Politics & Government

SC native Charlamagne is changing the 2020 conversation one candidate at a time

It’s April 2016, and then-Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton says on the radio that she always carries hot sauce with her.

Instantly, the moment goes viral.

It becomes fuel for political pundits and voters, who accuse Obama’s former U.S. secretary of state of pandering to a young, black audience, not long after world-famous music artist Beyoncé releases her award-winning “Formation” track that includes the line, “I got hot sauce in my bag, swag.” And it all goes down on “The Breakfast Club,” a nationally-syndicated morning radio show on New York’s hip-hop station, Power 105.1 FM.

One of the show’s co-hosts, South Carolina’s own Lenard McKelvey, better known as Charlamagne Tha God, has a front row seat to the moment — literally.

Three years later, Charlamagne and crew Angela Yee and DJ Envy are still sparking trending political moments, this time with the crowded field of candidates running to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020 — from U.S. senators to a little-known mayor.

They’ve asked U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to defend why she said she is part Native American.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg admitted — even as an out, gay man — he loves Chick-fil-A, just not their politics.

And they’ve gotten U.S. Sen Kamala Harris of California to talk about smoking marijuana in college.

“And I inhaled,” Harris said on the show. “I did inhale. It was a long time ago.”

But, in a recent phone interview with The State, Charlamagne said he’s not after the one-liners, ripe to become popular political fodder.

“Honestly, it’s not something I’m really thinking about,” said the 40-year-old Moncks Corner native. “I really want people to be informed. I’m just really trying to do the most informative interview that I can and really just talk to these people like human beings.

I’m not a political pundit. I’m not a political scholar. I’m just a person in America with a radio show and a vote.”

‘I’m going to call them out’

A handful of 2020 presidential hopefuls have found the seat sandwiched between Charlamagne and co-host Angela Yee as a required stop even as they maintain increasingly busy campaign schedules criss-crossing the country between early primary states, including South Carolina — home to the first-in-the-South primary contest and candidates’ first real test among black voters.

The campaigns are reaching out to get on The Breakfast Club, Charlamagne said, not the other way around.

To get on the show, candidates sometimes go through another native South Carolinian, former S.C. Rep. Bakari Sellers, a Denmark native, who now regularly appears on CNN as a contributor. Charlamagne credits Sellers for opening The Breakfast Club door to politics. The two first met nearly a decade ago, and Charlamagne is a producer on his documentary, “While I Breathe, I Hope,” about Sellers’ life, which includes his failed bid for S.C. lieutenant governor in 2014.

“Bakari is the person who definitely kicked it off,” Charlamagne said. “It made people be like, ‘Why is Bakari on this show?’ But when they saw the impact it had, they got it. That’s when those conversations started happening, at least in the Democratic Party.”

Charlamagne, a Berkeley High School graduate who grew up in a rural area of Moncks Corner, started his radio career in Charleston as an intern at Z93 Jamz, later joining WHXT-FM Hot 103.9 and 93.9 FM in Columbia.

He left South Carolina in 2006, working for Wendy Williams on “The Wendy Williams Experience,” and has since been involved with TV, including hosting MTV2’s late-night show “Uncommon Sense with Charlamagne” and “Guy Code.” He’s also written an autobiography, “Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It,” and a self-help book called “Shook One” about overcoming fear and anxiety and becoming successful.

The Breakfast Club with Charlamagne and others is not quite “Meet the Press” with Chuck Todd, or CNN’s “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper or “Fox News Sunday” with Chris Wallace.

But it’s not supposed to be, and, Charlamagne adds, the radio show was never intended to rival traditional news, though numbers suggest his social media game is definitely on par, perhaps superior. (On Twitter, where Charlamagne’s tag line is “I bust Stupid Dope Moves and Bomb Atomically,” he currently has 2.08 million followers, exceeding Tapper at 2.06 million and Todd at 2.05 million.)

While The Breakfast Club is a radio show, the entire show is broadcast on YouTube, giving listeners a more visual opportunity to see the candidates on the show — sometimes a stark contrast to Charlamagne and co-hosts who don’t wear suits, let alone ties.

