Learn about his involvement with the International African American Museum, his focus on mental health, and the six Krystal burger joints he’s bringing in the Lowcountry
Charlamagne Tha God isn’t the most obvious subject for a Black History Month project, but he’s certainly an intriguing one. The provocative radio and TV personality, born Lenard Larry McKelvey, is witty and bold. He can recite the latest J. Cole verses; regularly texts with Stephen Colbert, executive producer of his Comedy Central show, Hell of A Week with Charlamagne Tha God; and confers with Tonya Matthews, the president of Charleston’s International African American Museum (IAAM), where he serves on the board. He’s a hardworking businessman who loves his family, speaks his mind, and understands the importance of daily meditation. He could be seen as the American dream—if said dream was Black, bald, and wore a pair of broken-in Pumas.
The student’s report could start with his rocky beginnings. Back in the early ’90s, the law and a truant McKelvey weren’t the best of friends. During that time, the Moncks Corner native was arrested on charges of assault and battery with a deadly weapon. He’d spend 45 days locked up. “My father [Larry Thomas McKelvey] always told me, ‘If you don’t change your lifestyle, you will end up in jail, dead, or broke sitting under a tree,’” recalls Charlamagne, now 44. “I tell kids all the time, ‘Those things that happen to you when you’re young and in high school, if you don’t change your lifestyle, it’s a direct pipeline to jail.’”
That first stint behind bars didn’t exactly scare McKelvey straight. After a few jobs—one at a factory, another at a plant nursery—had run their course, he took up another profession: selling drugs. But that career choice didn’t go so well, either. McKelvey was arrested on charges of possessing marijuana and cocaine with intent to distribute. “After that weekend in jail,” he says, “that made me be like, ‘Aiiight, I gotta get it together.’ I gotta figure this out in a real way.”
On The Late Show with fellow Lowcountry native Stephen Colbert, who also serves as an executive producer of the Comedy Central Show, Hell of a Week with Charlamagne Tha God.
McKelvey began hanging around a Summerville recording studio. That’s where he met Willie Will, a then-personality on Z93 Jamz, who told him about an internship at the station. I don’t need to be in high school? Nah. I don’t have to have a diploma? Nope. (Hey, times were much simpler in 1998.) McKelvey filled out the paperwork and got the gig.
His now-famous moniker came somewhere in the midst of all that. “Charles” was the name he used when he sold crack. He remembered studying Charlemagne the Great in night school. Put two and two together—“Tha God” just sounded cool at the end—and the rest is FM history.
Charlamagne’s on-air poise and personality caught the ear of controversial radio figure Wendy Williams, who asked him to be a co-host in 2006. He jumped at the chance to move to New Jersey, and the situation was promising until he was laid off two years later.
By then, Charlamagne and then-girlfriend, now-wife Jessica Gadsden had their first child. “Too proud to collect unemployment,” he admits, as they struggled to make ends meet until spring 2009, when he got his own morning show with Philadelphia’s 100.3 The Beat. He recalls driving from his North Jersey home to the Philadelphia studio and back every day, and then was fired out of the blue that fall.
“That situation was so messed up because me and [Jessica] were moving to Philly,” explains Charlamagne, who says great ratings and viral online moments (like the time he got in the middle of an ugly Beanie Sigel/Jay-Z verbal spat) weren’t enough to sway a program director who simply wanted to try something different on the air. “I’ve worked at six different stations in my life and got fired from four of them.” That November, he swallowed his pride and moved back in with his mother, Julie, in Moncks Corner.
Things wouldn’t really look up again until late 2010, when he happened to be in New York and connected with Power 105.1, a popular urban station that was searching for a replacement for longtime morning host Ed Lover. Charlamagne made another move to the big city. This time, once he started clicking in the studio with The Breakfast Club co-hosts DJ Envy and Angela Yee, there was no turning back.
In the decade-plus since the show’s inception, the crew has been an essential part of millions of listeners’ mornings, giving their straight-shooting takes on everyone from Summer Walker and Herschel Walker to Luke Skywalker. The beloved trio was nationally syndicated in 2013 and inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2020.
(From left to right) Receiving an honorary doctorate from South Carolina State University in 2021; with wife Jessica Gadsden-McKelvey at the Tyler Perry Studios grand opening gala in 2019: & A young Lenard with his father, Larry.
The bright lights had their dark side, though. With all the drinking and unhealthy habits that came with kickin’ it with the biggest names in music and movies, Charlamagne’s physical and mental health both suffered. “When I started doing The Breakfast Club, I definitely got caught up in the radio-star lifestyle,” he admits, proving that the same candor he uses while interviewing figures such as Kanye West and Joe Biden applies to himself. “I had got real fat—like 200 pounds, which don’t look good on my five-six frame. I was drinking 100 miles per hour and doing drugs. It was really bad.”
Making matters worse, he was going nonstop. The man Rolling Stone coined “Hip-hop’s Howard Stern” was doing the radio show in the early morning, taping TV programs like Guy Code and Uncommon Sense with Charlamagne after that, and partying into the wee hours of the morning. “I was living that lifestyle,” says Charlamagne. “Running around with all these different women. The drugs. The alcohol. I had never been that version of myself. I never had that type of success. I never had that type of money. I never had that type of fame. In my mind, I’m really, really doing it. But on the inside, I’m realizing all of this was escapism, and I’m trying to run from myself.”
It’s right then, somewhere in a quiet moment in 2015, when Charlamagne had an epiphany: He knew that if he wanted to remain a positive presence in his family, he’d have to make some conscious changes.
