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Politics

The Voice of Black America?

How the white political establishment anointed Charlamagne tha God as the spokesman for all Black voters.

On election night, amid the slow trickle of results, Stephen Colbert checked in with a guest familiar to viewers of his deeply uncomfortable 2016 election night show. “One thing we do know is that Donald Trump is definitely going to lose Black voters,” Colbert announced on his live special, “and here with his thoughts on why … is host of The Breakfast Club, Charlamagne tha God.” After a video collage of Trump back in 2016 asking Black voters “what they had to lose” by voting for him, Charlamagne launched into a bit called “Charlamagne tha God’s List of Things We Had to Lose”—a litany that included voting rights and health care. “Black people have long been the soul of this country,” Charlamagne said, from behind his anchor desk. “Because we have to believe in the promise of equality and justice that America provides.”

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At this point, it’s no surprise that Charlamagne, who rose to fame as host of the nationally syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club, the self-styled “world’s most dangerous morning show,” was Colbert’s choice to comment in sweeping terms on the Black perspective in 2020. In October, Colbert wrote in Interview magazine that Charlamagne had “remade The Breakfast Club, a longtime weather vane of the hip-hop world, into a destination for progressive politicians looking to amplify their message.” In 2016, Hillary Clinton famously revealed that she carries hot sauce in her bag — launching a news cycle that attempted to delineate the fine line between pandering and authenticity. Since then, Charlamagne’s evolution from shock jock to political pundit has accelerated, and his profile has only risen. Barack Obama did an in-person interview on the show last week to promote his presidential memoir, despite never having appeared during his time in office. The Breakfast Club was in 90 national markets at the end of 2019, and now airs on more than 100 stations nationwide.

In the decade they’ve been on the air, Charlamagne and his co-hosts Angela Yee and DJ Envy built their audience on scandalous interviews with guests from Kanye West to Louis Farrakhan to Dick Gregory. Snippets of their conversations have become viral memes, with Birdman’s “put some respeck on my name” and Soulja Boy’s “Draaake” two of the more lasting ones. The provocation for provocation’s sake ethos of the show could in theory have relegated Charlamagne to a realm of diminishing influence—like talk show host and former shock jock Wendy Williams, a mentor of his. Instead, Charlamagne has managed to leverage his outrageous, irreverent interviewing style into lasting cultural, and now political, cachet.

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Charlamagne has also long been a contentious figure in his own right. There was the sexual misconduct allegation from a woman who claims he assaulted her nearly a decade ago when she was 15, and who recently sought to reopen the case. (Charlamagne denies the allegation, which was originally dropped after Charlamagne voluntarily provided DNA evidence and Charlamagne’s DNA was not found on his alleged victim; her 2018 push to reopen the case was unsuccessful.) And there’s his history of disturbing comments about women—the time he said publicly that he’d given a woman Spanish Fly and had sex with her, then later claimed he’d misspoken; the time he casually said that his first sexual encounter with his wife was basically rape and again said he’d misspoken. (His wife later agreed that Charlamagne had misspoken.)

Yet Charlamagne was inescapable this election cycle, and not just on his show. There he was in April on CNN, telling Erin Burnett that Pete Buttigieg was built for the spotlight, or in August, declaring that Kamala Harris was terrible in the presidential debates. There he was in October, opining to Don Lemon that young Black male voters are drawn to Trump because the president tries to court them. Democratic long shots like Tom Steyer and Seth Moulton had turns in The Breakfast Club’s hot seat. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren made their way into the Tribeca studio before their first debate. And then there was the Joe Biden interview in May, when Biden ended up gaffe-ing his way into one of the most cringeworthy lines of his entire campaign: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”

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It’s easy to see why the show appeals to Democratic politicians desperately trying to attract young, Black voters. According to Nielsen, it currently has 8 million listeners a month, 70 percent of whom are Black and most of whom are under 45. Charlamagne is a charismatic interviewer, and for some candidates, the show’s informal vibe and loose conversational style makes it a useful forum for projecting “authenticity.” But it was still frankly exhausting to see Charlamagne invoked again and again and again, in media outlet after media outlet, to comment on the priorities and values of Black voters.

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Getting cast as the political spokesman for all Black people requires exactly two qualifications: be Black and have an audience that is primarily Black. Whether or not your audience views you as a serious political thinker is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether your opinions are actually widely held in the community you claim to represent. For the politicians looking for campaign pit stops and the media outlets looking for sound bites, the only thing that really matters is a young Black audience. Thus, somehow, in an election with uniquely high stakes for the Black community, in the midst of a raging national debate about structural racism, our main representative on the campaign interview trail was a shock jock with a Wikipedia list of controversies longer than a CVS receipt. So how exactly did Charlamagne tha God get anointed as the voice of Black America?

