what I felt about life. I was comparing myself to other people. I was overanalyzing. I was hyper-focusing on myself in a way that was narcissistic and unhealthy.

I understand other people’s need to share moments. That need isn’t as strong in me as the need to move on.

This is so funny coming from someone who has her own Crave special.

Having a Crave special has been a battle of contradictions for me. I do consider myself to be a kind of shy person. But I’m also a person who wants attention at the same time.

I’m like, “don’t look at me unless you’re telling me how great I am.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.


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