The Insidious Nature of Social Sameness
Lenard McKelvey, a.k.a. Charlamagne Tha God, the popular radio DJ, television personality, and self-proclaimed “prince of pissing people off,” has never shied away from controversy. In fact, he’s become beloved by his millions of fans by speaking the truth unapologetically and refusing to pander to the court of public opinion.
This straight-talk approach has led to a loyal following that continues to tune in, eager to listen to his uncensored banter with high-profile guests like Kanye West and Hillary Clinton on Power 105.1’s syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club. In his weekly podcast, The Brilliant Idiots, co-hosted by comedian Andrew Schulz, Charlamagne goes deep on hot-button topics, often uninformed (admittedly) but always with passion. The podcast delves into controversial discussions of race, gender identity, and politics, and Charlamagne actively courts unfiltered opinions for a more honest, less “politically correct” discourse.
The motivation behind his lack of censorship isn’t about driving ratings or garnering attention. It’s about confronting the notion of “group think”: the psychological phenomenon in which the desire for conformity outweighs critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints. Charlamagne regularly criticizes the way people fall into step with a popular opinion and he does so because he’s deeply invested in driving the conversation further.
We talk to Charlamagne Tha God on his vision for the future and the struggle to overcome “group think.”
V: You lean into some really taboo topics, from sweeping social justice issues like #blacklivesmatter, to the prevalence of rape culture. Is there any topic you won’t touch?
C: No, not if I have an honest opinion about it. We live in a society where people won’t speak about certain things because they’re afraid people will disagree with them. But that’s the whole point. I have no problem admitting that I’m wrong. I’m just trying to have a conversation. Without conversation, without communication, we won’t get anywhere as a society.
The panelists on Uncommon Sense, like Andrew Schulz, who once declared he doesn’t believe in “white privilege,” and Crissle West, writer and co-host of The Read who identifies proudly as a black woman and as a feminist, often have polarizing views. Was it intentional to have them both on the show and do you think their disagreements add value to the conversation?
Absolutely. And not because I want them to butt heads—they just have very opposing views of the world. They both have had two very different life experiences and a lot of times when we watch these TV shows or media platforms, they’ll interview a group of people who have all had a similar experience—whether it’s a group of black people who have all been oppressed or a group of white people who are just clueless and don’t know what the hell is going on. I like showcasing all of those experiences at once. I think it makes the topics broader and they end up having conversations that America wants to have but is afraid to.
On your podcast you’re working out an issue in real time, how does the process differ from having these discussions on long-form shows like podcasts vs. social media vs. radio or TV?
On social media it’s easy for things to get misconstrued. One-hundred and forty characters are never enough to discuss the things we discuss. Radio, I’m in there with two other people (co-hosts DJ Envy and Angela Yee) so we have to get to things quickly. TV, same thing—everything has to be short form. Podcasts are great because you get to look at things from all angles and really work through whatever it is you’re talking about. Sometimes you don’t have to get to a point, or there may not be one. We may throw out ten different points about one thing and that might be fine.
How do you think the environment you were raised in has informed your ability to have these discussions?
When you come from the extreme circumstances I’ve come from—as far as being raised on a dirt road without having much—I’m not afraid of that life. I’m not afraid of going to get a job at Walmart. I don’t want to have to do that, but I would.
I’m not saying anything in malice. I’m not trying to offend anybody. I just don’t understand why we can’t have these conversations. The more we try to shut people up, the more we fail to get anywhere. That’s why we keep having the same discussions: the same discussions about race, same discussions about homophobia, same discussions about gender—because everyone is saying things like “now’s not the time.” So when is the time? When is there ever going to be a time to discuss these issues?
You’ve interviewed both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton’s infamous “delete your account” tweet had a lot of people saying she went too far. Do you think politicians have a place in social media?
Yes! We have to stop looking at social media like it’s some other entity—social media is life. For a presidential candidate to express themselves on social media and go back and forth with each other on social media, that should be the norm. It looks foreign to us because we’re not used to it. To me, I’m wondering what a candidate is doing if they don’t have a social media account. You don’t want to engage with the people? You think you’re too good?
People often say the Internet is no longer a safe space for conversation. You get attacked left and right for having an unpopular opinion. Do you believe there are fewer and fewer safe places to have honest discussion?
If you’re afraid of people disagreeing with you, you’re never going to have a safe space. That’s what everybody has to get over. People are afraid to express their true opinions because they’re afraid of people disagreeing with them. I believe in the rule of ten: three people are going like it, three people aren’t going to like it, and four people are just going to be on the fence waiting to see what the f*ck happens.