It began with self-reflection. He also cleaned up his diet and started working out more. And then came psychotherapy sessions and the metaphoric spilling of his heart in the form of two New York Times best sellers (Atria Books), 2017’s Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes To Those Who Create It and Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me the following year. “Healing is not a destination—it’s a journey,” says Charlamagne. “For me, when I started going to therapy, I was just trying to figure some things out inside myself. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, honestly. That healing journey led me to meditation and other things like that.”
He wasn’t struggling alone. Charlamagne’s dad wrangled with his own mental health issues that were waved off with “crazy checks” (disability checks associated with bipolar issues, PTSD, and other psychiatric conditions). He also had a cousin and two friends who committed suicide. To change the narrative, Charlamagne knew he’d have to say more. “I started getting invited to speak on all these panels,” he says. “Somebody introduced me as a ‘mental health advocate.’ I went, ‘Whoa, whoa. I’m not no mental health advocate.’ I remember [Peace of Mind with Taraji co-host] Tracie Jade said, ‘Brother, whether you want to be or not, you are.’”
Once COVID-19 hit and everyone from actors to acquaintances contacted Charlamagne for advice in dealing with pandemic-related anxiety and stress, a friend suggested he start an organization centered on mental health. The Mental Wealth Alliance (MWA), founded in early 2021, was the end result. “We want to get 10 million Black people free therapy over the next five years,” explains Charlamagne, who acknowledges that his celebrity helped get the MWA train moving quickly. “We want to raise the number of Black mental health professionals to reflect the population of Black people in America. We want to get mental health and social-emotional learning in schools.”
“I love South Carolina, so anything I can do to continue to provide things that I know will give inspiration to our people, like this museum, I’m all in.” -Charlamagne Tha God
Back home, a more-present Charlamagne could not be happier. “I got four daughters,” says the man who married his high school sweetheart at downtown’s South Carolina Society Hall in 2014. “Being at home is the most important thing for me. I like being with my wife, and I like being with my daughters. I like picking my kids up from school.”
And although he’s largely lived in New Jersey for 18 years, Charlamagne’s feelings for his other home are just as strong. “I am South Carolina,” he says. “I don’t know anything else. So much that I learned there has helped me be able to navigate my way through this business that we’re in. That’s why I embrace so many of the young’uns coming from South Carolina because I know it’s more me’s in that state.”
Those heartfelt words aren’t said just to appease the folks he grew up with; Charlamagne genuinely cares about his city and the people in it. Take Charleston’s IAAM, for instance. When the museum’s visionaries realized their 150,000-square-foot dream was going to become a reality on the waterfront, they knew they would need recognizable locals like Charlamagne as allies for the roughly $100-million project.
“Mayor Riley called me personally and asked me to be on the board,” says Charlamagne, who essentially serves as an IAAM South Carolina ambassador, connecting the museum to those in hip-hop culture. “I jumped at the opportunity. [IAAM president] Tonya Matthews always says, ‘This isn’t a museum telling a story about slavery; it’s a museum that’s telling a story about survival.’” After a minute of self-reflection, he adds, “The story needs to be told in a real way. I love South Carolina, so anything I can do to continue to provide things that I know will give inspiration to our people, like this museum, I’m all in.”
Experiencing a “Passage” room at IAAM, featuring the names of enslaved Africans boarding ships to cross the Atlantic.
Charlamagne is looking forward to attending the IAAM opening events later this year. In the meantime, new episodes of Hell of a Week are taping. The audience for Brilliant Idiots, his podcast with Andrew Schultz, is growing. On top of all that, he and DJ Envy are still working out new-format kinks on The Breakfast Club after Yee left in December to pursue her own show. To say the man is busy would be disrespectful to his Google Calendar interface.
But here Charlamagne is, adding even more to his plate, this time in the form of restaurant ownership. Always looking to expand his brand in the right spaces, he decided to bring Krystal, the much-loved, Georgia-based fast-food chain, even closer to home. “Franchising is something me and my wife always wanted to get into,” he says. The couple plans to open six of the slider-slingin’ joints around the Lowcountry, starting with one in Moncks Corner later this year. “I’m the type of person who wants to go where everybody isn’t yet. If everyone wants to go to the club that’s hot, I’d rather go to the club that’s not as poppin’ right now and make it that [popular] spot.”
Even more inspiring than the potential financial gains from the new venture, however, is his hope for what it’ll do for fellow South Carolinians. “I love that whole sense of community,” says Charlamagne, who worked at Taco Bell as a teenager. “These young individuals will want to have a nice lil’ job after school. Or somebody who wants to have a managerial position. I think it’s a great opportunity, and I just love doing it with my favorite business partner, my wife.”
It always comes back to family with Charlamagne. So, when he says that, after the radio shows and TV appearances end, he’s going to pack things up and come back down South, you believe him. “Honestly, I feel like I never left,” he says. “I own a lot of property in South Carolina. I was on vacation at Kiawah Island this summer. I love being home and seeing my people. When it’s all said and done, I do see myself back living in South Carolina.”
Somewhere about now would be a great time for the Black History Month report to wind down. By this point, the class and teacher will have learned more than enough about the local boy who went “from the trap to the cul-de-sac,” as he writes in Shook One. The next student, probably with a project on LeBron James or Kamala Harris, will stand up to present. And sure, they’ll do a good job, too. But the way the kid covering Charlamagne Tha God bravely stepped outside the box to tell a story about a nontraditional media icon should earn him applause in the classroom and an A on the assignment.
Portraits by Kate Thornton; Styled by Tysha Ampadu; Photographs by Nicholas Ciofalo, Courtesy of Charlamagne Tha God; courtesy of CBS; Bowen Center Award Ceremony) Sergio Tupac Uzurin/NativeNYVideo; Ismail “Calligrafist” Sayeed; courtesy of (Book covers) Atria Books & (Mental Wealth Expo) Charlamagne Tha God