Charlamagne Tha God is an influential, often controversial, TV and radio personality, best known for co-hosting New York’s Power 105.1 FM’s The Breakfast Club morning show. He also appears on multiple television shows and co-hosts the podcast Brilliant Idiots. If you’re not familiar with him, here’s how he recently introduced himself on a podcast:
“The prime minister of pissing people off, the ruler of rubbing people the wrong way, the architect of aggravation, author of Black Privelege, radio personality, TV personality, professional slang spitter, heavy hitter s—talker.”
Charlamagne says exactly what he thinks about anyone and everyone, seemingly without a filter, which creates some very entertaining radio segments. But, creating a standout brand like the radio celebrity has done is much more than simply choosing a bold name (a move he made in his teens to make sure his drug clientele didn’t know his real name) and saying outlandish, unexpected things in the media. Anyone can do that and achieve a 15-minutes-of-fame effect. I wanted to interview Charlamagne because he has been making waves (and attracting die-hard fans) for over 15 years. Plus, many of Charlamagne’s past guests and subjects of his brutal review, actually like or at least respect him — which probably explains why he’s still on the air. How exactly does one pull that off?
Here’s what solopreneurs, influencers, and rebels with a cause can learn from Charlamagne about standing out, and staying relevant long-term.
Pay your dues.
Like many successful members of the entertainment community, Charlamagne started at the bottom, as an intern at a local radio station in South Carolina. He was given the opportunity to get on the air, and eventually caught the eye — er, ear — of Wendy Williams. She offered him a spot on her show — but without pay. What impresses me most about this part of the story is that Charlamagne worked for her without pay for not just a few months but a year-and-a- half.
“That’s how you know if something is your passion or not,” he explained. “I always tell people, “How do you figure out something is your passion? It’s that thing you go to sleep about at night and it’s on your mind. You wake up and it’s still on your mind. It’s like a burning desire inside of you, you just can’t escape it, and you would do it for free simply because you love it.” That’s what radio was for him, and he knew that if he could succeed with Wendy in New York, then the “sky’s the limit from there.”
He added, “Yo, it’s 168 hours in a week. So, even if you’re going to school for 30 hours, and you got a job for 40 hours, you still got like 80, 90 plus hours to do whatever it is that you wanna do. If you can’t find time to pursue your dream, and deal with your reality in this 168-hour week, then you ain’t hustling right.”
If you want to become a person of influence in your industry, realize it usually takes years of experience to earn a spot at the top.
Though outspoken and unfiltered, Charlamagne makes sure that he never becomes “a caricature of himself.” He doesn’t give people a hard time for the sake of entertainment. He doesn’t switch to a persona once the “On Air” light turns on. He can get away with his schtick because it’s not a schtick — it’s who he’s always been. “The best thing about me is that I didn’t know how to do radio,” he said. “Nobody taught me, so the only thing I would do when I would go into air is just be myself. I would just talk.”
He warned other influencers and personalities to be careful not to start doing everything you think the audience wants. That’s not sustainable for an entire career, so be sure and build a personal brand around your authentic self.
It’s worth noting that his bold style has indeed gotten him fired multiple times. But, Charlamagne has repeatedly said that he is “for the people” not “for the industry” — meaning while he is a fan of many hip-hop celebrities, he’s not going to pander to them in any way. This is a risky move, since The Breakfast Club obviously wants to maintain its celebrity interviews. The risk continues to pay off, however, because “the people” love Charlamagne.
Now with his brand new book, Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It, Charlamagne is taking a bit of a risk again, choosing such a provocative title. But the bottom line for him comes down to honest, even when it’s risky.
As he told The New York Times recently, “Honesty is a foundation, and it’s usually a solid foundation. Even if I do get in trouble for what I said, it’s something that I can stand on.”
Charlemagne decided back in his intern days that he wanted to be a star jock, not content to stay in South Carolina forever. He put in the hustle, and he also worked to stay relevant and innovative. For example, he started recording his radio shows on video back when YouTube was still relatively new. Now part of his fame is due to the viral videos that have come out of provocative Breakfast Club conversations. He was also an early adopter on social media, now with over 1.8 million followers on Twitter alone.
If you want to go far, work to prove yourself and then make meaningful connections, he advises. “Every opportunity I’ve ever gotten is because of somebody I’ve met, a new connection I’ve made . . . showing love, meeting people, shaking hands.” he shared. “I have no problem asking somebody what they do, what they’re into, how did they get there, how can I be involved? If it’s something I want to be involved in . . . being annoying. You gotta have a DJ Khaled level of annoyance.” His willingness to ask questions and show his hunger brings me to my next point.
You probably cannot find an interview with Charlamagne where he doesn’t mention his upbringing on the dirt-road town of Monck’s Corner, S.C. He is big on supporting his home state and goes back to his high school regularly for charity events. This is a man who will never forget where he came from. He takes manners seriously, a lesson learned from his grandmother, and true to form, he shook every hand in the room when he walked in for our interview.
Charlamagne is also big on listening and observing, another common trait of the massively successful people I interview on The Pursuit. He is also well read and deeply spiritual. He explained that in order to have such real moments live on the radio, you have to stay present, open and receptive. For such a brash personality, he’s very willing to get vulnerable. He explained, “I don’t mind having that experience with the listeners, like I don’t mind that confusion. I don’t mind [saying ‘I don’t know.’]”
Even if you’ve fallen on hard times — like Charlamagne did in his early years, serving some jail time and then working whatever odd jobs he could — don’t let the negativity in.
He shared his advice: “Just simply don’t listen to that poison, when people are telling you that this can’t happen or that won’t happen, of course it’s difficult, of course it’s hard. But, I think a lot of people do tend to get over [your mistakes] especially if they can see you actually trying to make a positive change.”
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