And when candidates leave the mic, they aren’t typically being followed up by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to talk homeland security, but instead maybe award-winning rapper Kanye West, actress Melissa McCarthy or comedian Kevin Hart.

“It’s a certain level of intimacy that you get on radio that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “We don’t have to pause, go to commercials. We’re just sitting there, chopping it up, having a conversation.”

That style of interview can sometimes make candidates almost too comfortable, Charlamagne admits.

But the interviews also reveal a different side to the candidates, one not manicured and cut for prime time, and touch on topics that candidates typically try to avoid, while Charlamagne — who once described himself to The New York Times as a “slightly obnoxious person” — repeatedly drives them home.

“I think it’s a beautiful moment when you’re sitting there talking to Mayor Pete (Buttigieg), and you ask Mayor Pete why did he come out (as gay), and he’s like, ... ‘Yo, I just wanted to be in love.’ That’s just a real moment,” Charlamagne said. “And then you’re having a conversation with Mayor Pete and you’re asking him about Chick-fil-A, and he’s like, ‘Yo, I love their chicken but I hate their politics.’ That’s just a real, nuanced answer. He could have just been like, ‘Nah, I hate Chick-fil-A.’ Yo, come on. We’re lying to ourselves. We love Chick-fil-A. We all love Chick-fil-A. You may hate their politics but we love their chicken.”

Recently, Charlamagne made headlines, again, when he called Warren the original “Rachel Dolezal” over Warren’s past controversial remarks about her ancestry. Dolezal, a former NAACP leader, has continued to drum up controversy by identifying as black even though she is white.

Charlamagne told The State he thought Warren’s response — “It’s just what I learned from my family” — could have been stronger.

“If it feels like someone is pandering (to a black audience), I’m going to call them out on it,” he said. “We’ve got to be careful as people who do interviews as well. Like, why the hell would I be asking Elizabeth Warren about who her favorite rapper is?”

It’s that reason why Charlamagne has mixed feelings over ever allowing President Donald Trump on the show, if he asks, of course.

“I wouldn’t want him to try to come and humanize himself and possibly pander to our audience thinking that people are going to be on his side in 2020,” he said. “If it’s not going to be a genuine conversation that somebody could learn from, I don’t see the point in that.”

Plus, Charlamagne admits, the chance of Trump ending the interview early is strong.

“He would walk out,” he said. “I know for a fact he’d probably curse me out and walk out. You think (co-founder of Cash Money records) Birdman was in there for 27 seconds? I think Trump would be out just as fast.”

But Charlamagne says he does not want politicians to think The Breakfast Club is the one outlet available for talking to black voters.

“I wouldn’t want any of these candidates to think they can go to one of any one place and talk to black and brown people,” he said. “Black people are not monolithic.”

‘It’s dream selling season’

With the 2020 elections around the corner, the former South Carolina hip-hop radio show personality says he sees himself traveling back-and-forth from his New Jersey home to South Carolina, helping to drive up voter participation and maybe filling in as surrogate for one of the presidential hopefuls.

If he had to vote today, Charlamagne says he would pick Sen. Harris. “I’ve got this thing where I’m really not into old, white male politicians,” he said. That could change depending on who the nominee is, he added.

In the meantime, Charlamagne has some advice for the 2020 candidates coming to South Carolina, particularly to court the state’s African-American voters, the core voting bloc of the S.C. Democratic Party.

Talk about education. Talk about jobs. Explain your “black agenda” to voters. Be authentic. Don’t pander.

And, “Don’t go to Maurice’s,” Charlamagne said, referring to Maurice’s Piggie Park, a Midlands barbecue joint, which, now under new ownership, has tried to distance itself from its previous owner’s racist past. “There’s plenty of barbecue chicken you can go get.”

Charlamagne also has advice for S.C. voters.

“Vote your interests in 2020,” he said. “Understand it’s dream selling season.”

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.