Charlamagne Tha God On Therapy, Mental Health, Cancel Culture : The Limits with Jay Williams Lenard McKelvey's mom was an English teacher. As a kid, he always had his head in a book — even when he was reading that book in a jail cell. But there were some things he couldn't learn from reading, and one of them was how to be true to himself as his radio career took off. Now he's Charlamagne Tha God, host of the massively influential radio show The Breakfast Club and his own late-night show on Comedy Central, Tha God's Honest Truth.

In this episode of The Limits, Charlamagne tells Jay Williams how he came to wield one of the biggest microphones in Black culture, and why — despite that — he's still working on finding his voice.

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Charlamagne Tha God Is Still Finding His Voice

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JAY WILLIAMS, HOST:

Welcome to "The Limits." I'm Jay Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: So I've been spending a lot of time thinking about identities. And we all have so many. For me personally, I'm a father, a husband, ESPN host, former NBA player. I'm an entrepreneur. But I'm also a Black man in spaces that aren't always comfortable to be in. I'm Jay Williams, or JWill professionally. But I'm Jason when I walk through the doors of my home to my family. On TV, I'm scrutinized constantly. At home, I'm a father of two small kids. That takes up such a different part of who I am. And honestly, it's hard to compartmentalize all of that. So for me, I'm always wondering about how you balance being a real ass human being with a public persona, and how do you manage to come up in the game with all it throws at you while still being smart and thoughtful about your business?

My guest today knows a lot about that. You probably know him as a larger-than-life persona with a larger-than-life name - Charlamagne Tha God.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THA GOD'S HONEST TRUTH")

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: There's a civil war going on, only this time it's with good white people and cracker-ass crackers. And the crackers have got to go, OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE BREAKFAST CLUB")

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: All right, I've talked my way out of enough home invasions to know when something is a setup, OK? I don't even know who to trust in government anymore, but I know who I do trust. And that's no damn body.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: At this point, you could go back to school, get a degree in astrophysics, go through astronaut training and still vote faster than a brother in Macon County.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: His government name is Lenard McKelvey, and he's from Moncks Corner, S.C. As a kid, he was a voracious reader. He also got into a lot of trouble, enough to land him in jail as a teenager. Cut to 20 years later - he's one of the biggest voices in media. You can catch him daily, co-hosting his radio show "The Breakfast Club." The show was a massive success, with 4.5 million listeners a week and over 2 billion views on YouTube. He's also got a weekly show on Comedy Central, "Tha God's Honest Truth." Like Char on the radio, Char on TV is always wilding, always attention-grabbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THA GOD'S HONEST TRUTH")

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: The proper acronym for woke would be whites only kill everybody, OK?

(CHEERING)

WILLIAMS: But like me, Char's got a different identity when he's not on the air. And also like me, he's trying to do work that speaks to who he really is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Last year, Lenard launched the Black Effect Podcast Network, a platform to amplify and celebrate Black creators in podcasting. He also partnered with Kevin Hart and Audible on a multimillion-dollar deal for their joint venture Short Black Handsome Productions. So from small-town kid to DJ to big-time personality, husband, father, author, owner, mogul, I want to ask Lenard how he stays centered as he continues to push the limits of self and identity as Lenard McKelvey, aka Charlamagne Tha God.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: I poured myself a special glass today, Lenard.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: What'd you pour?

WILLIAMS: I poured myself a glass of Macallan 25...

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: ...For you today because I got to tell you - cheers to you and all your success, by the way. I know you don't have a drink, but you don't need to. I'll do it for you.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Thank you, my brother. I appreciate that. I appreciate the sentiment and the spirit.

WILLIAMS: All good, man. Exactly. I take a quick sip of that because I've had some of the most riveting conversations with you. And the evolution of your thinking is something that a lot more people need to hear. But bring me back because I'm curious to learn about a young Lenard McKelvey from Moncks Corner in South Carolina. Tell me about your upbringing, tell me about some of the things that occurred in your life that shaped who you are today.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: My mother was an English teacher, you know? So she kept me in books. You know what I mean? I was in the Book It! program. Like, I was always reading. So, you know, from first grade to about sixth grade, I was in, you know, all these accelerated classes. But, you know, when you get to middle school and you the Black kid with the glasses and the fanny pack and everybody in the accelerated classes is white except for, like, one or two people so in the morning, you hanging out with the white kids waiting to go to your class, but then you got your cousins, you know, who aren't in the accelerated classes - and, you know, they the guys that's the cool kids, right? They the ones that, you know, got they hat on backwards and the baggy clothes. Like, they the cool kids. And they know my pops, so they see me hanging out with the white kids, and they're like, yo, you acting like a white boy. So they'd bully me, right? Push me around, you know, punch on me. White dudes like, me - I can't be around you 'cause you - you know, these dudes is punching, punking you every morning. Like, I don't want no parts of that.

