Interview: Calise Hawkins on Being '40 AF' and Finding Humor and Hope in This World

Calise Hawkins is 40 AF

To celebrate her 40th birthday, Calise Hawkins took the stage at the Brooklyn House of Comedy to record her debut full-length comedy album, Calise Hawkins is 40 AF, which is coming out on Aug. 14 via Blonde Medicine. A hilarious examination of humanity – aging, motherhood, dating, race, mental health and all the craziness of this existence – the release generates laughs at every turn fueled by Hawkins’ desire to take her career, and her life, into her own hands.

“There are two things going on internally with the overall experience with the release of this album. I held out for a very long time before I was able to push myself to do it,” said Hawkins by phone on Aug. 5. “One, I was waiting for some outside force, somebody to support me so much that I believed in myself, some headliner, some person to scout me, an agent, anyone to tell me that I’m good enough. Finally, I pushed myself because I knew I needed to start relying more on myself.”

“Once you start supporting and pushing yourself and knowing that you’re good enough, then other people latch onto that concept. You have to first create it inside yourself.”

The other thing Hawkins embraced in the process of releasing 40 AF was examining all the messy aspects of herself to recognize that she, alone, holds the power to say what stays and what goes.

“I have to realize that I’m 40 – and I know we’re all growing and learning – but how much more do I have to grow and learn,” she said with a laugh. “At this point, I really need to start learning to accept some of what I am and see it in a different way.”

With refreshing individuality while still effortlessly connecting with the live audience on 40 AF, Hawkins’ humor wields almost involuntary laughter as she shares insight into her life. Raising her daughter with roommates, the absurdity of phone sex and growing up as a light-skinned Black woman in Springfield, Illinois, are among the topics mined for funny and unveiled in complex layers and quick one-liners.

Hawkins has been performing comedy since she was 24 years old. During her whole career, she has been challenged by the ridiculous notion that there can only be one Black woman on any given lineup. That one comedian should be the voice of an entire demographic, all while countless white men are celebrated for their mildly different approaches to the art of stand-up.

“The gatekeepers have been telling me from day one that we don’t need more than one Black woman to represent Black women. I’ve never felt like I can represent all Black women. Obviously, no Black woman can represent all Black women. When they try to give us one, that’s what they are trying to tell us,” said Hawkins. “We are diverse within ourselves. It’s a crazy concept to consider one pigment a diversity initiative.”

Calise Hawkins

Photo by Phil Provencio

In 2019, Hawkins had a revelatory experience at the Brooklyn House of Comedy during the Black Women in Comedy Festival that inspired her to return to the venue one year later to record 40 AF.

“Once I was at the Black Women in Comedy Festival, and I saw all these different women representing all these different regions, walks of life, age groups and experiences, I was like, ‘Holy crap they’ve been lying to me,’” she said. “You couldn’t pick a single woman out of the lineup to say, ‘You represent every one of us.’ It is not possible. There was so much diversity within the diversity.”

When asked about the best parts of being 40, Hawkins explained that coming to terms with the translucent nature of the disrespect she’s experienced as a Black woman has been a powerful realization. She now looks within herself for confirmation of her intrinsic value.

“I really thought that once I was a grown woman, people would treat me in kind, but people still treat me like a child. I do think that’s because I’m a woman and I’m a minority,” she said before detailing a recent example of blatant racism at an animal shelter where she wasn’t allowed to hold a kitten, but a six-year-old white boy was given blind trust. “Over my 40 years of observing patterns and behaviors, I’ve realized, ‘Oh you’re never going to start showing respect.’ I have to figure out a way to generate respect within myself because the way the outside world looks at me is going to be a constant form of disrespect.”

Alongside this understanding, Hawkins is still optimistic about the future thanks to her daughter, Asha, whose name literally means hope in Hindi.

“The reason why I feel a change, and the reason why I can feel a pick-me-up towards it is, I’ve spoken to my daughter, who’s now 13, about everything that’s going on – about Black lives, trans lives, women – and hearing her interpretation of it makes me think there’s going to be change,” said Hawkins. “Her agenda is equality. I had a mistaken agenda – until a couple years ago – of reparations, not slavery reparations, all of them.”

“Hearing things like, ‘Hey, why aren’t you smiling?’ I need reparations for that.”

“Or, ‘Hey, you’re a pretty girl. Why are you in comedy?’ I need reparations for that feeling.”

She continued, “I want compensation. My daughter is like, ‘No, f*ck your compensation. Everybody is equal now. There’s no line. There’s no line to who gets what when.’”

Calise Hawkins

Photo by Jenni Walkowiak

Hawkins is still figuring out the ins and outs of being a comedian during a pandemic. In the meantime, she has resolved to use this era of isolation to focus on herself as a champion of her own career and embrace herself as a person; good, bad and messy.

“My album cover kind of says it all,” said Hawkins. “I put all the things that have made me feel like I’m a mess or I’m all over the place on it. Going into the album, I thought, ‘I’m putting this out there because it’s time for me to get organized.’ Now that it’s out I realize, ‘Oh no, I’m exposing myself and people might not like me. I have to be OK with that.’

In exposing herself, Hawkins has created a hilarious snapshot of one person’s unique experience while somehow mirroring all of our own individual chaos to connect listeners in the shared absurdity of life. In life and on Calise Hawkins is 40 AF, the funny lies in the messy details.

Calise Hawkins is 40 AF is available via Blonde Medicine on Friday, Aug. 14. Keep up with Hawkins on Instagram and at Calisehawkins.com.

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Laurie Fanelli is a Chicago-based writer and photographer who specializes in live entertainment coverage. She is at home at major music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and, of course, Lollapalooza and Riot Fest. She loves chatting with hilarious comedians and has interviewed the likes of Maria Bamford, Paula Poundstone and Tracy Morgan, to name a few. She has photographed tons of great bands/musicians – from every genre – including Rob Zombie, Florence and the Machine, Alabama Shakes, Neil Young, Shania Twain, Pitbull, Pierce the Veil, Kendrick Lamar, Patti Smith and many, many more. When not writing or shooting shows, Laurie loves to spend her free time training for marathons and exploring the city of Chicago. She is a longtime vegetarian and animal advocate who likes to cook healthy, delicious meals that everyone can enjoy. For more information or to contact Laurie, head over to www.lauriefanelli.com.