Charlamagne tha God Wants More Men to Get Vulnerable
In celebration of his new book, 'Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me,' we spoke to the radio host about his fears, fame, and therapy.
Photo via The Canadian Press
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Every interaction has given me anxiety, from the random phone call, new employee handshake, knock on door, to the food delivery dude—everything. Today’s source of anxiety is an interview with Charlamagne tha God.
In my rational mind, he’s a host from one of the most popular radio stations in America, The Breakfast Club. He's a complete hip-hop/R&B aficionado and TV personality. That’s it. Nothing crazy or telling. No bit about that is a statement of danger. But in my heart, the beat is fast. The blood is pumping because he’s a stranger. That makes him unpredictable, and my anxiety doesn’t enjoy unpredictability.
In moments like this—when every minute leading up to an interaction sends my heart racing, creating Jello’d nerves—I'm extra appreciative to be talking about the source of my fear, which is my anxiety.
“My whole life in general man, honestly... I've just really been scared for a lack of a better term,” Charlamagne admits during a phone call. “I've always been this way.”
And I feel him for obvious reasons. The New York Times best-selling author, interviewer, and radio host has been openly talking about anxiety to the masses, and now he’s doing it through his latest offering, Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me, a blueprint for breaking away from anxieties and fears. Over the course of a life that involved a whirlwind of highs and lows, Charlamagne has ample reasons to be anxiety-ridden, and I took the opportunity to talk to him about it all.
VICE: I appreciate you taking on this topic, especially as someone personally who deals with his own issues. I mean, what’s the response been like?
Charlamagne tha God: The response has been good man. Second books are always interesting but it's sparking the conversation that I wanted to spark. It's creating the energy and ecosystem that I wanted to create, and all I’ve ever wanted to create was conversation. I'm a big believer in evolution, growth, and in being the best you that you can be, and I feel like the first step to doing that is getting mentally healthy. Everything starts with a thought. Your thoughts become things and anything that your mind can conceive, you can achieve. A lot of times when you have a lot of these distractions going on in your brain, whether it's dealing with anxiety which leads to insecurities, low-esteem, doubt, depression, and fear, it takes sitting down and seeking professional help through various means of therapy, spiritual advisers, meditation or all three. It’s when you can organize all of that clutter in your brain.
I imagine it like you've got a real junky closet. And when you head in there with all the boxes, you begin to pack up all of the stuff you don't need while organizing the clutter you want to keep. By then, you’ve got room for new material. Mental health in that sense is wealth man, and this book is starting that conversation... I'm not even going to say starting it actually, it’s loudening the conversation.
The thing is, you didn’t have to be public about any of this. Being a known radio personality, no one assumed that you experienced fears/anxieties on the level that you admitted. Why was it important to put this out now?
Well you know, I didn't start off with the intentions of writing a book like this. I didn’t even intend to write a book about mental health. I was just literally keeping a journal of everything that I was going through in therapy. The things that gave me anxiety in the past, in the now, and historically. When I started talking to my therapist, we hit the source of my PTSD and the trauma that came from the things that occurred when I was younger—issues with my father and how that may have affected me. And the PTSD from being fired from radio. I was unpacking all of these different things. You've got years of me being a kid running the streets, selling crack to being disruptive in school and being fired during this journey of radio. And you’ve got that evolution of going from myself not having much celebrity to having a little bit of celebrity. All of that was an adjustment, and I was simply keeping a journal of it all.
I'm the type of person man... [laughs], I can't hold things in. If something is on my mind I’ve got to get it out. I can't front for lack of a better term. If I'm sitting on the radio or on my podcast [The Brilliant Idiots], I’ve got to tell ya'll what's going on in my life. That's what I've been doing my whole career. So this is no different.
When were you able to first admit that you had these issues with anxiety?