So now you just stuck in this space, right? You stuck in this space where you're not really accepted by the white kids, and then you don't fit in, really, with your cousins. So, like, you just kind of, like, stuck in the middle trying to figure it out. And then for me, around seventh grade, man, I just was like, man, if you can't beat them, join them, you know? So I just started hanging out with the hood dudes. I started hanging out with my cousins, you know, and thugging. And like most things in my life, if I'm going to be a part of it, I'm going to try to be the best at it. So I was doing, you know, anything I had to do to prove that I was down.

WILLIAMS: What does that mean, Lenard?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Whatever they was doing that they thought was tough, I was going to do it times 10. Oh, we going to fight? OK, I'll go punch the person first. You know what I mean? Oh, we going to shoplift out the store? All right, I'm going to steal - I'm going to make sure I steal the most stuff. Just dumb stuff. Just - you know, and I used to call it - we used to call it peer pressure, but it's not peer pressure. It's literally just us wanting to be accepted. And that's something I learned in therapy. We used to always - peer pressure to me is like you blaming other people for your problems. Like, you blaming other people for the choices that you made. It's like, no, I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be down. And I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to be accepted and be down and, eventually, ended up getting kicked out of school 'cause those disciplinary problems in school led to me running the streets, you know?

You started getting into drugs and, you know, carrying guns and all types of other stupid stuff. So I ended up getting expelled out of one high school, Berkeley High School, and they transferred me to Stratford (ph) High School, where my mama taught. And then I ended up getting arrested out of there 'cause I was involved in a shooting - like, literally sitting in the backseat of the car while somebody was in the front shooting. And, you know, no snitching. So (laughter) I end up going to jail. And, you know, I finished high school in night school.

WILLIAMS: Wait - you finished high school in night school?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Mmm hmm.

WILLIAMS: What the hell pushed you to get to that point? What made you decide, hey, now I want to be serious about it?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Thank God. You know, listening to my father, my father would always say, if I didn't change my lifestyle, I would end up in jail, dead or broke, sitting under the tree. And I always subscribed to this great quote, and the quote is, you know, smart people learn from their own mistakes; wise people learn from the mistakes of others. So when I went to jail the first time and then I saw people around me actually going to prison, you know, getting five years at a time, you know, 10 years at a time - when people around me actually started getting killed, you know, in Moncks Corner, I was like, damn, Pops is right. And I was like, yo, that's not going to be me.

So I just started doing the exact opposite of what everybody else was doing. If everybody was hanging out under the tree, I was the one going to work an odd job. I was working three, four different jobs at one time. You know what I mean? So that's - when everybody wasn't going to school and didn't have a diploma, I said, OK, I'm going to go back to night school and, you know, get my diploma. And that's what I did.

WILLIAMS: You know, I had to go into Newark a couple of years ago and did a docuseries called "Best Shot" with LeBron and Maverick Carter, where we went into the local high school. And it wasn't just about giving back monetary value; it was about giving back time equity, spending time with a lot of these young kids. And you saw that a lot of them were so much a byproduct of their environment and that their environment refused to help them grow or evolve if it didn't fit what that community's narrative was, right? Like, if you were trying to do something positive or you're trying to learn about calculus or chemistry, it was almost made fun of in order to keep you constrained or keep you restricted or, you know, shackled to this past mindset that this is the only way we know how to get through, and if you decide to do it a different way, then that's not our way, which means you're an outcast.

I'm sure you hear about a lot of stuff like that as it pertains to your own story. But how do you talk to a kid that has those type of struggles?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Man. I mean, transcending my circumstances, that's been my...

WILLIAMS: I like that.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: That's been my story. You know what I mean? And I always, for some reason, knew that I was bigger than the environment that I was in. And that's what I would tell these kids. That's what I do tell these kids. I tell these kids, man, it doesn't matter how you start; it matters how you finish, you know? And, you know, be that rose that grew from concrete. Like, don't look around at your circumstances and say to yourself, this is my end all and my be all. No, this is where you are now. You know, where do you see yourself mentally five years from now? Right? Where do you see yourself mentally 10 years from now? Because wherever you see yourself mentally five years from now, mentally, ten years from now, you can physically be there. If all you know is the hood, if you've embraced the hood and you said, this is all it's going to be, this is what I'm going to do - like, we really do embrace the hood like that 'cause we don't know anything else. I'm from Moncks Corner, S.C. Even though I've transcended my circumstances, I still represent Moncks Corner to the fullest because so much of who I am is that place.

