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Amanda Seales wants to make you laugh — and think

The ‘Insecure’ star embraces her inner Suge Knight, punts hecklers, rocks in her new HBO special

In her new HBO comedy special I Be Knowin’ (which premiered over the weekend), Amanda Seales doesn’t so much touch the third rail as she does the Running Man on it. “The minute I hear a straight white man say, ‘I think we can all agree,’ I know we do not agree. …” she says in one particularly biting bit. From there, everything from aggressive male compliments to Harriet Tubman to white privilege to Suge Knight is on deck.

There is a very strong historical element to Seales’ material, no doubt a byproduct of the Orlando, Florida, native’s master’s degree in African-American studies from Columbia University. “But I didn’t go to school to become a professor,” she said. “I always wanted to do what I’m doing today. I’ve been in entertainment since I was 8. This was always the road.”

Indeed, Seales made her 2002 television debut on Def Poetry Jam as a spoken-word artist. By the mid-2000s, the Grenadian American talent was making noise as VJ Amanda Diva, host of MTV2’s Sucker Free Countdown. Seales surprised many when she replaced Natalie Stewart in the music duo Floetry, appearing on Q-Tip’s 2008 Grammy-nominated The Renaissance. Seales debuted Spandex Rhymes & Soul in 2009. And now, Seales is a comedic force who is also a favorite on Issa Rae’s Insecure as the (at times) annoying, have-it-all friend Tiffany.

You approach some pretty provocative subject matter on your HBO special — how black folks code-switch in white environments, a bit on the black national anthem and Harriet Tubman. How hard was it?

I wouldn’t say any of it was hard. It was a matter of being thoughtful about choosing my words and nailing it the way I wanted. I shot an hour and 20 minutes and we had to make some cuts. I had to let go of some stuff, but in hindsight it was stuff that didn’t take away from my vision.

Athletes have their game-time music that they listen to before they hit the field or the court. What gets you hype before a live performance?

I always go back to Freddie Mercury and Queen’s Wembley Stadium Live Aid performance of ‘We Are The Champions.’ After listening to that, I’m like, ‘Let’s go out there and do this s—!’ (Laughs.) It just gets me in the right mind state. Freddie’s ability to go onstage and leave everything out there is something that I aspire to do every time I perform.

“I would have to skip class to go interview Outkast.”

You’ve gained a new fan base from your role as Tiffany on Insecure. Have you ever been mistaken for your character?

Not yet … because I’ve made it my business to make sure that folks know me as Amanda Seales. I don’t ever want to get typecast. I don’t ever want anyone to think that I’m somebody I’m not. But the beauty of a platform like, say, Instagram is that it has allowed me to clearly and distinctly show people who I am in an authentic way.

What’s been your best and worst gig as a comedian?

Nobody likes when you tell jokes and people don’t laugh. But when a comedy club allowed a man to walk on my stage in the middle of my set and didn’t kick him off until I yelled at them to do so, that wasn’t so much the worst moment … it was my scariest moment.

That sounds downright frightening …

And that let me know again just how lax people are specifically about black women’s safety. But I would say my best moment onstage was a small show I did when I was prepping for my special in a room of 50 people. I was just doing a run-through to basically get my set together. And I said to the audience, ‘Y’all want to know a secret? I’m going to be doing an HBO comedy special.’ And the audience just leapt to their feet like your mama does when they call your name at your graduation! I got so emotional. I actually cried onstage. You can tell these were fans that have seen the work. They understood the moment that was taking place.

You have Caribbean and African-American background, but you grew up around mostly white kids. Is there something particular you latched onto that helped you connect with your blackness during that period?

I have always been earnest and aware of my blackness. Part of that is because of my mom and part of that is my godsister. But I recently had lunch with my first-grade teacher. I was talking to her about the special and how I recite ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ and how I didn’t really know about it until 10th grade. She was like, ‘Well, hold up now … I had y’all singing ‘Lift Every Voice’ in first grade.’ I had no idea that’s what we were singing! She knew that we needed to have full understanding of our place in this country. And ‘America (My Country ’Tis of Thee)’ was not going to cut it.

Did you ever see yourself teaching in a classroom?

Never. When I was in the master’s program at Columbia, I was simultaneously a VJ on MTV. I would have to skip class to go interview Outkast. So it was always about integrating the information and the knowledge with the entertainment and the performance. In my essay to get into Columbia, I said I hope to one day to be able to speak to and on behalf of my community. It was my hope to be able to empower black folks. That’s why I felt like I should be in the Columbia program, because it would give me the knowledge and the insight to be able to do that at the highest level possible.

What gets the best result for you, channeling Michelle Obama or Suge Knight?

Suge Knight. But the most optimal result is when I’m able to exist in a space that embodies both the don’t-F-with-me energy of a thug and the don’t-question-me Michelle Obama intellect. And when I’m able to marry those two worlds, whether it’s confronting Caitlyn Jenner

or performing onstage like last night at The Improv, there’s a certain level of forcefulness that has to be behind my words. But there’s also a level of intellectualism that I can never let go.

What’s your go-to karaoke song?

Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive.’

The ultimate sing-along …

It’s an incredible performance piece. The words lend themselves to a whole theatrical performance. And it’s also in my key. (Laughs.) I can hit all the notes. And people know all the words, so it’s easy to get people involved. I love a good sing-along.

It seems like everyone is jumping in the presidential pool for 2020. If you were to run, what would be Amanda Seales’ campaign slogan?

I Be Knowin’! Because people need to support someone who know what the hell they are talking about.

That’s a lost art, isn’t it?

It really is. When I say ‘I Be Knowin’, it’s because you can trust that I’m only speaking on something because I know about it.

Keith "Murph" Murphy is a senior editor at VIBE Magazine and frequent contributor at Billboard, AOL, and CBS Local. The veteran journalist has appeared on CNN, FOX News and A&E Biography and is also the author of the men’s lifestyle book "Manifest XO."