I mean the first time I can remember was around hurricane Hugo when I was like eight or nine years old. We were seeking shelter in this school and Hugo was sitting at a category four or five level hurricane. I’d say that was more of a rational anxiety because everyone around me was bugging out at that time. You had my parents and other adults talking about losing their trailers, houses, and even speaking about how we might not even make it through the night. That was just like, oh shit... But my whole life in general man, honestly… I've just really been scared for a lack of a better term. I've always been this way. But the thing about me and my anxiety is that it makes me take action. I’ve got to get up and do something. I'm not one to just sit around and wait for the thing that’s scaring me to actually get me. I’ve got to do something about it. And I can think of numerous times.
I used to do this one thing on the regular. I’d just hide in the woods [laughs]. I'd just be randomly walking down my dirt road for no reason, and I'll see my actual friends and all of a sudden, I'd have a panic attack and hide in the woods so that I wouldn't have to interact with any of them. And I honestly don't know where that came from. I just always thought that I was crazy in a way, or just a really ridiculous-acting introvert.
And you really don’t know the source of that anxiety?
I still don't know to this day man. And if I'm being totally honest, if I were to go home right now to Moncks Corner, South Carolina, and if I spotted some of these people who I grew up with, I would still try to hide [laughs]. I would still be on my man I hope they didn't see me stuff. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I don't really enjoy small talk and that I’m now at the point where I really don't have anything to talk to ya'll about. I mention this in the book, that when you go home man, people just treat you differently. They think that you've changed. So they go out of their way to make you feel small because it makes them feel bigger, and I don't have any time for that. That's so corny to me. Don't go out of your way to tell me that you remember when I wasn't shit. So what? [laughs] that's cool... I really don't even understand that energy.
So at its worst moments, how would you describe the feeling? Because I think a lot of us don’t know how to identify the things that we feel. We often blame it on a drug, the alcohol, or a lack of sleep.
For me, every panic attack feels the same, just different levels of the same feeling. To put it best it feels like an intense heart attack. I've gone to the doctor three or four times in my life just to get an EKG because you could never tell me that something wasn't wrong with my heart at the time. We're talking about a heart beating crazily. We’re talking about heavy palpitations, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest like you feel physical pains. Like... oh my God, what's going on in my chest? Like somebody punched you square in that spot. That's how my panic attacks always feel, which can lead to headaches, fatigue, to the point of it being hard to sleep at night when you're tossing and turning in your bed. That's why when the Geto Boys start that song off, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” and they're like, “at night, I can't sleep, I toss and turn,” that shit is real man.
I’m always curious about how fame factors into it. You’re experiencing something where you’re highly visible, making it that much harder to hide.
First of all, I never like to look at myself as famous. I think that's corny and I think it's equally corny when people label themselves as a celebrity. What I would like to say is that I've acquired a certain amount of celebrity. But I’m no celebrity. With me, it feels different because it can go from not being noticed at all to a light pandemonium. And it’s a very scary feeling especially for someone like me because I never know who's friend or foe.
You're talking about a person who before I was even doing radio, I was in the streets. I would get into fights and have guns pulled out on me. And now, while radio and The Breakfast Club for the past eight years, I've been attacked in front of the station, I've had to defend myself in front of the station, and I've had various rappers run up on me at different times. You just don't know who's who. So when you're out and about and somebody’s staring at you, you really just don't know. Like Jay-Z said, “friend or foe, yo, state your biz.” We really don't know. That just increases my paranoia even more. If I’m sitting in my crib and I see car lights outside and I don't know where they're coming from and what it is, that's an automatic panic. Because when I'm at home, I’ve got a family to protect. All of that heightens the anxiety. I can never, ever be out in public and think it's all good, especially with folks on social media telling me they want to kill me all day. All of that factors in.
I also remember reading in the book about how your father would view you as less of a man if you admitted your fears. I felt something similar. How did your environment play into your views on getting help.