WILLIAMS: So what if I had told that kid sitting in that jail cell that one day he would become one of the most unique, polarizing, authoritative and rational voices in the culture today? What would you have said?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: I would have believed you. And the reason I would have believed you is because back then we didn't have what you call cancel culture, and we didn't throw people away when they made mistakes. You know, back then, you know, one of the first books that was ever put in my hand was "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X," you know? And from "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X," I read "Message To The Blackman" by Elijah Muhammad. And I read this other great book in jail called "From N***** to Gods" by Akil. My point with saying all that is all those books were about evolution. All those books were about how men can grow, how people can grow. You know, the Nation of Islam would take the worst of us and make them the best of us. So that kid in jail, you know, reading that literature and studying the Five Percent teachings of Islam would have absolutely said, I believe you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: After the break, the business of Charlamagne Tha God expands, and Char steps into a role as a media mogul. Plus, what kind of impact has that success had on his mental health? You're listening to THE LIMITS from NPR. I'm Jay Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: You sound like a pretty empathetic dude, man. And I got to tell you, it's fascinating because when I read articles about you, I see things or quotes from people, like he's the hip-hop Howard Stern or, you know, this guy is extremely polarizing or - it's things that kind of incite emotion. When people say things about you and who you were, even though that's not who you are now, how do you redirect that? How do you re-channel that?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Well, honestly, I mean, I still might be polarizing to some people. But for me, man, it's just like, yo, you got to allow people to grow. You got to allow people to evolve. I was a very confused, you know, young man at that time. Like, when I first got on "Breakfast Club," you got to think, I had just gotten fired four times from radio. So I was just coming off a year of unemployment, you know, being 30, 31 years old, living at home with my mom, with my 1-, 2-year-old daughter, you know, living with me and my now-wife back home living with her parents, you know, 'cause we couldn't afford to live in New Jersey no more. So when I got that gig at "The Breakfast Club," it was about survival for me. So I was wilding wilding.

And then when you start reading magazine articles about you, and they are saying things like, oh, he's hip-hop Howard Stern - what does that even mean? You know what I mean? I never even took the time to step back and say, well, what does that mean when they say that? They might be saying that 'cause they think I'm an exceptional interviewer. They might be saying that 'cause, you know, I don't bite my tongue. Who knows? But for me, I feel like I took all of the worst attributes of Howard and started, you know, acting like that. I just wish that, you know, they weren't stuck on that 'cause sometimes people be so stuck on who you were that they're not even appreciating who you're becoming or who you've become.

WILLIAMS: Lenard, explain to me something - because you talk about cancel culture, and it's one of the problems I have every single day when I have to sit in front of a microphone for 4 1/2, five hours, and events come at me very arbitrarily, and it's my job to consolidate that information and then, in a very concise manner, deliver you a very informed opinion. But let's be real about it. In a lot of industries, you get rewarded by clicks. You get rewarded by going viral or the more polarizing you can be around topics. How do you even navigate when something comes in on the fly? Like, give me an example, like something that is very controversial and then you're supposed to just come up with some kind of thought, and you know you have millions of people that are just waiting to hear what you have to say about it, but you don't want to get canceled, but you also want to speak your mind.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: I don't even do that no more. Back in the day, I would fly - I would just - 'cause I didn't know any better, right? So I would hear something and immediately form an opinion about it for exactly what you just said, because I - people expected me to have something to say, you know? And I didn't take a step back a lot of times and just examine it from a human perspective. So what's the - is there a right or wrong in this situation? No, you know? Is there a bad idea a lot of times? Yeah. Like, I would rather talk about the idea than the individual. You know what I mean?

Like, the Kyrie Irving situation was a great example because I didn't understand why everybody was coming down so hard on Kyrie the individual 'cause Kyrie the individual just simply made a choice. Kyrie's making the choice to sit out games. He's making the choice to miss money. That's on him. I would rather focus on the fact that, yo, 96% of the NBA is vaccinated. If all of y'all people - if all of y'all are so pro-vax, then how come y'all not telling that story? (Laughter) You know what I mean? If you want to encourage people to go out there and get vaccinated, why not go tell the story of the 96% of the NBA that is vaxxed? All these other superstars that are vaxxed - the LeBrons, the Steph Currys, the whoever - focus on them. Why are we so hell-bent on focusing on that brother? Why? 'Cause like you said, it brings clicks. It brings headlines. It brings attention. It's like, if we take the brother out to the square and cut his head off in front of everybody...

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: ...People will want to see that blood. It's just like, yo, that's wack to me.

