‘Joyful, empowering’ comedy club for femmes of colour is changing the industry, one gig at a time

Kemah Bob, founder of FOC IT UP! Comedy Club.

PinkNews journalist and comedian Asyia Iftikhar talks to Kemah Bob about their Femmes of Colour Comedy Club, FOC IT UP.

When I first performed at FOC IT UP, an LGBTQ+ inclusive comedy club, it was the first time I’d ever been in a line-up of exclusively non-white people as a comedian.

I felt a warmth I’d seldom experienced in comedy spaces before – a testament to the hard work founder Kemah Bob has put into creating a vibrant and inclusive space for femmes (including women, non-binary and trans people) of colour in comedy to thrive.

Kemah was inspired by their friend Sadie Sinner, who runs cabaret company The Cocoa Butter Club, after being given a one-hour comedy club slot.

“I knew that I wanted a space for women and non-binary performers, and trans men as well,” Kemah tells PinkNews.

Since its humble beginnings in 2018, FOC IT UP has become a refuge for countless comedians, hosted shows at Edinburgh Fringe, started a podcast and – most importantly – built a community.

“I was speaking to someone recently, and we were talking about barriers to entry for trans and non-binary performers and they said one barrier is having a place to go up and practice, having places to gig where you feel safe and welcome. I definitely think and hope that we’re a part of providing a place,” they add.

Kemah Bob

Kemah Bob. (Matt Crockett)

Kemah also touched on the challenges marginalised comedians have faced in recent years with the rise of “cancel culture” discourse in comedy spaces.

“It’s an honour to take on the responsibility of being a place where people can feel welcome,” they say after some deliberation. 

“I can’t guarantee what comics say when they get on stage – I wouldn’t want to make them say or not say anything.

“But what I can do is book people who I think will be respectful of what the space is. I think that the phenomenon of people in comedy, saying whatever they want to say without facing any consequences or being held accountable is not new.”
They believe wholeheartedly that the people being targeted by high profile comedians are also being “empowered” and “brought together” by those same attacks.

Kemah reflected on the anti-trans route comedian Dave Chappelle has taken, as someone who had been “hugely inspiring and hilarious” when they were growing up.

“It’s really disappointing,” they say, “and it’s also scary because I hope to be creating for the rest of my life and I hope I remain in a mindset of learning and humility and growth.

“It terrifies me that some people hit a certain age or level of success and just disengage from their ability to listen to other people and learn about their experiences.”

For Kemah, they believe FOC IT UP is a space to get away from the discourse and “facilitate a space that centres something else entirely.”

Comedian Sophie Duker performs at FOC IT UP

Comedian Sophie Duker performs at FOC IT UP! (Lyra Vega)

FOC IT UP is adapting post-lockdown and mid-cost of living crisis

During the pandemic, theatre and live performance were hit hard as everything went online. Kemah knows all-too-well the existential gloom of performing stand-up comedy alone in your room to a screen of silent black boxes.

Although lockdown has long-since ended, Kemah is clear that the impact of the pandemic hasn’t – something they’ve seen in themself, and in audiences.

“I wanted to come back but also understood that not everyone feels safe to come out and be in a crowd. I think we all have been put in a position to manage our own risks.”

It was in tackling this that the FOC IT UP! Comedy Club podcast was born in 2022.

Kemah Bob

Kemah Bob. (Matt Crockett)

“People aren’t coming out the way they were before,” Kemah says.

“Some of us found a lot of joy at home. And it can be harder to get us to get out and go to things. Even a lot of comedians, including myself, actually enjoy not being out and gigging all the time.

“[There’s also the] cost of living crisis so the amount of people buying tickets to live shows has really shifted, so it’s just being mindful of that, and trying to make the best decisions for the FOC IT UP community.”

‘What we are doing is valuable and needed’

Despite the shifting nature of the industry, Kemah has grand plans for the future of FOC IT UP. They hope to bring back workshops to help new comedians of colour develop their stand-up skills, create more community hang-out spaces and have more regular gigs. 

“I know that what we’re doing is beautiful and valuable and needed,” they say.

“When we’re facilitating the space we need to stay true to our intention, which is to create a joyful and empowering experience for people on and off stage.”

FOC IT UP live show.

FOC IT UP live show. (Corinne Cumming)

Despite my own and other femmes of colour’s experiences in some comedy venues, Kemah wants to encourage people to consider comedy and join a movement of like-minded comedians.

“I’m very big on women, non-binary and trans people of colour giving comedy a go,” they say.

“I feel like every person has something unique to share and I always want to encourage people to find it, and to express themselves.

“If it clicks for you and if it clicks for the audience then I always want people to come in and give it a go. Because I think if people are getting paid to talk about their opinions and experiences, then it should be people of colour.”
You can find details on live show dates, podcast updates and more on the FOC IT UP! website.