For a guy who used to sling dope as a kid in Moncks Corner, S.C., you would think Charlamagne tha God, now 40, would have no problem getting high. But sitting on a bed at the SLS, a luxury hotel in Beverly Hills, Charlamagne was having a meltdown, and he was sure it was the weed.
Damn, I’m about to OD on weed, and my wife hates me for not making her squirt, he thought. He and his wife, Jessica Gadsden, smoked a joint of Green Crack — or Blue Dream or some other Los Angeles chronic someone gave him to calm his anxiety — and now he was “curled up in the fetal position like Smokey in the chicken coop in Friday.”
Charlamagne was on a book tour for his first New York Times bestseller, Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It. His thoughts were spiraling from worry over his book tour falling apart (even though hundreds of people were showing up at bookstores to see him) to the fears of an apocalyptic earthquake hitting California, or a white supremacist letting “the mayonnaise fly by shooting up the Black Privilege tour stop in Burbank,” to the concern about whether he could still make his partner of two decades orgasm — and, if he couldn’t, would that lead to divorce?
This is the mind of Charlamagne tha God on non-stop anxiety. As his panic attack unfolds, his wife asks if he’s going to run out of the room naked, pulling a Martin Lawrence in the streets of L.A.
What’s surprising is not that Charlamagne (nee Lenard Larry McKelvey) has anxiety, PTSD, and panic attacks; but that he’s one of the few male celebrities (especially among men of color) who is willing to admit it and talk publicly about his struggles with mental health. He does more than that in his new book, Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me.
The cohost of the wildly popular nationally syndicated radio show, The Breakfast Club, Charlamagne is one of the more compelling media personalities out there, a guy who helps drive national conversations around race, politics, hip-hop, and gender. He does so despite the risk of sometimes making public flubs on everything from colorism and Afro-Latina culture to LGBT issues (case in point: an episode in which a guest made a transphobic remark, which Charlamagne didn't shut down fast enough — a mistake he admits he learned from, especially after meeting with trans people and learning what their real lives were like).
In fact, Charlamagne, who worked his way up in the industry doing small-time radio in South Carolina, seems constantly open to learning and refreshingly willing to admit to his mistakes. He often revisits topics after learning more, something that has endeared listeners to him over the years.
The co-host of the popular podcast Brilliant Idiots and an executive producer with his own production company, CThaGod World, had less of a big break and more a steady climb. His work on radio, led to hosting MTV's Uncommon Sense With Charlamagne for five years. The format, a roundtable panel of guests discussing politics, media, and current affairs, suited Charlamagne, who likes to bring multiple voices to the table. Now a bonafide media personality and social media influencer, Charlamagne's popularity both on radio and on TV was solidified on, among other shows, The Wendy Williams Experience on VH1, MTV’s Guy Code, and MTV2’s The Week in Jams.
We recently caught up with Charlamagne to talk about mental health, sex, religion, learning from his mistakes, and how white allies should really introduce themselves.
As a nod to your book, I wanted to start by saying: I’m Diane. I am not a white devil. (I’m actually mixed race, but white passing.)
I really appreciate that [Laughs]. My name is Lenard and I’m not homophobic.
Shook One is really about mental health and anxiety and fear and PTSD — and how Black men aren’t allowed to talk about those things. Would it have been easier for you if you could have had these conversations earlier?
I think it would have been easier if that was the behavior that was taught to me. The behavior that was taught to me was, “Be as tough as possible, be as hard as possible.” When you grow up in a certain environment, you know, you can’t come off as, for lack of a better term, pussy or soft. You had to be tough. You had to be gangster. Like, I couldn’t be Donald Glover. I had to be Tupac.
I passed a Little League practice the other day and the coach was yelling, “Do you want to be a girl?” and “Don’t be a pussy.”
That’s such an interesting thing. Now that I’m older, I process these things a little different. It’s like subconsciously you’re actually kind of making it like women are inferior… like you’re putting that in guys’ heads as well. Like women aren’t capable of doing anything. Like women are just inferior creatures.
Exactly. It’s interesting that your generation is confronting that and trying to change it.
