As the world around burns and city streets become dark arenas for grim clashes between protesters and police officers, it becomes harder to see the light that even the smallest flame from one little lighter can bring. Perhaps it is time to embrace the war-zone of political discourse with some laughter.
Always an advocate for amusement and a master of blending lighthearted tones with hefty topics is Ngaio Bealum — an activist, comedian, and writer that has folded his comedy, his writing, and his activism together for decades.
Emerald sat down for a Zoom interview with Bealum on a warm summer day to discuss his style, his inspiration, and cannabis.
For Bealum, cannabis use never took substantial root in his life until he went to college. There, he began to question the laws and stigma surrounding the people who use it.
When asked about how his involvement in cannabis activism began, Bealum told The Emerald Magazine, “Mostly by showing up. You just go to a protest and you go to an event and you meet people.”
It is these same people and the many more behind them that Bealum speaks to and for.
“You meet people from everywhere; from all over, from all walks of life,” he adds. “That’s one of the beautiful things about weed… [you meet people from] all different cultures, all different races, […] all different hobbies.”
While Bealum recognizes that “people like smoking weed,” he knows many are criminalized for using cannabis. As such, he works to raise awareness for those prosecuted for cannabis crimes.
Ngaio Bealum sat up and leaned into the Zoom call as a note of concern and of conviction colored his tone. “A lot of times we get away from the social justice aspect, in this pursuit of the cannabis industry and cannabis millionaires,” he explains. “Medical cannabis, the cannabis legalization movement, first and foremost, is [about] social justice.”
It’s about, “keeping people out of jail,” he adds. “[These laws] are wasteful, it’s not productive; it doesn’t fix any problems.”
Much as the interest in cannabis had developed overtime, so too did his enthusiasm for laughter, which grew from a young age. Comedy, and particularly stand-up, fascinated Bealum and became a channel that he found he was quite talented at.
“My parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles all had all kinds of crazy comedy records,” he says. “Richard Pryor, Red Fox, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, they had all these comedy records that I just listened to over and over and over again.”
He would later use those same records to get more laughs during street acts. With a full chuckle he went on, “I was working at Pier 39 [in San Francisco]; I didn’t really want to sell t-shirts anymore and I saw the street performers making bank, so I learned to juggle and became a juggler.”
As the performances became more manicured, Bealum realized that he possessed a love for laughter and a knack for performance. He heartily attributes his passion to his mentors, including Diane Amos and Robert “Butterfly Man” Nelson, who Bealum says helped give him the tools to succeed as a comedian.
Even a cursory glance at a written column, a quick sneak at a video clip, or a one minute conversation reveals Bealum’s ability to simultaneously educate and entertain.
“If you listen to my act you can hear my feelings on the matter but I’m not super overt about it,” he adds. “I’m a big fan of edu-tainment.”
When these two aspects of activism and of comedy coalesce, Bealum’s final product is not some shoddy and overly loud, or poorly constructed soap box. Instead, the product is gracefully tactful and robustly hilarious.
As a writer of a column in the Sacramento News and Review and many others, Bealum points to these different styles of production and presentation as the all important mastery of tone. Just as it is with the foundations of his cannabis advocacy, it comes down to the people — you need to know your audience.
“If I’m writing a cannabis advice column or an opinion column, my natural humor shines through. But the goal is not to be funny, funny, funny, but to be informative and entertaining. It’s a different mindset, but you know it’s all just weed and sex,” he says with a grin.
Ngaio Bealum compared the state of cannabis now to what it was just 20 or 30 years ago, saying, “There’s way less danger in a lot of areas, which is the most important thing. Back in the day when you had an unlicensed cannabis club, they used to come and raid you, they’d send the DEA or they’d send all the sheriffs and come and raid your whole shop and throw people in jail,” he says. “Now they send you a letter with a fine.”
When addressing the Black Lives Matter movement, and nationwide protests, Bealum explains that, “Lately I’ve been filled with rage and hope,” he adds. “[I’m] trying to let my anger motivate me but not guide me. It fills me with hope because I feel like we can go further, faster. We have more people on our side now, who have really looked around.”
While the movement inches forward, recognizing the importance of cracking a joke and easing in a smile, is Ngaio Bealum.