Millions of listeners tune in to hear Charlamagne co-host the nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club.” It’s considered one of the most important shows in the hip-hop world. He’s known for his long, sometimes combative interviews with everyone from Kanye West to Hillary Clinton.
Now, he’s available in book form. His new autobiography/self-improvement book is called “Black Privilege.” Before answering our listeners’ etiquette questions about competitive gym bunnies, he explained his ideas behind the title of the book, his “F” Your Dreams principle, and more.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Charlamagne, thanks for joining us.
Charlamagne tha God: Thank you for having me. What’s happening? What’s going on out here?
Brendan Francis Newnam: Trying to adjust to the warm weather in New York City.
Charlamagne: Oh, man, I love it. Seventy degrees in spring is amazing.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I know.
Charlamagne: New York is just a different vibe when it’s like warm.
Brendan Francis Newnam: But don’t you hate when you wake up early for your show, and sometimes I come out, and I have a scarf on, a hat on and layers, and then by lunch, I feel like an idiot.
Charlamagne: That’s fine, though. I’m with that. It always reminds me of the story of the wind and the sun.
Brendan Francis Newnam: What’s that?
Charlamagne: The wind and the sun challenge each other to a battle. They were like, “Let see who can make this guy take his coat off first!” So, the wind started blowing all crazy. So, the guy held his coat tighter, but the sun came out and was warm and inviting, and dude got naked. So, the sun won.
Brendan Francis Newnam: See, I had the PG-13 version. He didn’t get naked in my book.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, he just took off the sweater.
Charlamagne: Oh, no. He definitely got naked.
Rico Gagliano: We’ll talk about your book in a second. First, as we said, you are one of the biggest interviewers of hip-hop artists and celebrities around, but you kick off your book with a story of a historical figure named Denmark Vesey, a slave who bought his freedom, and then he dedicated his life to freeing other slaves. You say you couldn’t imagine putting the book out without mentioning him. Why?
Charlamagne: Yeah, because I used to always say the spirit of Denmark Vesey is in me, because Denmark Vesey was a slave in Charlestown, South Carolina. That’s where I was born. And his life was cool. Like, he was free, he had money, he had a trade that he could rely on to make even more money…
Brendan Francis Newnam: He was a carpenter and he founded a church.
Charlamagne: Yeah, but he just felt like his life wasn’t complete because he knew that there was other people still in Charlestown who were still in slavery. So he went to lead one of the largest slave revolts in the history of America, but he got ratted out by one of the other slaves who I guess was enjoying slavery more than he would’ve enjoyed freedom.
So, I just always feel like the spirit of Denmark Vesey is in me because I know that there’s a lot more people in South Carolina who are going to come behind me one day.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Is that part of why you structured this book? I mean, there’s a lot of tales of your youth and growing up, but it’s also, you structured it, “Life Principles to Success.”
Charlamagne: Absolutely, because I read a lot of books. I’m a big Don Miguel Ruiz guy, a big Malcolm Gladwell guy. I’m a big Robert Greene guy. I like Ryan Holiday. And I love the fact that they all have principles, but they always use historical context to back up their principles. I just use historical context for my life. Because I didn’t feel like my life was interesting enough to do a whole autobiography, and I just feel like that’s too early in the game for me to do that. I’d rather structure it in a self-help type of way.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, why call it “Black Privilege”? I mean, clearly there’s a lot of talk of white privilege right now, but that’s a pretty provocative title.
Charlamagne: White privilege is very real. It’s a very real thing. But I feel like black privilege can be a real thing. I feel like our privilege isn’t necessarily systemic. It’s more spiritual. That gives us the strength to get through a lot of adversity in spite of everything that has been thrown at us.
I didn’t go to college. I don’t have a degree or anything. So, the only thing I ever had to fall back on was my blackness and the fact that I’m from South Carolina. So, I just feel like, regardless of what you are, you have to remember two things: God created you divinely perfect; he created you who he wants you to be; and you just have to find power in that. Whether it’s being a woman, whether it’s being white, Asian, Jewish, whatever. We all have a divine privilege that we can tap into.