WILLIAMS: So you have the personality. You have the gift of gab. You have the experiences. You're unfiltered. You're unapologetic. You have the listeners. You carry the audience. When did you start thinking about - how do I expand the business of the Lenard McKelvey? When did that conversation start in your mind?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Man, I've always wanted to do that because, you know, growing up that's who I always gravitated towards. I gravitated towards watching Bob Johnson sell BET for $3 billion. I watched, you know, Diddy and Bad Boy. You know what I mean? I watched what, you know, Master P was doing and J. Prince and Jay-Z with Roc-A-Fella. And so for me, being that I used to want to rap, those guys were establishing businesses, and they were preaching, you know, about ownership and independence, you know? Our talent has gotten us to a certain point, and it's opened up so many different doors for us, but it's like, what's next? Like, I want to be able to open up doors for that, you know, next generation, you know?

So how do you do that? You do that by establishing things like the Black Effect Podcast Network, you know, with iHeart (ph) where I'm, you know, majority owner along with my good friend, my family, Dollie Bishop, who's the president of the network. And, you know, you go get all of these Black creatives that have these, you know, podcasts but don't necessarily have a home for them, so they can possibly, you know, be as big as they can be. And, you know, you do that, and you have employees, and then you go launch your book imprint so you can help other people get book deals. It's like, yeah, I've written two books. But, you know, when Simon & Schuster comes to you and they say, hey, you know, we want you to do a third book - yeah, you could take a whole bunch of money upfront, or you could be like, you know what? I would rather take less money to do my book, but give me a book imprint. They like, all right, cool (laughter). You know what I'm saying?

So you only get what you ask for in this game, you know? So for me, it's really just about - I really like throwing assists, Jay. If I was a basketball player, I would lead the league in assists. I enjoy that more than scoring points. I really like seeing other people come up. And if I could play a hand in that, great.

WILLIAMS: Psychologically, Lenard, how do you go from man of the people to now, all of a sudden, you're becoming a mogul? Does that make you see yourself differently in how people interact with you or the things that people want from you? How do you navigate that uncharted territory?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Well, you can be a mogul of the people, you know? But you do have to have boundaries. You know what I mean? And I have to have boundaries simply for my own mental health just because - you know, I even changed my number a few months ago just because, like, man, the phone calls from back home were getting crazy. And not even just back home, just the things people were asking for was mind-boggling to me. I'm like, yo, who do y'all think I am? You know what I mean?

WILLIAMS: Like what?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: I mean, just - $15,000. Let me get $15,000; I'll pay you back in two weeks. How?

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: You know, like, I know for a fact you never made - you've never had $15,000 at one time in your life. How are you going to pay me back in two weeks? You know what I mean? And then it's just like, yo, people will really make their issues your issues. And I used to guilt myself 'cause - and my wife used to - had to tell me to get over that 'cause I would guilt myself. And, like, somebody would ask me for something, and I'd be like, I'm not giving that person that. One thing in particular was Halloween, and I bought this whole Ironman suit. Like, this shit was from China, Jay. This shit was like really, like, some Tony Stark tech.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Like, you had the lights and everything. Like, it was a suit. Like, I had to help - I needed help getting it put on. Like, I understood why JARVIS had to help Tony Stark put it on.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: But it was literally, like, $3,000. I wore it once for Halloween, never wore it again. So the guilt inside of me made me feel bad. So it was just like, the people who, you know, I didn't say no to but I didn't say yes to, I was just - here, man, take the $500. Here, take the $1,000. Do your thing. Go - you know what I mean? Because I just felt bad that I spent money on that suit but didn't help those, you know, people who asked me. But it's just like, man, you can't save everybody, and you can't help everybody, so you have to put up those boundaries because it will literally drive you insane. It'll drive you crazy. So, yeah, I still think you can be a mogul of the people, and the reason I think you can be a mogul of the people is 'cause, you know, you give people what you think they need.

WILLIAMS: One of the in-depth questions I have for you, man, is - and it's personal for me. When you step up to your microphone each and every day, how do you navigate this new world of social media - people saying hurtful things, people saying random things to you? So they just base an opinion off a snippet or a headline. And how does that affect you in your everyday life as a husband and as a father? I have two kids, right? And my daughter's 3 years old. My son is 8 months. And a lot of the conversations I'm starting to have now with my wife, because I've seen the way it affects her to a degree, is when I say something and it does carry a lot of weight in the social media world, people naturally start pinging her about what I said. And if it's something that people don't like, I've seen how that can ultimately affect my wife. And I wonder about if it affects my wife that way, how ultimately could it potentially affect my children when they get old enough to understand what Daddy does and the effect that Daddy has on his own industry? How do you deal with that from a mental health perspective?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: That's a great question, man. I got to feel into that one 'cause that's a lot because, you know, I do think about that really more so with my daughter. My daughter's, you know, 13 now. And, you know, for me, I think the bigger thing I would tell everybody, man, is that, like, you know, change doesn't happen because we continue to focus on what was or we continue to focus on old stuff. Change happens when you, you know, really focus on, you know, building what's new because I can't pay attention to that 'cause that's all a distraction. Like, I know that's not me or who I am. You know what I mean?