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Before Charlamagne, now 42 years old, was dubbed “hip-hop’s Howard Stern,” he was Lenard Larry McKelvey from Moncks Corner, South Carolina. In interviews and in his 2017 memoir Black Privilege, he’s detailed the time he spent in and out of jail before figuring out that his infamous mouth could make money, rather than trouble. He picked up the name during a stint in night school where he learned about the medieval emperor King Charlemagne. He’d used the name Charles when he was selling crack, he said in a 2016 New York magazine profile, “so when I came across Charlemagne in a history book, that sounded good.” (“But I didn’t like the e in Charlemagne. The a looked better.”) As for “tha God,” he’s said alternatively that he just thought it sounded good or that it came from the Five Percenters, a conspiracy theory–prone offshoot of the Nation of Islam that’s long been affiliated with hip-hop. Either way, his choice of name captures Charlamagne’s general ethos: the relentless pursuit of drama and spectacle, even as he’s morphed from provocateur to political interviewer.

Charlamagne, whose personal motto is Biggie Smalls’ lyric “bite my tongue for no one,” has a knack for eliciting raw, honest moments. He became best known for brazen celebrity interviews, haranguing stars like Lil Mama to the point of tears or walking out. Black and local politicians would occasionally appear as surrogates for national candidates. But that 2016 Hillary Clinton conversation was the turning point for Charlamagne—the interview that made him a star in the political world. And while both the show and the hosts have somewhat matured since the days when Charlamagne was seen sniffing the seat of Jennifer Lopez’s chair, The Breakfast Club was never designed to be a political forum, to have the stakes attached to it that it does now.

When grilling political figures, Charlamagne and his co-hosts apply similar, if somewhat more respectful, tactics to the ones they use in celebrity interviews. They are undeniably good at throwing guests off their game, especially ones who come armed with formal talking points. When Andrew Yang responded to a question about whether he had a “Black agenda” by declaring that he supported getting rid of private prisons, Charlamagne replied: “Why do y’all think all Black people are in jail?” When Bernie Sanders kept waffling on the question of reparations, Charlamagne pressed him harder on the subject than Sanders had been pressed throughout the election cycle. (“Do you think Democrats really believe in reparations, or do you think it’s just a good talking point for this election cycle?” Charlamagne pointedly asked.) Underlying many of the show’s best moments is the simple fact that The Breakfast Club is one of the rare media forums where a primarily Black audience can see famous people interviewed by Black hosts, no code-switching or softening of questions necessary.

It’s clear that some fans get a kick out of Charlamagne’s political interviews as pure entertainment, without reading too much into them. “Great interview … Charlamagne is ridiculous in this one 😂 😂 …but Mayor Pete rolled with it like a champ,” says one representative comment on a video of The Breakfast Club’s conversation with Buttigieg.

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Pete Buttigieg with Charlamagne tha God at a campaign event in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, on Jan. 23.
Meg Kinnard/AP

But there’s a notable disconnect between the way white media responds to The Breakfast Club and the show’s contentious status within the Black community. The Ringer’s Press Box podcast called Charlamagne “one of the leading power brokers in the Democratic primary.” When Charlamagne interviewed Rush Limbaugh in June after George Floyd’s killing, the media covered it feverishly, treating it as a historic moment for bipartisan engagement. The Los Angeles Times declared The Breakfast Club the “radio forum for the nation’s racial reckoning.” That was news to many Black observers: Writer Kara Brown simply replied, “Lol no.” New York Times journalist Astead Herndon said, “I will be grateful when white media discovers there is more than one black radio show/podcast.” “Charlamagne’s ascension on the ‘black people who non-black people think speak for all black people’ power rankings has been incredible,” he added.

Of course that interview made much of the mainstream media salivate: two of radio’s most prominent and politically opposed figures willing to sit down in the midst of a national firestorm about race in America. Maybe white liberal listeners felt like if Limbaugh could engage with someone on the other side of the aisle, there was hope for their one racist uncle. Listening to the conversation, though, it’s hard to believe that anyone ever interpreted it as more than simple stagecraft—two titans of sensationalism trading sound bites without ever ceding an argumentative inch.

Limbaugh opens by declaring that he wanted to “reach out to people on the other side of this” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. It’s momentarily unclear if he means liberals or just Black people, until he says, “So I started asking around, ‘If I wanted to reach the largest number and the most influential number of African Americans and other minorities in America, who should I talk to?’ And everybody kept coming back at me with The Breakfast Club.” Within Limbaugh’s first words to the Breakfast Club hosts, the battle lines are drawn, familiar and wearying. “There are two things happening in America, and it sickens me what happened to [Floyd],” Limbaugh said. “Legitimate national outrage about a policeman’s criminal brutality has been hijacked.”