Rico Gagliano: That being said, you have a pretty realistic take on careers and stuff like that. The book is, as you said, organized around eight principles, but it’s not the typical “follow your dreams” advice. In fact, you call yourself a “de-motivational speaker” and say not everyone has the skills to become, say, the next Jay-Z or the next Oprah, which is, I think, your original path. What are signs, do you think, that people are in the wrong field or pursuing the wrong dream?
Charlamagne: Well, I have a principle called “Fuck Your Dreams.” Well, I’m sorry, I forgot I can’t cuss.
Brendan Francis Newnam: No, you can. We’ll bleep it.
Charlamagne: All right, but it’s “F” Your Dreams.
I think a lot of times, especially in the African-American community, we see people that look like us that are successful, and most of the time they’re in entertainment or they’re in athletics. So, being that we see that working for somebody else, we say, “Oh, I want to do that, too!” But that’s not your dream! That may not be what you’re destined to do.
Like, just because you see it working for somebody else, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. Me, I wanted to be a rapper. So not only was I rapping, I was doing radio. And, at the time, Ludacris had just started to bubble. So Ludacris came from doing radio, and he turned into a popular rapper. So I was like, “Oh, that’s what I’m going to do!”
And then I had a mentor named Dr. Robert Evans who literally told me one day, “Look, you suck at rapping. You’re not good at rapping, but you are really good at radio.” And I didn’t get upset, I just started focusing more on radio and left the rap alone.
Rico Gagliano: But here’s the problem, though: how many stories have we heard of people who have been told something like that, and they said, “I’m not listening to them. I’m following my dream.” And they did turn out to be great.
Charlamagne: I mean, if you really have talent, I’m never going to discourage you. If you really have talent. And I know it’s kind of hard to even grasp that concept nowadays because you have so many people who you think are talentless who are actually prospering.
Rico Gagliano: Right!
Charlamagne: But also, is what they’re doing long term? Or are they just hot for the moment? Like, if you work hard, you can get something out of it for the moment, but will you be able to make a career out of it?
So, for me, I feel like, man, we’ve lost a lot of doctors, a lot of engineers, a lot of architects, maybe people who can find a cure for HIV and cancer, to the rap game. Because they chose to be rappers instead of doctors, or engineers, or lawyers, you know?
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, look, one of the skills you have is you’re kind of a provocateur. You’re known for never shying away from a tough question in an interview. And sometimes you’re even combative a little bit with guests. Why?
Charlamagne: I promise you I don’t mean to. I promise you I’m just a fan at the end of the day.
Rico Gagliano: Really?
Charlamagne: I don’t, man. The one time that I’ve ever really tried to provoke — I’m not even going to say I was trying to provoke them, but I was doing something simply because I knew it would get me attention, was when I played the audio of Floyd Mayweather reading. Because that was around the time when everybody was giving Floyd Mayweather flack, saying he couldn’t read. And one of my producers was like, “Yo, we’ve got the audio of Floyd Mayweather reading these drops.” And I was like, “Really? Let me hear them.”
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, this was the boxer, Floyd Mayweather, apparently struggling really hard to read just some simple copy for a radio promo.
Charlamagne: And she let me hear them, and I was like, “We’re going on the air with that right now!” Everybody in the room was like, “No! No.” And I’m like, “‘F’ that! We need to get ratings.” And I did it. And it didn’t feel good because it wasn’t coming from a good place.
So, any time you see me in there and I’m telling Kanye West how I feel about him or any artist how I feel about them, that’s really, truly how I feel.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, what would be the toughest question you’d ask yourself, if you had an opportunity to interview yourself for “Black Privilege”?
Charlamagne: At this moment in time, it would be, “Why do you have a book called ‘Black Privilege’? You know black privilege doesn’t exist.” Because that’s the concept and it’s the theory that I’m trying to get people to buy into because I grew up with people telling me, “Black pride! Black power! Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.”
You know, when you study your ancestral greatness and realize that we come from kings and queens and Eastern civilization. Like, if I come from that, why can’t I have pride in that? Why can’t being black be a privilege as well?
Of course, the concept of white privilege is real, but that don’t negate my specialness.
Rico Gagliano: But is that really the toughest question you would pose to yourself? You knew the answer to that question.
Charlamagne: It is when you get interviewed by black people.
Rico Gagliano: Oh, that’s true.
Charlamagne: Yeah, because they’re going to press you on it.