So it's just like - and I also, too - it's like, for me, I'm not one of those people that feel like if I express my opinion, everybody going to agree with me. I'm fully aware that, you know, there's people that's going to disagree. But we just live in this era where everybody's so hurt and so toxic. And one thing I realized, Jay, man, if you just understand that most people are just projecting, you wouldn't even let this stuff phase you. Most people are really just projecting their own pain onto you. And it's not even about what you said; it's about who you are and the position you're in. How dare Jay Williams get to come on this TV every day and make great money to have an opinion that I may or may not agree with?

WILLIAMS: And then maybe you have one bad day. You have a day where you woke up and your wife maybe yelled at you, or your daughter fell down at school or something happened where you're just off your game for one split second, and that one little slip-up all of a sudden becomes storylines that I'm on the phone dealing with my bosses about or talking to the CEO of my company about how we're going to do damage control - just like that.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: When I'm on the radio in the morning, I set the tone for conversation. That thing that everybody's going to be around their water cooler talking about or on social media talking about all day, we're the ones that usually give people, you know, that fodder. We're the ones that give them that content. So, you know, everybody's boss got to get over that, doing damage control. Like, don't - let's not act like this isn't what you want, OK?

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Like, come on. All you major companies, y'all know this is what you want. Stop it.

WILLIAMS: Well, one of the byproducts of that, though, Lenard, is that when you do have to deal with that, if you have any pre-existing anxiety, it just adds on to it. I read one of your books, man, the "Shook One," and it was so riveting to hear you talk about how you dealt with anxiety. Can you take us back to that moment when you first recognized that was something that you had to deal with head-on? And how did you deal with it?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Man, I've dealt with panic attacks my whole life - like, literally, real bad panic attacks, panic attacks that would, you know, lead me to go, like, hide in the woods. You know what I mean? If I'm walking down a dirt road and I see a car coming, I'll go run in the woods just 'cause I didn't, you know, want to interact with people. Like, this, you know, weird - you know, when I think about it - it's not weird. When I think about it now, you know, I just honestly grew up thinking I was, like, a coward. I grew up thinking I was just soft, like - you know? But I was really dealing with panic attacks. My homeboy, Jarrell (ph) - God bless the dead - he used to call me Big Noyd. Big Noyd was a rapper from - you know, he was down with Mobb Deep. But he used to call me that because I was always paranoid. So he used to call me Big Noyd. Like, that was his joke name for me.

But I was dealing with really bad anxiety my whole life. So 2010, after I got fired from radio for the fourth time and I'm back home living with my mom, I had one of those moments where I was feeling like I was having, like, a really massive heart attack again. I pulled over to the side of the road, drank some water, told God - God, I'm going to go to the doctor tomorrow. Went to the doctor. Doctor's like, your heart is perfectly fine, which I've heard a million times, you know? And he's like, your heart is perfectly fine. But this is the first time somebody said to me, do you have anxiety? 'Cause it sounds like you had a panic attack. And I was like, oh, no, not that I know of. And he was like, are you stressed out about anything? I'm like, hell yeah.

So in my mind, all I got to do is get another gig, and everything will be fine. Did that. Went to the - got the next gig with "The Breakfast Club." But, you know, five, six years later, you're making more money than you've ever made in your life, you know, more fame, attention than you've ever made - than you've ever had in your life. And nothing has changed. Panic attacks were probably worse. Bouts of depression are probably - are definitely worse. So I had people like, you know, Pete Davidson, my little man, my little bro. Love Pete, even though he way taller than me. Love Pete.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: But he was going to therapy since he was a kid. He would talk to me about therapy. Neal Brennan would talk to me about therapy. I would hear Amanda Seales, you know, talk about therapy, you know? And it was just like, you know what? I'm going to start going to therapy. You know what I mean? Then somebody like my homegirl, Debbie Brown, who's in the mindfulness space, you know, she - you know, she works with Deepak Chopra. Like, she's real big in that world. So it's just like, that's - all that just led me to start going, to do some - to start doing work on myself. And I have not looked back since.

WILLIAMS: What was the first step?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Therapy.

