“As long as you learn from something, it’s not a loss.”
Charlamagne tha God is many things. He’s a radio show host, an author, a proud hip-hop/RnB afficianado, but most importantly, he’s a lover of knowledge.
Hundreds of students showed up to celebrate Black History Month with Charlamagne at IGNITE’s first Real Talks event of the year. Keeping up with his reputation, Charlamagne did not disappoint with his colourful vocabulary and brutally honest opinions on the current direction of hip-hop culture.
Before he hit the stage at the Real Talks event, we sat down with him for a one-on-one interview to discuss colourism in America, his road to success, and how we can unlearn the prejudices present in our daily lives.
Here’s what he had to say:
Can you talk about why Black history is important to you, and what you think Black history can teach others?
“I think history is important, period, but especially for black people. Most of the time when they teach Black history it starts with slavery, so you’re kind of thinking you started from the bottom. But our history started in Africa, with us being royalty. They took all that from us and now they’re trying to teach us that our history started with slavery and that kind of gives an inferiority complex to a lot of people. To think you started from that, you don’t really expect much else from yourself…When you realize you were actually born of royal lineage then you think like that. Your mindset changes – act like a king or queen and get treated like one.”
The Breakfast Club has had the chance to interview a lot of pop-culture icons and political figures. Who was your favourite person to interview?
“It’s always a beautiful thing to interview the elders – the Dick Gregories of the world, the honourable minister Louis Farrakhan. When they sit down with you, you don’t know if that’s the last time you’re going to hear from them. I think it’s very dope to be able to reintroduce them to the newer generation. I love the political leaders that are starting to come up in our space: Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, Florida, Bakari Sellers, Nina Turner, Angela Rye. These are the young black people who are not just complaining about the system, they’re in the system trying to change it. I think people like that are really dope because it shows the youth a different way.”
As a radio host, your job is to engage your guests in interesting stories by asking the right questions. Apart from doing thorough research on your guests, how do you prepare for your interviews?
“I always prepare the day of. I’m an energy person, I wait for that inspiration. I’m like that when I write anything. I kind of structure things in my mind, and then when the feeling moves me to put the words down, I do it just then and there. I think it’s whack when you force it, people can hear it or feel that. I like to feel the energy of the day and just let it flow.”
Your style of interviewing has gotten you in trouble numerous times and has even gotten you fired. Do you regret anything you’ve ever done or said to a specific guest?
“Nope. I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t do the things I did. Plus, I’m not afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. Even the things that people think are problematic lead to broader conversations. Even recently, we had Amara La Negra on the show and the whole colourism debate was sparked. I think that happened because I was conflating two different issues in my mind. She was talking about colourism in Latin America, [which] of course we all know exists. But, I was talking about colourism in the entertainment industry, and I was saying that I feel like things have changed a lot… People thought I was dismissing colourism or the Afrolatina experience, but I appreciate it because it makes a broader conversation happen. I think a lot of people are ignorant of what Latin Americans have experienced. They went through a lot of the same experiences that Black Americans went through, and I think that when we put both those struggles on the table we realize we have more in common than we do apart.”
You call yourself the “The Architect Of Aggravation” and “Prince of Pissing People Off.” Why do you seek to actively aggravate your guests?
“I’m a fan at the end of the day. If I’m sitting down talking to you, I want to keep a childlike sense of discovery at all times…Children ask you everything, and guess what? Some of it may be annoying, some of it may be aggravating, but they are really asking because they want to know… My daily affirmation since I’ve been studying Ryan Holiday’s Daily stoic book, [is] “be comfortable with not knowing”. We’re all bombarded with all of this information, especially in this social media age. You don’t have to know everything, and I’m comfortable with that because that’s what learning is about.”
There are a lot of media and journalism programs at Humber and Guelph-Humber, what advice would you give to students who look up to you and are working towards a career in publicity or entertainment?
