Charlamagne Tha God on the Price of Audacity
Behind the Episode
If it’s true that you’re not a success until there are as many people who hate you as those who love you, then Breakfast Club Host & Personality Charlamagne Tha God is a success story for the ages.
From a trailer in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, Charlamagne tha God was kicked out of two high schools, arrested 3 times and was fired from four radio jobs. But did that stop him? Of course not. Nothing stops Charlamagne. That audaciousness that got him into so much trouble? That’s his secret sauce.
On his nationally syndicated radio show, The Breakfast Club with DJ Envy and Angela Yee, CTG has become infamous for asking frank, provocative personal questions of guests ranging from senator Elizabeth Warren to rapper Beanie Sigel—questions that have led to on-air conflicts, long-term feuds, personal attacks and angry listeners accusing him of being disrespectful to gays, the transgendered, women and more. It’s all in a day’s work for the “hip-hop Howard Stern,” who believes that using the power of words, being honest and getting people to speak their truth is more important than kowtowing to celebrity culture.
In the first episode from our new video series, Rare Breed, we sit down with the prime minister of polarization, the ruler of rubbing people the wrong way, and the architect of aggravation, to ask why people love him for it.. and why people hate him for it, too.
Dreaming from a Dirt Road
In an open, vulnerable, and wide-ranging interview, we talk about everything from his battle with anxiety to his upbringing as a Jehovah’s witness and his search for authentic spirituality. Charlamagne told us that he grew up in our neck of the woods—South Carolina, in a small town called Moncks Corner. Even early on, he was a contradiction. On one hand, he was the book-loving son of an English teacher: “I was the guy that read four books a week for the ‘Book It’ program because I liked pizza. You read four books, you got a free pizza. I read mad Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary growing up.”
But as a teen he was also selling crack on the street, and was arrested three times. He managed to avoid going down the same dead-end road as many of his peers by going to night school after his third arrest and landing a gig as a radio intern. His drug-dealing days did yield one good thing, however: his one of a kind name, which grew out of the “high names” he would give himself to stay anonymous while dealing.
“So I’d be on the block with a hoodie on and people would pull up and I’d be like, ‘Yo, my name is Charles or Charlie,’” CTG says. “We used to all smoke weed crazy back in the day and we had a crew called the Infamous Buddhaheads. I was Charlie Chronic, and I had other homeboys who were like Bobby Buddha, Mikey Marijuana, shit like that…one day I was in night school and reading a history book about Charlemagne, French for Charles the Great.
“I started saying my name was Charlamagne because his dynasty was called the Carolinian empire, and I’m from South Carolina.”
But what really stands out about the young man who became Charlamagne Tha God was that even in his youth, he had the audacity to expect greatness of himself. “The most audacious thing I’ve done in my life? Being raised on a dirt road in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, population seven thousand, and having the audacity to think that I could be the biggest multi-media personality in the world,” he says.
“In my adult life, the only audacity I have now is the audacity to think that I can change the world,” CTG continues. “That’s the reason I wanted to be in media, to begin with, because the person who controls the media controls the minds of the masses. So I guess [it’s audacious] of me to think that I can actually impact the world in a productive way—actually shift culture and move the culture forward.”
There’s no question that Charlamagne has had an impact on the world, provoking unflinching dialogue about issues like the “rape culture” that exists among some men. However, that impact comes through an often-polarizing on-air persona that outrages some people. But CTG doesn’t care. He’s a Rare Breed, and Rare Breeds wear their audacity proudly. He knows he’s a polarizing figure but it’s that willingness to say what no one else will that’s made him a household name and started some very important conversations.
“Polarizing people are the most honest because if somebody is telling you everything that you want to hear, they’re probably lying to you.”
That verbal audacity has backfired, however. Charlamagne has caught hell from the listening public for saying (among other things) that transgender women should “go to jail” for not disclosing their transgender status to potential sex partners, and that drunk sex doesn’t equal rape. But to him, having a voice that can shape the larger culture is worth some blowback, especially when his intentions are good.
“So I feel like as long as I’m coming from a good place, and I’m not being malicious and I’m speaking my honest opinion, it will separate some people,” he says. “I don’t play to the orchestra. I’m not gonna sit here and tell you everything that you want to hear, and I would hope nobody would do that to me. I believe in the Rule of Ten: three people going to like [what you say], three people are not going to like it, and four people will not even care. My father would always tell me you’re never as good as they say you are, and you’re never as bad as they say you are.”
Audacity has been good to Charlamagne tha God, and that’s a powerful lesson for Rare Breeds everywhere. Being who you are, and speaking with your authentic voice, is the most important choice you will ever make…but it’s going to come at a price. We might say that we love rebels and original thinkers, but what we really love are people who make us feel comfortable. That’s not CTG’s job and it’s not yours. If you’re saying what others won’t and doing what others fear, you’ll get pushback, pressure, and condemnation. Audacity always faces opposition.