WILLIAMS: Like, I mean, like, the first step in therapy - like, what was the first action item that you had?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Oh, man. You know what's so interesting? I went there to actually talk about anxiety and talk about my bouts of depression and, you know, PTSD, 'cause I had PTSD. And that just turned into all of these conversations about my childhood. And that's when it really started getting deep 'cause I started, like, peeling back all these layers of my childhood - you know, everything from, you know, things that I've spoken about but spoken about in a joking manner, like being sexually abused at 8 years old, you know what I mean? - you know, my desire to want to be accepted by people, you know, never really, truly feeling like I've been myself, like, always being in character.

Like, I'm 43 years old, and I'm - I feel like this is the first time I'm actually showing up in the world as myself. You know, all those years prior was I was - like, sixth, seventh grade, I created a character to protect me from, you know, being bullied. And that just kind of morphed into, you know, me wanting to rap and having all these different rap nicknames and then me seeing the name Charlemagne and taking that on and still rapping and - but it's all a character, then getting on the radio, you know, in 1998, 1999 and still being in this character - to say, well, it's this character that I created to, like, protect myself. And so, you know, therapy just started peeling back all of those layers, Jay, to the point where even now I didn't know who I was, you know what I mean?

So it's like, even at this point in my life, I don't know - I'm not - I don't necessarily know who I am. I just know who I'm not, you know? And, like, that was a very uncomfortable, vulnerable place to be 'cause it's like, you have all this confidence when you're the character. The character can just show up. I know what people's expectations are of the character. Give them that. I'm gone. But when you showing up as yourself, I'm constantly questioning everything now because, you know, I'm showing up as me, and I don't even know if me is as interesting as (laughter) the character, Charlamagne, was.

WILLIAMS: Well, first off, I got to tell you, I need the number for your therapist because whoever that is, it's one hell of a therapist. They are doing wonders with you. And secondly, I got to tell you, man, I really relate to you. You know, when I was getting drafted, Char, my name went from Jason Williams to all of a sudden a multi-millionaire person who was Jay Williams because I wanted to distinguish myself away from White Chocolate, the guy who played for Sacramento Kings...

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: ...And then the other guy, Jayson Williams, that just seemed to always do some kind of shit in the same town that I was living in - you know, shooting somebody...

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Yep.

WILLIAMS: ...You know, getting pulled over for a DUI, getting kicked out of a hotel, something like that. But it was funny - even doing TV after I went through my accident, I felt like I had to be that persona, but I didn't know how to separate that. So I became that caricature all the time. And for me to hear you say, at the age of 43, that you're just now starting to process - and I've seen it slowly from the outside. And you and I - we don't talk all the time, but I see Lenard. Like, it's Lenard McKelvey, Charlamagne Tha God. Right? Like, that's you establishing that you are enough. And I think that's one of the things that I realized through my wife and my kids, that, yes, I am enough, and it takes a while to get to that point of your life, especially when you've always described yourself as somebody like a caricature.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Yeah. And what's so crazy - I literally used to say to myself, I don't want to become a caricature of myself. And when I saw myself, like, really being that, like, taking a step out of it and, like, I care too much about what other people think I'm going to say, I care too much about, you know, saying the thing that's going to, you know, get people riled up or get people on my side or get the Amen Corner than I do what I actually believe. And that's a dangerous place to be in, man. It's not - it's just not real, if I'm being - it's just not a real space to be in. It's not authentic.

WILLIAMS: You know, take it even a further step - it's, you can do it because you're smart enough to do it. You can say something 'cause you know it's going to incite emotion from people, which probably gets you paid more. But at what point do you recognize that you're only sacrificing more and more of yourself because you lose yourself in the process of doing that?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: That's right. That's right. Yeah, I was having a conversation with Jon Stewart right before my talk show, "Tha God's Honest Truth" and all that. Jon said, you've already won. He said, you've already won 'cause you're light-years ahead of all of these people, but you also actually believe the things that you say.

WILLIAMS: There you go.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: And I said, well, doesn't everybody? And he goes, no. Fuck no.

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: He goes, no. That's the point. And I'm like, damn, I guess he's right - you know what I mean? - 'cause, you know, you can turn on, you know, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC. It always feels like everybody's performing. ESPN, Fox 4 - whatever it is. It's like, anybody with a microphone in their face just feels like they're performing. I don't want to perform. You know what I mean? I want to just express my real opinion - my real, authentic opinion about people, places, things, ideas. And that's it.

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WILLIAMS: After the break, how Charlamagne and "The Breakfast Club" became a Democratic political hotspot. Plus, Charlamagne Tha God, the political voice of Black America? You're listening to THE LIMITS from NPR. I'm Jay Williams.

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WILLIAMS: Pick a week - Charlamagne's having a moment like this. Last month on his own Comedy Central show, he's talking to the vice president.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THA GOD'S HONEST TRUTH")

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: So let's improve that system.