Very true. We got to be able to confront it, though, without being judged for it. Because I can honestly say that I’ve definitely learned a lot of BS growing up, and it’s a lot of BS I’m unlearning now. Because we’re all prisoners of our own privilege. Men are prisoners of their own privilege. They can exist as men without worrying about what women actually go through. Straight men are prisoners of their straightness, they don’t have to worry about the issues that the LGBT community go through. But we’re all in America together. We all got to start thinking about each other.
Do you think that there’s becoming more of an environment where men can talk openly about #MeToo and physical or emotional abuse?
It depends who you are, and it depends, honestly, who is going to choose to weaponize your words against you. I’ve been trying to have conversations about rape culture for the past four years, because that was a new term to me, hearing the term “rape culture” and then listening to women tell me what rape culture is, and then reading articles like in Teen Vogue… where they have headlines that says, “Drunk Sex Rape.” And me and my male cohosts on my podcast are trying to process this information and talking about old situations that now when we think about them, we’re like, “Okay that may have been a little sketchy.” The first time me and my wife were together, we were stupid drunk… I started the conversation off by specifically saying, “Men have to realize that a lot of the things that we used to do back in the day could be considered rape or rape culture.” And then… they had headlines saying “Charlamagne tha God admits the first time he had sex with his wife it was rape!” That was not what I was trying to say at all. I think this next generation of kids needs to know what’s right etiquette and what’s wrong etiquette… I think that there is a lot of blurred lines. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with us as men having those conversations. I think men are really just scared, man. Like it’s the same thing, when you try to get a white person to have an open conversation about race. They don’t want to say the wrong thing because they don’t want to be looked at as racist. I’m just the type of person — man, I’ve got to live my truth.… if therapy’s dug something up that I feel like I need to talk about, I’ve got to talk about it.
One of the tenets of Shook One is personal evolution, but we don’t really give people the space to make some transformations. Do you feel like your words are constantly monitored and judged?
Oh, 100 percent. [People] will try to weaponize your words against you just because of the climate that we’re in. We’re in the climate of #MeToo and Time’s Up and… I think that sometimes they’re just weaponizing the words against you. They’re taking you out of context on purpose. They position it in a way on social media where they got me sounding crazy. I do long form interviews and… people take 10 or 15 seconds on purpose. The world is out of context right now. Everything is out of context.
Can you talk about the transphobic episode with Lil Duval on The Breakfast Club?
Yeah. I wish that I would’ve just edited that whole situation out altogether because it was just a bunch of people who got hurt from that. The LGBT community got hurt, and it just wasn’t necessary. But I understand that intention doesn’t matter, it’s about impact, and that comment just impacted people in a very negative way. I get why everybody was upset.
You learned a lot afterward about the alarmingly high murder rates trans women face.
I had no idea until after that interview. You see how the transgender rights are really being suppressed and marginalized in a real way. I can honestly tell you up until three years ago I never even understood what the trans community was about.
Is it hard to talk about Black men and mental health issues right now without that conversation being turned around to Kanye West?
Nah, not really. I think it’s just hard to talk about mental health issues in general, because truth be told, when I first started writing this book, I wasn’t writing it with the intention of writing a book about mental health. I didn’t know anxiety was considered a mental health issue... [but] it’s the number one mental health issue in America. When I started going to therapy, my therapist started letting me know I’ve got PTSD… and trauma from past situations. I just felt like therapy has been so good for me over the past year, I just wanted to share all my experiences.
When you talk privately with other men, do they confess some of the same crippling anxiety or PTSD you’ve had?
A million percent. That’s one of the reasons that I started to go to therapy, because of friends of mine that have more significant anxiety than I do. Guy friends that are actually on medication for it. When they started talking to me about it and going to therapy… that’s what gave me the confidence to do it.… realizing like damn, I’ve got actual friends who go through this.
You’ve gone “from the trap to the cul de sac,” in part propelled by fear and anxiety.
