Shakeel Bhamani (@shakbbx) interviews internationally touring stand-up comedian Shereen Kassam (@funnybrowngirl)

Shakeel Bhamani is a multi-instrumental musician. His frequent boredom allows him to try to master new things all the time. He is also a nationally ranked beatboxer and gave a TEDx Talk about how different cultures and emotions influence beatboxing. Shakeel, a.k.a. Shak, also dabbles in vocals, piano, drums/percussion, guitar, and anything else he can try! Catch him posting videos or streaming games/music on any social media with the handle @shakbbx.

Interview by Shakeel Bhamani for Ismailimail:

I’m pleased to profile and interview Shereen Kassam, internationally touring stand-up comedian, award-winning podcast host, and marketing strategist at Walt Disney World. Shereen has performed worldwide on stages from New York to Saigon, as well as appeared on HBO and opened for Arsenio Hall.  Shereen was recognized by the [2021] Orlando Business Journal as a 40 Under 40. She completed her BA at Brown University and her MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Shereen currently resides in Orlando, Florida.

Shereen Kassam

Shakeel: I’m super happy to have the chance to speak with you. I’d love it if you could just start by telling us a little bit more about you and your story.

Shereen: Of course, and thank you for spotlighting me! My story in a nutshell is that I was supposed to be a doctor, which is hard to do when you’re afraid of blood. So, I became a strategy consultant, but then I realized I love sleep too much! In the midst of trying to figure out what I wanted to do in life – at least professionally – I stumbled upon stand-up comedy and my life changed! Since discovering comedy, I’ve had the opportunity to host my own radio show, start a podcast, and perform comedy across the world.  Now I consider myself a multi-faceted creative, something I never imagined I could be growing up. Today, I’m Florida’s Funniest Female, I have an award-winning podcast called Creative Breakthrough that features conversations with creatives from under-represented communities, including Ismailis such as Sarah Thawer, Rizwan Manji, Shereen Ladha, and Ali Velshi, and I’m also a marketing strategist at Disney. My most recent claim to fame is a TEDx talk I gave, titled “Chicken Wings Made Me Unstoppable.

Shakeel: That’s wonderful. Can you tell me a little bit more about your TEDx talk?  And, how do you get selected to give a TEDx talk?

Shereen: Sure! TEDx talks are focused on sharing knowledge. Anyone can give a TEDx talk if you have an idea worth sharing.  My idea worth sharing developed from something near and dear to my heart – chicken wings!  Part of my personal brand on social media, the radio, and my podcast is chicken wings.  People always ask me, “why do you love wings?” Obviously, because they’re delicious! But more so, you can never get bored of chicken wings because you can always change the sauce. Similarly, when we are bored, stuck, or in need of a change in our lives, we can always re-sauce ourselves. And that’s the key message of my TEDx talk: Re-sauce yourself!

Shakeel: It’s a wonderful way to relate – everyone loves chicken wings! I personally have never heard a TEDx talk on chicken wings, where did the idea initially spark from to use chicken wings as a metaphor?

Shereen: At the end of 2020, I was asked to give a keynote talk at an event called “Unstoppable”. The event was to designed to energize and invigorate women after a long year of dealing with COVID and to simultaneously pump them up for 2021. Obviously, at the time, we did not know that COVID would continue. For many of us, including me, 2020 was a stressful year – all my comedy shows got canceled, my speaking gigs were postponed, and my travel plans were put on hold. I was not feeling very unstoppable. One of the organizers said to me, “You’re doing better than the rest of us. What’s the secret?” And I blurted out “chicken wings!” During COVID, since we couldn’t dine in at restaurants, my family started a weekly tradition where we would order chicken wings and tailgate in the parking lot of the establishment. So, that exchange prompted me to share all the ways in which chicken wings make me unstoppable, including the idea that you can change your sauce to change your life.

Shakeel: I actually just thought of this, but there’s so much diversity, even just in chicken wings. A lot of different cultures have their own twist on wings. In our Desi culture, we have our tandoori chicken and then there are Korean chicken wings. I love the diversity, it’s such an inclusive metaphor.