WILLIAMS: Charlamagne wants to know - why is President Joe Biden letting a senator from his own party, Joe Manchin, stand in the way of his administration's agenda?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THA GOD'S HONEST TRUTH")

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: I want to know who the real president of this country is - is it Joe Biden or Joe Manchin?

WILLIAMS: A provocative question, maybe too provocative.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THA GOD'S HONEST TRUTH")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm sorry. I didn't want - I interrupted. I don't think the vice president can hear you.

WILLIAMS: Someone on the VP's team says, oh, we can't hear you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THA GOD'S HONEST TRUTH")

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: She can hear me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: (Laughter) They're acting like they can't hear me, y'all.

WILLIAMS: But eventually...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THA GOD'S HONEST TRUTH")

HARRIS: I can hear you.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Oh. So who's the real...

HARRIS: I can hear you.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: So who's the real president of this country? Is it Joe Manchin or Joe Biden, Madam Vice President?

HARRIS: Come on, Charlamagne.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: I really...

HARRIS: Come on. It's Joe Biden.

WILLIAMS: That wasn't the only thing about this moment that got everyone talking. It was also about how forcefully Kamala Harris pushed back.

HARRIS: No. No, no, no. It's Joe Biden. And don't start talking like a Republican, about asking whether or not he's president.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Do you think Joe Manchin is a problem?

HARRIS: And it's Joe Biden. And I'm vice president, and my name is Kamala Harris. And the reality is...

WILLIAMS: See; the force of that response suggested the VP knows Charlamagne's power in the media landscape, his reach, who his audience is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THA GOD'S HONEST TRUTH")

HARRIS: And it is not easy to do, but we will not give up, and I will not give up.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: I just want you to know, that Madam Vice President, that Kamala Harris, that's the one I like. That's the one that...

WILLIAMS: And the thing is, having that kind of voice and power in politics, Charlamagne's been working on it for a long time.

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WILLIAMS: So look, Char; I've heard you interview a ton of politicians, everybody from Hillary Clinton talking about the hot sauce in her bag, Joe Biden - we all know that moment. They ain't Black enough if they're considering to vote for Donald Trump. And the interview we just heard with Kamala Harris. But I'm curious - how did you decide to start integrating the political edge into your show?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Well, that's something that, you know, we've always done. It's just that people just started paying attention. Like, you know, my mom, man - my mom would always tell me read things that don't pertain to you. And so, you know, even though I grew up and I was reading The Source magazines and XXLs, I was also reading, you know, Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, and I was reading things about UFOs, and I always was intrigued about history. And, like, you know, when you're reading "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X" or you're reading "Message To The Blackman" by Elijah Muhammad or you're watching, you know, Minister Farrakhan's speeches, you go down these rabbit holes. I've always been into the Stokely Carmichaels of the world. I've always been into Denmark Vesey. Denmark Vesey is - his story is super inspirational to me.

And so it's like, even in hip-hop, hip-hop always talked about, you know, things of socially redeeming value. They were always socially conscious. So politics have always been a part of what it is that we do in our culture. So it's like, I've always wanted to sit down with, you know, elected officials. And, you know, it started, really, with my man Bakari Sellers. Bakari came to "The Breakfast Club" when he was running for lieutenant governor of South Carolina. Bakari's a long-time friend of mine from South Carolina, you know? And so when he came on, he kind of, like, opened the floodgates because, you know, he got a real nice bump in his campaign, and then from there - I think the other thing people forgot was like, yo, a lot of those people like Bakari and the Angela Ryes. Like, they - they're our age. They're of the culture. They're of hip-hop culture. So they listen to "The Breakfast Club."

2016, that presidential election - man, you had so many Black women running these campaigns. You had, you know, Maya Harris, who was Kamala's sister. And, you know, she had - there was, like, a whole group of Black women. Karen Civil's around Hillary Clinton. And Bernie had - Bernie Sanders had Symone Sanders. And then Nina Turner's around him. And Tezlyn Figaro. And so Symone and Tezlyn was turning them on to "The Breakfast Club" and like, yo, this is where y'all all need to go; this is where y'all need to talk. I remember Symone calling me to have me come host a town hall at The Apollo with Bernie Sanders, Harry Belafonte, Nina Turner and Erica Garner - God bless the day.

WILLIAMS: Wow.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: And I remember when Symone asked me, and I said, why? I'm like...

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: I literally - I'm like, why you want me to come host a town hall at The Apollo? And she was like, 'cause people that we're talking to, that's who you talk to; I need you there. I'm like, all right. So I went to do it. And I mean, that's just really kind of how all of that started. Like, and then it really kicked off when the next presidential election - even though in 2016, Bernie came, Hillary came. With that next election, it was like every - it was like that was - must have been on their sheet. You - every Democratic candidate had to come do, you know, "The Breakfast Club."