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Limbaugh goes on to point to the relative success of Charlamagne, Envy, and Yee—seemingly assuming they are all from impoverished backgrounds—as proof that America is the land of equal opportunity. From there, it goes downhill fast. Limbaugh at one point wonders, “If the Minnesota Vikings had announced two nights ago that they were going to hire Colin Kaepernick, would the riots have stopped?” Charlamagne asks, “How do we dismantle white supremacy moving forward?” But it goes nowhere. Over and over again, they repeat the boilerplate ideologies of their respective “sides,” and over and over again, they argue past each other. When Limbaugh suggests that they have another conversation later, Charlamagne responds, “Not if we just gonna dance the whole time.”

It’s a satisfying zinger that is ultimately meaningless. Charlamagne’s protests to Limbaugh that he wasn’t “letting nobody politicize Black pain” might have rung truer had he not courted a similar controversy in 2016 when he decided to have a conversation with right-wing firebrand Tomi Lahren.

Yet many insisted on covering the Limbaugh episode as if it were an urgent new development in American racial relations. “Rush Limbaugh and Charlamagne tha God Debated Privilege and Race—but What They Agreed on Is Surprising,” declared Forbes. (The surprise? “Legalized murder” is bad.) “The Breakfast Club Battles Rush Limbaugh in Truly Wild Chat,” in the Daily Beast. “Rush Limbaugh Scolded by Hosts of The Breakfast Club for Denying Existence of White Privilege,” in CNN.

Charlamagne knew what he was getting into; the Los Angeles Times piece that lauded the show as a forum for racial reckoning also revealed that, going in, the hosts “noted how they did not have high expectations for moving Limbaugh closer to their worldview.” According to Charlamagne in a later episode of The Breakfast Club, the Limbaugh stunt was the result of a “corporate call”—which suggests that parent company iHeartRadio sees The Breakfast Club’s cultural role as a kind of performative racial translator. If the point was never to convince Limbaugh or for Limbaugh to listen to three Black people sharing their lived experiences, then the only reason to have him on was to be seen doing so, and for both of them to put on a show for their respective audiences. By that metric, it was a success.

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The interviews that arguably cemented The Breakfast Club’s place as conduit of Black political thought—those of the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries—share some of the same traits of that Limbaugh conversation. They’re brash and audacious, with a few glimmers of transcendence, but for the most part the confrontation is fundamentally just for show.

Sometimes Charlamagne’s questioning style yields humanizing tidbits, like the revelation that Cory Booker had a “boo” later determined to be Rosario Dawson. Or Kamala Harris declaring that she’s a fan of the rapper Too Short. But for every harmlessly goofy question, there is another clumsy provocation that seems merely designed to get a rise out of guests. Take the exchange with Elizabeth Warren where Charlamagne pressed her about her past claims of Native American heritage—ignoring her attempts to outline policy proposals to address issues like racial health care disparities and maternal mortality rates for Black women—eventually saying, “You’re kind of like the original Rachel Dolezal, a little bit.”

That Dolezal comment eventually got picked up as the highlight of the interview. And yet none of those outlets mentioned that Charlamagne himself had once compared Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner, saying people who accept the latter would be hypocritical not to do the same for the former. (He repeatedly misgendered Jenner in that Complex interview, as well.) There was also the uncomfortable interview where the Breakfast Club hosts not only allowed Lil Duval to joke about killing trans women a week after having trans activist Janet Mock on the show, but also laughed at the joke—another bit often unremarked-upon in glowing write-ups of the show’s impact.

Charlamagne and his co-stars have sometimes seemed to save their most heated antagonism for Black women. This is a host who once suggested Mo’Nique was worth less than her Black male peers, and hinted that Megan Thee Stallion was anti-Black for choosing not to come on his show. The “bite my tongue for no one” self-branding that allows Charlamagne to openly question political candidates about their commitment to Black lives has also left room for an endless reel of bigoted comments, enough that every so often a thread of them trends on Twitter. But lately he’s tried to cast off the worst of his shock-jock misogyny. He owned up to mistakes in his memoir Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me, and extolled the wonders of therapy. He signed his name to a letter calling on Biden to appoint a Black woman as VP. At this point, the revolutionary status the show holds in the white political imagination seems impervious to its missteps.

