He’s known for being brash and bold, and asking the hard questions.
But ask Charlamagne Tha God about his fears. His heart pumps double time thinking about a big one — human trafficking and his three daughters. “I’m catching a slight panic attack even thinking about it,” he tells me.
The charismatic and controversial cohost of Power 105.1’s New York morning show, “The Breakfast Club,” is plagued with trauma, angst, and PTSD. He’s constantly worried about police brutality, someone hurting his family, losing it all.
“Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks On Me,” his new book, reads like a diary of his insecurities and angst, with a hip-hop soundtrack.
Wednesday at 7 p.m., he’ll take the stage at The Wilbur to talk about his book, mental health, and using his truth to encourage the black community to seek therapy.
“Blackanoid,” a chapter in his book, describes how systemic racism creates trauma.
There’s no way that generations of people can be robbed, cheated, humiliated, lied to, and killed without it having a physical impact on their descendants.
“When I was pulled over outside the Holland Tunnel, I was thinking about Philando Castile and Sandra Bland and all these brothers and sisters killed at the hands of police officers,” he tells me. “I put both hands on the steering wheel. I’m scared of being shot while not doing nothing but being black. I know white people don’t have those same issues.”
But this anxiety, he says, also leads black people to carry the burden of always wondering whether something is intended to be racist.
One time in a meeting with a white executive, Charlamagne was referred to as “boy.” Historically, this is a derogatory way in which white men refer to black men. Minutes later, the man called a woman “boy.” It wasn’t racist; apparently, it was his lingo.
African-Americans are more likely to have heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Charlamagne believes this can be traced to chronic levels of stress and unhealthy reactions to it.
He’s been grappling with anxiety since he was a kid in a South Carolina elementary school, huddled together with his family hoping Hurricane Hugo wouldn’t kill them. But he always attributed it to a trigger. Of course a natural disaster would scare a kid, logically a broken heart will make you cry, losing four jobs and moving back in with mom will send you spiraling.
So he powered through the fits of sadness, the heart-racing, shaking, and paranoia.
“I never chalked it up to having actual anxiety or anxiety being a mental health issue,” he says. “But over the past eight years doing ‘The Breakfast Club,’ and all praises due to God for having the successes, you would think the anxiety would go away. It didn’t. Sometimes the guy a lot of people go to for answers has to go to someone for answers.”
So last year, on the heels of his New York Times bestseller, “Black Privilege,” he sought therapy.
There, he says, he’s learned to be vulnerable. That mask of masculinity that hip-hop celebrates as fearless confidence? Charlamagne is done with it.
He points out that the culture has always had moments of confronting depression and angst, from “My Mind Is Playing Tricks On Me,” by Geto Boys to Jay-Z’s “This Can’t Be Life.”
But over the last few years, we’ve seen more black celebrities and hip-hop favorites talk about it than ever before. From Kanye West and Kid Cudi to J. Cole and Lil Wayne, the dialogue is happening. Taraji P. Henson launched a mental health nonprofit, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, named after her late father, last month. Earlier this month, Chance the Rapper pledged $1 million to Chicago mental health services.
“I think the universe is conspiring for us to have these conversations and God is lining things up for us to get therapy,” he says. “I didn’t set out to write a book about mental health when I started going to therapy.”
He also didn’t expect to uncover so much pain in his childhood, hurt over his father, his first heartbreak, and his own missteps.
Charlamagne is known for offending people. It’s not always his intention, but it happens. He has been accused of being anti-black, anti-woman, and anti-trans. He confronts every situation, including sexual assault allegations, that led to the labels.
“Intention is cool, but impact matters more,” he says. “I get paid to communicate. I have to learn how to communicate in the right way. I appreciate the book because those are moments in time you can document forever.”
But in reflecting on his wrongs and the mistakes of others, he points to another source of anxiety: cancel culture, the act of shutting down careers and kicking people out of the culture.
“There is nothing wrong with checking each other,” he says. “We should check each other. But we can’t cancel each other. We don’t have no grace or empathy. We don’t leave room for mistakes or allow people to grow. Sometimes we have to realize all we do have is each other.”
Charlamagne has learned to look away from social media, to admit when he’s wrong, and to get help when he needs it.
“I use my anxiety as fuel. I use my fear as fuel,” he says. “My friend K. Foxx said, ‘Forget everything and run or face everything and rise.’ There have been times when I ran, too. But most of the time I rise to the challenge.”
What’s the next hurdle?
“My purpose is service to others. We have to keep doing what we are doing right now,” he says. “Normalizing therapy. Right now I am wearing a crewneck and the crewneck says ‘Therapy.’ We have to treat therapy the same way we treat anything else we think is cool and good for us.”
Therapy. It’s the new and hopefully lasting wave.