Shereen: Yes, and you’re right. The best chicken wings I’ve ever had were in Nairobi, they were peri-peri chicken wings. And it’s just amazing, that across continents and cultures, we can all come together over a plate of chicken wings.

Shakeel: Yes, it brings everyone together. I love it. So, I did watch your talk. I thought it was wonderful. I mean, it was funny. You had some very inspirational thoughts and were also very vulnerable. I was curious, what was your thought process as you were writing your talk, as you’re preparing?

Shereen: When I started writing the talk, I knew I wanted it to be funny, for sure. But I also wanted to bring other parts of me into the conversation, because I’m more than a comedian. I wanted to be authentic on stage, and the only way I could do that is by sharing my whole story.  Because it wouldn’t be fair to say I’ve won all these awards and accolades, and it all happened so easily. Because it didn’t. No matter how uncomfortable I might make people feel, these were incidents that needed to be shared because they shaped who I am today.

Shakeel: Were you nervous about what others were going to say about the stories you shared?

Shereen: Yes, for sure. Early in the writing process, my mentors told me to be careful how much I share because people in Corporate America will watch this and it may impact their view of me.  And I struggled with that.  But I realized that I couldn’t leave these personal anecdotes out to appease others, or to hide things out of shame. Because the encounters I share in my talk are not mine alone. And, no one who has been the target of hate – be it emotional or physical – should feel silenced or ashamed; rather we should be encouraging dialogue around these issues. By not talking about things such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and sexism, we are not only perpetuating such behavior, but we are also perpetuating the pain being inflicted on others, including members of our community. Keeping silent about these topics which some still consider to be “taboo” isn’t helping anything or anyone and just maintains a status quo where women cannot be true equals in society.

Shakeel: I agree. As an artist, we are always told to put on a specific face and not share everything about ourselves. But that’s disingenuous to who we are as people, and this stage (TEDx) is a perfect place to show your vulnerability and say, hey, I’m actually human.

Shereen: Exactly. They shared my TEDx talk at work, and not one person has looked down on me for sharing my story.  I feel that sharing my story now gives others the confidence to speak out and start a dialogue, whether it’s with their family, their friends, or a therapist so that they can begin their healing process and re-sauce themselves.  

Shakeel: Absolutely. Let’s talk more about sauces. You mentioned everyone can create their own type of sauce, how does one choose or even change their sauce?

Shereen: It comes from deep down within you. You have to first want to change your sauce, which can be a difficult realization to come to. But it’s a key step in the process to acknowledge that you’re drowning in a stale sauce, and you want to make a change. I realized I was angry and depressed. And every day I was spiraling into what felt like a deeper hole.  It felt inevitable that I would never be happy again. But I made the decision to talk to a therapist, something that I hadn’t previously considered as an option given cultural stigmas.  This was my first step towards re-saucing myself. Taking that first step is the hardest, but once you throw away the stale sauces, you’ll make room for so many new, tastier sauces!

Shakeel: Absolutely, I think mental health is extremely important. I myself am a huge supporter of seeking therapy, no matter if you have a mental illness or not. I think it helps to unravel your thoughts a lot better, so you can think about changing your sauce. What is one thing that you hope people will take away from you from your TED talk?

Shereen: I want them to be inspired. I want them to watch the TEDx talk and really consider, “am I carrying sauces that are not meant for me? Am I carrying around sauces that don’t provide me joy?” And if the answer to either of those questions is “yes” then I want them to feel encouraged to say, “I’m going to make the decision today to throw away those disgusting sauces.  And I’m going to start choosing sauces that allow me to be my most authentic self.”

Shakeel: That was beautiful. For those of you who are reading this and do not understand the concept of re-saucing yourself, please watch Shereen’s TEDx talk to really understand the meat, no pun intended, of what we’re talking about. I had a great time watching your talk. It was wonderful talking with you today and I’m looking forward to seeing where you take this next.

Shereen: Thank you. And I won’t speak for you, but I know you’ve also done a TEDx talk. So if anyone has any questions about the process, please don’t hesitate to reach out to either one of us.  Also, if you’re an artist or creative, check out the Ismaili Artist Alliance. Shakeel is the National Chair and he has done a tremendous job building a community to support one another and share knowledge. I applaud you for what you’re doing!

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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