People think that just because you’ve got money, that your stress just automatically goes away, which is complete BS. If anything, I think it increases my anxiety because a lot of times I feel like I’m not deserving of the things that I have acquired. I don’t have a skill set. I didn’t go to college.My mom made 30 grand a year as a freaking’ school teacher her whole life. You know what I mean? And then when you’re the only Black person living in the cul de sac, you think that’s what you want, until it’s 2016 and its election time and you see all the Trump signs everywhere. It’s like My God, where am I? Or when your daughter is the only black person in the school full of white people… You know, is she really getting a fair shake in this school? Next year, I’m putting her in one of the most diverse schools in New Jersey simply because of their emphasis is on diversity. And honestly that’s how we all need to be looking at the world. The world is not old and white and male anymore. We’ve got to really start structuring the world for everybody.
You write that “keeping it real” is a lie told to young Black men by people jealous of their potential.
Absolutely, because keeping it real is honestly doing what I’m doing right now. Keeping it real is keeping it real with myself and who I am at 40 years old. Keeping it real is me telling y’all, “Look, I go to therapy.” Keeping it real is me telling y’all, “Look, I deal with anxiety.” Keeping it real is telling y’all, “I don’t want to hang out in the hood.” That’s not what I want to do. And by the way, most of the time when people say they’re keeping it real, it’s actually, keeping it criminal. That’s what they really want you to do, you know what I’m saying? They want you to keep it criminal. I don’t got time for that.
You once equated getting a lot of pussy with being a real man but you realize being faithful is like working out, it just makes you feel better. How do other men respond when you talk about that? Because there’s not a lot of bragging about monogamy in our world.
I think it’s changed a lot.… the young guys are like, very happy being with one woman and having monogamous relationships. I think a lot of the older guys are starting to do that too. I don’t know if it’s because of like the Jay-Z-Beyoncé effect or… [if] we’ve found other ways to feed our fragile egos. A lot of times, you know, guys just want to sleep with a bunch of different women simply because it feeds their ego... [But] when you actually start doing what it is you want to do in life, and you’re being the father that you need to be and the husband that you need to be, and you’re focusing on the aspects of your life that matter, like mentally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically, I think that that does enough for your ego. Who am I proving anything to by sleeping with a whole bunch of different women? I’ve got other things that I can brag about.
Do you think Kanye is eradicating the stigma around mental health or is his public exposure making things worse?
That’s a great question. I think it goes both ways.… He was rapping about it and in a lot of his interviews he was talking about it… But when I saw him in the White House, he said that he got misdiagnosed with bipolar, something from sleep deprivation, and that’s why he’s not on his medication no more, and I just felt like, You know what? He really needs to figure out what’s really going on. But I do think when he was… just openly talking about it, he was doing a lot to eradicate the stigma.
And I think on the other side, we got to do a better job of whether or not we take people serious when they say they have mental health issues. We can’t hear somebody say they have mental health issues but then all we do is clown them, and kick their back in, and say that they’re crazy, and say that they’re out of their mind and they’ve lost it. We can’t do that.
Yeah. And that’s actually what’s happened with Kanye.
100 percent — all because of his political views. By the way, he might have those political views because he’s going through something. You know what I mean? So why are we looking at them? By the way, I think all Trump supporters are mentally ill, but why are we focusing on that so much? Once a person tells you they’re mentally ill, and they’re not on their medication, we shouldn’t even be paying them any attention anymore. We should be getting them help.
And anybody who has a family member who’s bipolar will tell you they often go off their meds and say they were misdiagnosed.
Exactly. Everybody I know that suffers from mental health or bipolar or being manic and being on their meds to deal with it, they all say the exact same thing. They can look at Kanye and say, “Okay, I know what he’s going through.” So all I’m doing is praying that the brother can get real help.
You’re from Moncks Corner, South Carolina, but you did your ancestry and traced your DNA, your roots, back to the Mende, Balanta, and Mandinka peoples in Africa? I love that those groups all underscore resistance to colonization and to slavery. The Mandinka were one of the richest civilizations on Earth at the time. Have you been able to go visit these places?
I’ve never been to Africa before in my life, but I definitely want to go. I have so many people requesting that I come out there, I have a lot of friends in South Africa, especially in Nigeria, and I’m definitely going. You know, being from Charleston, like being born in Charleston where the slave ships actually came into the ports directly from West Africa, that’s a hell of a connection. And they’re opening up the International African-American Museum in Charleston on the port that everybody came through. Yeah, I’m definitely going.