“Make sure it’s really what you want to do. I feel like a lot of times we see things working for other people so we say ‘okay I want to do that’… Thinking about my journey, it was sort-of difficult but I enjoyed [it]. Looking back at it, it was nothing, that’s the way life is – you’re going to win sometimes you’re going to learn sometimes. I would just tell anyone that wants to pursue a career in entertainment, to just really make sure that’s what you want to do. Especially in America now, we’re so obsessed with celebrity culture, like people don’t think you’re successful if you’re not a celebrity- that’s whack. Success is ‘are you making a living doing what makes you happy?’…Just be happy doing what it is your truly meant to be doing.”
One of the central tenants in your book is to “fuck your dreams when they’re not your dreams.” You switched from pursuing a rapping career to becoming a radio host because you had a mentor tell you that you weren’t good. How did you know what you were good at?
“I was sort of one the lucky ones that didn’t have to jump around from doing a lot of things. Plus, I didn’t go to college, so I wasn’t stuck with a major. There was one point where I wanted to be a psychiatrist because I enjoy talking to people and having conversations… I literally went from rap to meeting a guy from the studio named Willie Will and he gave me an internship…It’s my 20th year in the radio game; I started off in 1998 as an intern, and the first time I was on air was ’99… I love radio, I love communicating with people, I love expressing myself through that microphone. I was one of the blessed ones that found out what I wanted to do early.”
In your book, you credit the incredible music and books you grew up reading as motivation to reach your goals. Why do you think self-education is so important?
“You learn who you are when you’re searching on your own. A lot of the time when you’re in school, it’s kind of like people forcing things on you, telling you who you are. When you self-educate yourself, you’re picking up books that mean something to YOU – it’s a different level of inspiration…When you [find] the knowledge for yourself, you start exploring who and what you are – it opens up different portals [in] your mind.”
Speaking of the school system, how do you think it can evolve to educate more people about important topics such as racial issues?
“Hire more diverse people… If you’re white from Canada how are you going to tell me about the African experience if you’ve never sought it out yourself or done the research for it? It has got to be people from the culture teaching these stories and more diverse people need to be willing to be teachers.”
In November you gave yourself Donkey of the Day, where you admitted that you were subconsciously complacent in America’s rape culture. You said that it is important to be morally honest in today’s day and age, because – as you put it -we are in an era of accountability. So how do you think we can unlearn the things we’ve been taught?
“First of all, you’ve got to admit you’re wrong. You can’t make excuses for any of your behaviour….Once you start that, then you start the process of unlearning all the bullshit that you’ve been taught, it’s really just that simple… Even with rape culture, you’ve got to admit that ‘yeah we was really wildin back in the day!’… The only question that needs to be asked is ‘What is right or wrong when it comes to communicating with women?’. [But] we do have to be careful lumping everything together. Like you know, a guy being aggressive because he’s trying to get with you as opposed to a guy who held you down and raped you. I feel like we’re throwing everything in one pot right now, and that’s because we’re trying to figure it out. It’s like when you’re cleaning your closet, you’re just grabbing a whole bunch of everything before you organize it… Eventually, someone’s going to have to go through that closet and organize those clothes. Someone’s going to have to put the jeans with the jeans, the hoodies with the hoodies, the socks with the socks. We’re slowly but surely getting to that part of the story.”
How have you evolved from the man you were a couple of years ago who would voice inappropriate comments to his female guests, to the man you are now?
“It started with a conversation with my wife because she wasn’t feeling it. It was more out of respect for her. You know like I’m a married man, [so] now let me start moving as such. In the Bible, it says ‘when you were a babe you thought as a babe, when you’re a man you start thinking like a man.’ And I got two daughters now; my daughter’s older now she was two when I first started [The Breakfast Club], now she’s nine… Plus I’m never afraid to grow and evolve.”
*This Interview has been edited for length and clarity
**Photos courtesy of Saahil Matharu
Missed Charlamagne on stage? Watch the whole Real Talk on our Facebook page.
Thank you Charlamagne for celebrating Black History month with us, and giving us a candid look at your journey!
Watch out for IGNITE’s next Real Talks featuring Iskra Lawrence and Sophia Bush on March 8th, 2018.