BOOK REVIEW: Charlamagne’s “Black Privilege”
Reviewing the Memoir of the King of Urban Radio
Rating: 7 of 10
The “Law of Ten” goes like this: If there are 10 people: three of them love you, three of them hate you, and four of them are on the fence. “Don’t worry about the people who hate you,” he recounts, “there’s no changing their mind. But, you still have a chance to convince the four on the fence.”
I was definitely on the fence, and I have been for years.
Charlamagne tha God can be loud, brash, and wrong. He’s said some sexist sht, and done a lot of dumb sht too (we are never letting you forget Tomi Lahren, dude). But, he’s also sometimes very right. He also often says things that we are all thinking, like, “Kanye Kardashian.” After reading Black Privilege, I am still on the fence. But I like Charlamagne a little more and hate him a lot less.
The book first few chapters of the book give us insight into the early life of Lenard McKelvey. Growing up in Moncks Corner, South Carolina it is evident how much of an impact growing up in a small, southern town had on him. In the first chapter, (he calls them Principles), he talks about growing up and living in trailers, playing in the woods and seeing snakes, and the influence of his schoolteacher mother, Julia, and all-around hustler father, Larry. “Imagine what a pimp would look like in a small town in South Carolina,” he says, “What you’re seeing is my pops.”
It is in describing his youth in a small town that Charlamagne really begins to humanize himself. He explains growing up, like many hip-hop kids, as a nerd and then rebelling against that image through crime. He dabbled in crack sales and earned himself a couple stints in jail, before talking his way into a promotions gig at a local radio station. That internship led to a few on-air opportunities, and from there Lenard McKelvey slowly became Charlamagne tha God. In the memoir, Charlamagne talks about how he created his name (through a combination of his “street name” and his time as a Five Percenter). He also talks about his many sexual exploits as he worked his way up to fame in South Carolina. He explores his first encounters throwing and hosting parties, and first touches with local and national fame.
Running parallel to telling his own life story, Charlamagne offers personal life lessons, “principles” that apparently helped shaped the man he is. Some of these stories are cautionary tales (like cheating with his girlfriend’s cousin and friend on her prom night) and some are professional learning experiences (like choosing to work over a year for Wendy Williams—for free). The overall feel of these lessons seem directed at a specific audience—young, urban men. Reading it, as a grown woman, I felt like an outsider; there was no real universal appeal. It’s like Charlamagne is sharing these stories for his 17-year-old self, as a F**kboy Prevention Handbook, an “I did that, so hopefully you won’t have to go through that” nod to one of his favorite rappers.
Clearly inspired by other hip-hop memoirs like Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money + God by Russell Simmons and Make it Happen: The Hip Hop Generation Guide to Success by Kevin Liles, Black Privilege falls just short of its goals. In trying to make two different books: a memoir and a self-help book, Charlamagne fails to really succeed at either one. This debut would have been better served as just telling his story and maintaining its consistency. Unfortunately, the book is a roller coaster ride that is great at the beginning, bland in the middle, and coasts to a decent end. There are also a lot of moments that, to an outsider, would seem important to his life and career that feel rushed through, like his experience (and falling out) with Wendy Williams, and his molestation by an older female relative.
The title of the book is also a detriment, “Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create.” It is just unfortunate. In this, the fifth year of the still active #BlackLivesMatter movement, the title comes off like the author, smug and elitist. Charlamagne tries to explain the concept toward the end of the book, but this section also feels rushed and underdeveloped. The book would have also been enhanced by the traditional picture section found in the middle of most memoirs.
Overall, I actually really would recommend this book. Especially for a young, black male. It would also be a fun and interesting read for anyone who is a real fan of his. Charlamagne presents his life story in a way that is clear, simple, and inspirational. There are glimpses here of a really interesting and multi-faceted person that is not always seen in his on-air/on-screen persona. Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It is a good first effort by Charlamagne who, with more development, has a lot of potential as a hip-hop author.
Biba Adams is a NYC-based writer and brand strategist. Her writing has appeared in Ebony Magazine, Jezebel, and AllHipHop.com. She is a lover of hip-hop, dogs, and all things Harlem. Follow her on social media @BibatheDiva.