How Charlamagne became Tha God of headline-grabbing interviews | US television

Last Friday, Charlamagne Tha God had a remote sit-down with Kamala Harris for his new late-night chatshow Tha God’s Honest Truth on Comedy Central. It was a big moment for a legendary provocateur who in little more than a decade has gone from dismissable radio sidekick to the leading interviewer on urban radio, as at ease grilling presidents as japing with Migos.

During his interview with Harris, it seemed as if the host, real name Lenard Larry McKelvey, would bite his tongue and give the vice-president space to hit back at the legion of critics who moan about her not doing more. But what seemed like a softball interview quickly changed tone when Charlamagne asked her, point blank: “Who is the real president of this country, Joe Biden or Joe Manchin?”

As soon as he asked the question, Harris’s spokesperson Symone Sanders swooped in and demanded a stop to the interview, citing audio difficulties. Seated in a gaming chair, Charlamagne swiveled around to face his studio audience. “They’re acting like they can’t hear me, y’all,” he snarked.

When Harris confirmed that she could indeed hear him, he repeated the question. “C’mon, Charlamagne,” she scolded with a wagging finger. “Don’t start talking like a Republican. It’s Joe Biden, and I’m vice-president and my name is Kamala Harris.” Her defiant response might have gone down as one beleaguered politician’s attempt to win points with her boss if it hadn’t been followed by news of Manchin’s Senate-chamber nuking of the Biden administration’s signature Build Back Better legislation the next day. Rather surprisingly, Charlamagne had stumbled into something that’s become increasingly rare in Washington: a genuine moment.

The Harris interview now enters the pantheon of Tha God’s honest gotcha moments. Before that, there was Biden telling Charlamagne during the 2020 election that African Americans who didn’t turn out for him “ain’t Black”. (Biden’s handlers tried shutting down that interview, too.) There was him calling Elizabeth Warren “the original Rachel Dolezal” while cross-examining her about her false claims to Native American ancestry. And there was him going all Jim Acosta on Hilary Clinton when the then presidential candidate came clean with her habit of carrying hot sauce in her purse. “Now,” he joked, “I just want you to know people are gonna see this and say, ‘OK, she’s pandering to Black people.’” To which she asked, “Is it working?”

remote interview - each man appears in separate window
Charlamagne Tha God interviews Joe Biden in May 2020. Photograph: Reuters

If the Moncks Corner, South Carolina, native has a gift for producing cringey exchanges, it’s because Charlamagne learned from one of the best line-steppers while a sidekick to Wendy Williams in the late aughts on New York’s WBLS R&B radio station and on VH1. But where Williams, although risqué, could reliably flirt her way back to safety in interviews, Charlamagne became notorious for rankling the industry’s popular and powerful.

He spent a year out of work after parting ways with Williams before the iHeart radio network brought him back to New York in 2010 to anchor the hip-hop station Power 105.1’s Breakfast Club show: a kind of Good Morning America for the streets known for its no-holds-barred interviews with Black luminaries in music, on screen and in sports. And while he’s done as much as the co-hosts DJ Envy and Angela Yee to elevate Birdman’s walkout, Soulja Boy’s meltdown and Monique’s Netflix controversy into memes, it’s Charlamagne’s sociopolitical curiosity that’s made the show an important stop for thought leaders and policymakers. Two bestselling biographies have only given him further standing to lead those discussions.

All the while a shadowy past looms just as large. He’s talked openly about serving jail time for dealing drugs as a teenager. In 2018, he was forced to reckon with a 2001 rape charge when his accuser, who was 15 at the time, sought to reopen the case. (Ultimately, a special prosecutor declined, citing the three years’ probation Charlamagne served after agreeing to a plea deal on a less serious charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.)

Around the same time, a 2015 podcast interview resurfaced in which Charlamagne seems to characterize his first sexual encounter with his now wife, Jessica Gadsden, as rape, saying that she was too drunk to meaningfully consent. (“For the record, in 1997 I was having consensual sex,” he’d say later. Gadsden, too, appeared on the Breakfast Club in his defense.)

None of it this has appeared to dim his stardom, nor has it stopped him positioning himself as an ally of the #MeToo and social justice movements. If anything, Charlamagne’s career has taken the same shape as those of Don Imus and Howard Stern before him. Which is to say he’s a Teflon-grade, old-school shock-jock.

Before the late-night chat with Harris, who stopped by the Breakfast Club during her presidential campaign to reminisce about her days as a weed-smoking Howard University sorority girl who now vibes to Tupac and Snoop, it was Charlamagne scoring the first interview with Travis Scott since the Astroworld festival disaster that had the media buzzing. But for all of his confrontational instincts, Charlamagne doesn’t have the combative chops of John Oliver or Jordan Klepper, who cut their teeth on Comedy Central. He is largely deferential to distinguished “gets”. Even the testy exchange between Charlamagne and the vice-president ended with him telling her, with a hand on heart, “we need you to be the superhero who saves democracy” and her gesturing in kind while saying “I wanna see those babies”. By that, of course, she means his kids, an indication that these two sparring partners might actually be friends.

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