I love my father, but I just think that my father's definition of what masculinity is was flawed. It was a lot of our definitions of masculinity growing up, as equated to toughness, being hardcore, and becoming damn near physically strong as opposed to being emotionally, spiritually, and mentally strong. Environment was everything to me. And I grew up in an environment where if you showed any of that, not just around my father but around my peers, with my friends at the time, it would be considered weak... as being soft or a pussy for lack of a better term. It's why I say that you can't heal when you're in the midst of the hurt. It's why we normalize so much of the bullshit because we really don't know what's normal and what isn’t. We don’t have a clue. What we end up normalizing is the violence, womanizing, misogynistic behavior, and the homophobia. We’ve normalized a lot of things that we shouldn't have made normal.
In a lot of ways, we’re often raised like old white men. Especially in the south.
What do you mean by that?
I mean it’s because we're not really open minded at all. Not even a little bit. We have this one track mind, this one way of thinking when it comes to what being a man is and what manhood is or isn't. If unstated rules don't fall into various categories, and if things don't move in a certain way, we kind of don't respect it at all. That's why a lot of us get stuck.
When you talk about environments, you’ve established yourself within the hip-hop community that historically, favors strength over weakness. Have you been noticing a change over the years?
Well this past year, and I don't know if it's because my energy has shifted so much or because I've talked about therapy, but it just feels different artists and athletes are coming on The Breakfast Club and they're just having these conversations. You've got Tyson Fury, a 6 foot 5, 260-pound heavyweight boxer being vulnerable about his anxiety and depression, and about being afraid and self-medicating Before having to go to therapy. That's big.
But you said something just now man, and it's true. Hip-hop has always been historically about being hardcore and tough, but if we're really being honest, the artists that we really gravitate toward always showed that vulnerability. Tupac Shakur always showed that. Somebody like DMX did the same thing. Ghostface Killer, Scarface, Jay-Z, all of these guys splayed that vulnerability in some way, shape, or form if you were paying attention. It doesn't get any more vulnerable than a song like “Slipping” by DMX. All of those guys are considered gangsters, but we love when the toughest and most fearless amongst can be vulnerable. That's been changing over the past year. It's like the universe is conspiring for folks to have these conversations. You’ve got Taraji P. Henson launching her Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation to eradicate the stigma of mental health in the African American community. And you've got Chance the Rapper pledging a million dollars to Chicago mental health services. There are a ton of things happening right now.
You were one of the few who took a sympathetic approach to Kanye West’s antics as well. And it leads me to ask if you believe mental health is treated unfairly across the board and why.
The problem is that we just don't believe that celebrities can go through anything. And we don't believe celebrities when they say that they do. We believe that they’re always being disingenuous and we don't look see them as human beings. So a celebrity will scream at the top of their lungs, about having a mental illness, and we'll dismiss it because it’s like, whatever, you're just trying to sell records, sneakers, or you're making excuses because you support Donald Trump. Kanye West isn't even the first person I've done that to if people really pay attention. I used to give Azealia Banks Donkey of the Day a lot until I actually started having actual conversations with her, and now I like her. She’s an intelligent and very articulate woman, and she's put me onto some things that have happened in her life that let me know that she's got a few things that she's got to work on too. Once you know that about a person, you tend to look at people different like I do with Kayne. And you are more empathetic to whatever it is that they're going through.
But I have to say that I definitely think we're hypocrites when it come to the whole mental health aspect as it relates to celebrities because we really, truly, honestly feel like celebrities aren’t allowed to go through anything just because of their status.
There’s a distinction you make about viewing fear with the right lens. One of the better examples in your book is you were scared over the allegations of sexual assault tied to your name. Tell me about your mindset at the time.
