Comedian Lewis Belt and the Oakland Culture Diaspora

Lewis Belt at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood. (Brianna Boline )

This Thursday, April 11, the Paramount Theatre in Oakland hosts the Golden State Warriors’ big man DeMarcus Cousins and his “Boogie's Comedy Slam." The lineup includes some heavy names in the comedy world, including Red Gant, Karlous Miller and Mike Epps. But another name on the bill caught my eye, one that’s gaining weight in the comedy world: Oakland’s own Lewis Belt.

Ahead of the show, I had a quick convo with Belt about a couple of things—including his mentorship by Mike Epps, if Los Angeles is stealing Bay Area culture and how his experience in Antioch led to the development of his popular character SonnieBo—who, by all metrics, is an amalgamation of a post-hyphy Bay Area archetype. Or to put it in laymen's terms: He’s basically a bootsy-ass dude from the Town.

I first heard of Belt when one of his videos was shared with me in a group chat. I laughed, hit the follow button and I’ve been seeing videos of his skits, and bits from appearances on MTV, ever sense. He’s got a large following, too—one of his most popular videos, “Tip Toe,” has half a million views.

But to understand the comedy behind SonnieBo, you’ve got to understand Belt’s upbringing.

Lewis Belt, out of his SonnieBo character and still cracking up a crowd.
Lewis Belt, center, out of his SonnieBo character and still cracking up a crowd. (via Lewis Belt/YouTube)

“I'm originally from North Oakland,” Belt tells me over the phone. “Then I grew up in Antioch… By the time I was in Antioch, Antioch was kind of damn near like a hood. People came from Richmond, Oakland, San Francisco, everybody in one city.”

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Now 24, Belt came of age during a major shift in the demographics of Antioch. In the first decade of the millennium, the African American population in the small suburban town by the Delta went from 8,551 (9.7%) to 17,045 (17.3%), according to the Bay Area Census. In 2016, city data showed that African American residents accounted for 28,050 (25%) of the total population, and that's increased since.

To put it in perspective, 60 years ago there were only 17,000 people in Antioch; and not too may of them looked like SonnieBo. But by the time Belt was in high school, the demographics in Antioch provided a chance to absorb aspects of all flavors from around the Bay.

“I kind of start taking pieces of everybody who I grew up with, and put it into one person. It ended being Sonnie, you know what I'm saying?” Belt says.

Lewis Belt as SonnieBo in the video for "She Look She Took."
Lewis Belt as SonnieBo in the video for "She Look She Took." (via Lewis Belt/YouTube)

SonnieBo is a live wire: a fake-dreadlocs-shaking, loud-talking, white-T-shirt-wearing, foul-mouthed dude. I find it comedic because I know exactly the type of person Belt's modeling the persona after.

“I was just always a class clown. I’d joke everywhere,” Belt explains, adding that he’d even crack jokes on the football field in high school. “That's just who I really was. I never tried to be funny.”

He got his feet wet on stage first in Antioch, then in Oakland. He had a few experiences that weren’t satisfactory—par for the course of learning the trade. “It’s hard to become a comedian, it's like you gotta turn your funny on and off,” says Belt. As a way to navigate that, he says he’d basically just “go on stage and start talking shit. Like, ‘Boy, you hella ugly. Boy, you're hella big.’”

But there was one problem with that: not everyone in the crowd likes being laughed at.

Lewis Belt as SonnieBo, facing off in a freestyle battle with Mistah FAB.
Lewis Belt as SonnieBo, facing off in a freestyle battle with Mistah FAB. (via Lewis Belt/YouTube)

That’s one of the lessons he’s learned on his path—a path that’s led him down to Los Angeles for what’s going on four years now. Now living down there, Belt visits the East Bay often enough to film videos with other entertainers and athletes with Oakland roots, like Marshawn Lynch and Mistah FAB.

Belt is in the same quandary as so many other Bay Area artists right now. He loves the Bay, but after driving to L.A. and back every two weeks he had to move south to pursue his career seriously. And he's also noticed another thing: the industry in L.A. eats up Oakland and Bay Area culture.

When I ask him about a recent debate about whether or not L.A. musicians, specifically rising rap artist Blueface, are capitalizing off of Bay Area culture, Belt says, "Yeah. I think Bay Area culture, people like it, but you know, when the Bay Area be doing it, there's no structure behind it.” He names a few record companies that are based in L.A. as examples of platforms that support artists, and adds, “Blueface, he's doing what he's supposed to be doing. And then the OGs, the people in position that can help him, they’re helping him. Shit. I can't get mad at him."

He concludes by saying, "I'm just like... the smartest thing for a Bay Area artist, instead of trying to beef with everybody from L.A., is probably try to get along with some of these guys.”

Lewis Belt as SonnieBo in the video for "She Look She Took."
Lewis Belt as SonnieBo in the video for "She Look She Took." (via Lewis Belt/YouTube)

He’s practicing his philosophy. One of his mentors, a major name in Hollywood and a legend in the comedy game who Belt met on a movie set, is Mike Epps. “Mike always brings you along,” says Belt. “Mike will tell me like, ‘Alright, I'm gonna give you some space. I'm gonna hook you up.’”

But over the past year or so, Belt has grown in the game. “I've done worked myself up to the pole to where Mike ain't gotta look out for me on that level. He's just like, ‘Lew already on the show?!'” he says, laughing. “Now we're on the same shows. It's like a big stepping stone for me.”

And that's part of what makes L.A. attractive: along with Jamie Foxx, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Corey Holcomb, Mike Epps is one of Belt's favorite comedians of all time.

It's a list he wants to see himself on one day. “My goal," he says, "is to be one of the greatest comedians of all time."

“Yeah?” I replied—almost in the same way I replied when he named Corey Holcomb as a Top 5.

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“Just one of them," Belt says. "I don't think I'm the greatest or no shit like that. Just seeing what's possible. Just to be mentioned as one of the best comedians of all time. One of the best of my generations. That's my goal. I just want to be respected. I don't care about being the most famous, but you know, if I'm one of the most respected ones in the game, I'm gonna be happy.”

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