WILLIAMS: I was at an event a couple of weeks ago, and I was talking to somebody about me having the chance to interview you. And I really respected this person. He was involved in politics for a while. But he said something to me that I really wanted to get your opinion about. He's like, man, the white establishment really made Charlamagne Tha God the voice of Black America. And that's - I thought to myself for a second. I'm like, did the white establishment make him that? Does he even feel like he has the pressure of something like that for Black America? Or is Charlamagne just Lenard? Is he just Lenard, Charlamagne Tha God, who speaks for himself and comes to the table with his own thoughts about how it's affected people he knows in his community and himself?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Yeah. That's the stupidest shit in the world. I've heard that before, and I don't even understand why people say that because when you say that, it's such a slap in the face to Black people. And the reason I say it's such a slap in the face to Black people is because I've been doing radio for 23 years. Like, literally, I've been doing radio for 23 years. I started off as an intern in 1998, building credibility with an audience all around the world, whether I realized it or not. Like, I was just in South Carolina doing my thing, but when certain things go viral - like, there's people that come up to me now and talk to me about things that I said when I was on the radio in Columbia, S.C. They heard it on the internet. And then I got with Wendy Williams in 2006, so that, you know, put me on the national - gave me a bigger voice nationally. Then I had my own morning show in Philadelphia. I mean, then I've been doing "The Breakfast Club" since 2010.

Last time I checked, like, the audience for "Breakfast Club" is, like, 80% Black and brown. Like, Black people made Lenard McKelvey Charlamagne Tha God. Whatever voice I have, Black people gave me that voice. And when it's time to hold me accountable, it's Black people that's holding me accountable. So what white establishment made me the voice of Black America? I'm not - and I'm not the voice of Black America. There's plenty of Black people out there whose voices are way bigger than mine. Ain't no white man walked up to me and gave me a $100 million check and told me do what I want with it, like they did Van Jones.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Salute to Van Jones, but I'm just saying, if anybody's been made a voice of Black America, it's somebody like Van. Them white people don't come to me. And by the way, when I'm on these programs, I always say I can't speak for all Black people because Black people are not monolithic. Whenever they ask me a question about Black people or - I'm like, well, I can't speak for all Black people 'cause Black people are not monolithic, but here's what I think as a Black man from, you know, a certain environment. This is what I believe. And those are just my thoughts. If a lot of people agree with me, cool. If people disagree with me, that's cool, too. But I've never claimed to be the voice of Black America. And I damn sure know - didn't no white person make me that. Any voice I got is all because of Black people.

WILLIAMS: So look, man; I know you just said you can't speak for Black people as a monolith. But, Char, you talk to anybody and everybody in our community all day, every day. So I have to ask you, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges we have in the Black community right now?

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Man, that's such a loaded question because, you know, the answer is so complex. I mean, it's a lot of different challenges. You know, most of the challenges that we're facing are a lot of generational challenges, you know, things that we've never received healing from. I'm going to always say the biggest challenge that we face, man, is white supremacy. I'm going to always say that. So it's almost like Black America as a whole is collectively, you know, waiting to be let down once again. Like, we're just expecting the worst. Like, if - you know, I was watching Amber Ruffin, you know, she spoke about the Rittenhouse verdict, and, you know, she made it her duty just to simply remind us that we matter. And I was like, wow, man. I said, you know, in a case where the justice system let us down yet again, she just had to tell us we matter. You know what I mean? She, like - she felt - that's what she felt. Like, even though all of that systemic failure has happened, she just needed to remind us that we matter.

And, man, I think that's just the biggest issue. And that's why I always say white supremacy will always be the biggest issue 'cause Black people have to constantly remind themselves that we matter. We've got to constantly remind ourselves that our meaning is worth something. We have to constantly remind ourselves that everything we've been through in this country, been through in this world, like, was for a reason. Sometimes it's hard to figure out what that reason is. But, I mean, we're still here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: I really appreciate you being transparent, honest, vulnerable and sharing your journey. It can help so many people. I know it's helped me. And thank you, Lenard. I appreciate you giving us the time today, man.

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: No, Jay. Thank you, brother. Appreciate you, king.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: THE LIMITS is produced by Karen Kinney, Leena Sanzgiri, Barton Girdwood, Brent Baughman, Rachel Neel, Yolanda Sangweni. Our executive producer is Anya Grundmann. Special thanks to Charla Riggi. Music by Ramtin Arablouei. We're back next week. Thank you to everybody. Let's keep it moving and stay positive. I'm Jay Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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