It didn't scare me so to speak. It was more so like, OK, you can't escape your past. That's just the truth of the matter. And it isn’t something that I've ever hid. None of that stuff was a secret. I spoke about my criminal sexual misconduct charge with a minor from 2001. And I always spoke about that. Hell, I wrote about that in my book. That was nothing for me to hide. Literally the next day, I fully cooperated with authorities, provided blood samples, and did everything I was supposed to do. And if anyone really looked into at that case, they’d see that something didn’t add up there. Thinking back, the only thing that I was tripping off of was the old audio clips from 2015 that surfaced from my podcast, which I always found strange. When I made those rape comments three years ago in regards to my wife, people understood the context that it was in. I was having some unrefined discussions about rape culture, and I believed to be doing a good thing because I wanted to school young men on how not to move. And inform everyone in how a lot of things we've done back in the day were considered the norm, and how now, it would be considered sketchy. So don't even put yourself in those situations. When that happened and everybody blew it out of context, I was like damn, it was never about the incidents, it was an attack. If I'm being totally honest, it’s one of those things that has always given me anxiety.
I'm not mad at that though. I'm not mad at any of it because all it does is make me just continue to grow, evolve, and help me to become a better communicator. And I'd be lying to you if I told you that I had any of those conversations on my podcast correctly. I can look back and see how some people were able to take that totally out of context.
What was the most challenging aspect about writing this book and putting it all out there?
The biggest challenge for me was actually trying to transcribe what my therapist was informing me of. And then to realize that it wasn’t my place. My therapist was telling me things for me alone and for my benefit. So that's when I reached out to a separate expert in Dr. Ish Major to be my actual expert in speaking on the experiences that I was attempting to explain. I thank my therapist separately for giving me the energy and proper knowledge to explain what I was feeling and going through. And that's the beauty of therapy, it helps you to be more vulnerable. I've never had a problem being transparent. I mean, you just asked me about my sexual assault allegations, and I'm like, yo, if you really sit back and look at it, I don't have any sexual assault allegations. The only thing I’ve got is the things that I've told y'all. This is the stuff that Charlamagne told you. There’s no women lying saying Charlamagne did this or that to me, I told you guys about a story with my wife. I told you about a story with my home girl who she herself wrote a deposition saying, are you crazy? He didn't rape me. We were kids. These are the stories that I shared with people. It's I who told you all of this. So again, I've never had a problem with being transparent, it's just that I've never been vulnerable. The difference between being vulnerable and transparent is that vulnerability comes in telling folks how you felt in a situation as opposed to just telling you about it. That was the hardest aspect. And I would never have been able to write this book without going to therapy. Because I didn't have a real understanding of these feelings, issues or why I felt the way I felt about certain things.
What are you hoping most that people get out of Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks On Me?
That you truly can't heal what you don't reveal. And I want them to know that everything is mental, and that everything starts with a thought. In order for us to be the best that we can possibly be, it has to come from a cerebral aspect. I'm a stern believer in the law of attraction and your thoughts becoming things, and I think that a lot of times we don't think with clarity because we've got so much baggage. It's okay to get help. That's all I want people to know. That it's OK. You can admit that something is wrong, and that you don't have things figured out. I know we live in this social media, Google everything era and it's so easy to sound so smart, and easy to say the perfect thing on social media all the time. And we got all these amen corners, and we're playing to the crowds, so as long as these crowds are giving you these ooo's and these aaah's, you love it, and you embrace it. But that's wack. In order to truly lead the orchestra, you've got to turn your back on the crowd. That's what I'm doing with this book. I'm turning my back on the crowd and saying look, ya'll can continue to front like y'all got it all together, I know that I don't have it all together, and I'm not going to let y'all make me go crazy.
I'm not going to be around here shaving my... well I already got a bald head, but you're not going to see me around here with an umbrella trying to break windows like Britney Spears. Or you're not going to see me disappear like Lauryn Hill or Dave Chappelle did and then going to Africa to come back ten years from now with a big grey beard. Y'all are not going to make me do that. I'm going to figure this out right now and I'm going to get the help I need right now, and no one is going to make me feel ashamed about it. And I'm going to share my experiences with everyone else and hopefully save some lives in the process. I know I'm doing the right thing with this book and I think it's going to outlive me. It's way bigger than me.
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