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Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy at the 2020 iHeartRadio Podcast Awards in Burbank, California, on Jan. 17.
Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Radio has historically been very important to the Black community. When the first Black-oriented radio stations started popping up in the ’40s, radio was a kind of equalizer, a way to disseminate information at a time when many Black people were barred from formal education. Black disc jockeys became titans of the community. “We didn’t have movie stars that we could look up to or sports heroes,” Jack Gibson, one of the most influential Black DJs of the ’50s and ’60s, once said. “You have to remember, there were no basketball and football and all that kind of stuff. Blacks were hungry for heroes.”

Black DJs like Gibson—who helped start the first Black-owned radio station in Atlanta in 1949 and is more often known as Jockey Jack or Jack the Rapper—had massive influence among Black listeners. “At one time, in the entire city of Chicago, if you wanted to reach the Black community, you had to go through [DJ] Al Benson,” Chicago DJ Lucky Cordell said in a 1995 interview. DJs like Benson and Gibson pioneered the voice of the Black radio host—confidently addressing Black audiences without code-switching, riffing with equal comfort on both culture and politics, and giving platforms to artists that white radio largely ignored.

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But in the ’90s, a wave of consolidation in the radio industry increased the influence of the Black hosts on “urban” stations backed by huge conglomerates that owned multiple radio stations across the country, which meant that Black radio—and especially hip-hop radio—now had an audience that was no longer almost exclusively Black. Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 show, supplanted by The Breakfast Club as arbiter of New York’s hip-hop radio scene, is owned by Emmis Communications Corporation. The Breakfast Club is backed by iHeartRadio, now the largest radio broadcaster in the United States. The Breakfast Club was also one of the first radio shows to take advantage of the long interview format made possible by the internet, releasing 40- to 60-minute interviews on its YouTube channel right before the podcast boom began. And so there was Charlamagne, positioned at the intersection of legacy Black radio, corporate-backed hip-hop, and the democratizing power of the internet.

Charlamagne is not the first radio personality that the Democratic political establishment has viewed as its main conduit to Black voters. Many politicians including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama visited the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show. (“To some, you’re considered the voice of Black America,” one newspaper reporter said to Joyner in a 1999 interview.) Then came Tavis Smiley, who started out as a guest on Joyner’s show, before hosting The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR and Public Radio International. (He also had a PBS talk show until he was dismissed for alleged sexual misconduct.) Smiley interviewed political figures including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Obama, but his relationship to the Democratic establishment cooled after the president declined to appear at an event Smiley was hosting and Smiley became a vocal public critic of the administration.

Smiley’s radio style could hardly be more different from Charlamagne’s. He’s the buttoned-up courtier to Charlamagne’s jester. And Joyner’s avuncular on-air persona reflected the fact that his audience was considerably older than The Breakfast Club’s. While Joyner is a familiar and respected name in Black households, Smiley built his reputation in part via platforms that explicitly target white audiences. (“You don’t survive on public television with just a black audience,” Smiley once told the New York Times.) But Charlamagne has not just managed to become a household name in both white and Black America; he’s unusual in that his brand seems to be perceived so differently in each.

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There’s a paternalism in the assumption that not only is the Black community unable to distinguish between celebrity and intellectual leadership, but that we have no actual experts of our own. (Just look at the media’s hand-wringing over the idea that Kanye would pull Black voters away from Biden.) White America’s commitment to finding a Black man to anoint as the representative for all Black people—and it’s almost always a man—is an old, old story. It is, after all, easier to deal with a token interlocutor than understand a diverse community with various needs. This is why it feels like Charlamagne’s political influence was largely wished into existence on the power of the white liberal desire to anoint another Black spokesman, a desire that seems all the more acute because of the general scarcity of national Black media.

Unlike the other Black commentators whom the political media constantly solicits to explain what Black voters want—Van Jones or Al Sharpton or Bakari Sellers—Charlamagne didn’t set out to become any kind of political authority. But he spied an opportunity, and he cannily maneuvered himself to fit the role. And when the political establishment realized that The Breakfast Club was an easy route to a young, Black audience, it took a show that was built for breezy sensationalism and forced it to shoulder a very different burden.

In many ways, it’s too late to turn back now. Charlamagne’s role as community gatekeeper has been parlayed into a Comedy Central show, the Black Effect Podcast Network with iHeartMedia, a new Simon & Schuster imprint he oversees called Black Privilege, and a new Audible venture with fellow courter of controversy Kevin Hart. Charlamagne’s contract with The Breakfast Club ends in December. He has dropped hints about his potential exit from the show. But no matter what happens, there’s little doubt that he’ll remain in the cultural spotlight, and that white media will breathlessly cover whatever he has to say. If only they’d remember that the only person he’s speaking for is himself.


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