This was originally published for OkayPlayer on June 16, 2020.
When Power 105.1’s lynchpin morning show The Breakfast Club — hosted by Charlamagne tha God, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee — launched in December 2010, Hot 97 was still the Number 1 “urban contemporary” radio station in New York City, standing strong atop the shoulders of legends such as Angie Martinez and Funkmaster Flex. Nine months after its launch, the show had not gained much ground, teetering on the brink of dissolution.
It was a fateful morning call from jack-of-all-industries Willie “Ray J” Norwood Jr breathlessly recounting his distorted perspective of an altercation with Fabolous in Las Vegas the night before that turned their fortunes around. Quotables about “disrespecting the money team” became entrenched in urban radio lore, reaffirming a tried and true lesson that helped build some of the biggest empires in radio, including that of Charlamagne’s longtime mentor Wendy Williams — controversy and sensationalism obtain views, whether they love or hate it.
Since having Ray J as their first breakout guest, The Breakfast Club‘s Rolodex of guests have expanded in niche and pedigree as they have cemented themselves as the number 1 morning show in urban contemporary media in the greater New York area. Their roster of guests has ranged from artists promoting their latest release to Democratic primary candidates looking to use the iHeartMedia syndicated Breakfast Club as a hip platform to speak to target demographics for voter turnout. The rubric for programming, however, has continued to adhere to a golden rule: information and accessibility may be a benefit of their now-prominent platform, but it is only secondary to entertainment at all costs — no matter the potential harms of the communities that they purportedly aim to entertain. Donning the moniker “The World’s Most Dangerous Morning Show,” The Breakfast Club continues to maintain cultural currency by trading in this virality and adopting the ethos of “it’s provocative, it gets the people going,” that is embodied in the show’s most polarizing host Charlamagne, infamous for pushing the most lecherous shock jock commentary on guests (particularly women) to the point he has become inextricable from the Breakfast Club brand.
One such notable example of that ethos took place in 2016 with the planned appearance of Tomi Lahren — at the time a quickly rising upstart in conservative media — on the airwaves of Black urban radio’s preeminent morning show, barely a month after Donald Trump had been elected into office. Despite the booking being canceled by Lahren’s team due to the overwhelming backlash over her appearance on The Daily Show, Charlamagne persisted in engaging a social outing with her, retorting: “Do you want diplomacy or do you want division? I’m talking to Tomi because I care about the rhetoric that comes out of her mouth because she has influence — and the narrative she paints about movements like [Black Lives Matter] is dangerous. The same way people can hit her up on social media and tell her how wrong she is, I can meet with her and tell her the same things.” It’s a curious logic that manipulates the need to embrace the neoliberal need for compromise and continuous discourse, which will always be at odds with the irreconcilable truth of conservative media’s foundational ethos of unshakeable moral conviction.
The argument fails to hold muster when she was heralded by Charlamagne as a template that other women in media should aspire to, writing in a since-deleted tweet: “would be dope if a young black or Hispanic ‘WOKE’ woman used social media to create a Platform to be a voice like Tomi Lahren did.” Strangely enough, such a declaration operates in the same rhetoric often associated through the conservative right media, wild conjecture with no material basis, in fact, dismissing context that allows for specific circumstances — in Lahren’s case, her backing by Glenn Beck’s network, TheBlaze. When roundly presented with a bevy of women’s voices that already exist, he addressed it on the radio show, asking with bewilderment, “…how do we amplify their voices?”
Another such transgression involved comedian and recording artist Lil Duval. The garish 3-minute sequence detailed violence against trans women to raucous laughter and mild chiding about “political correctness,” barely a week after writer, director, producer, and trans activist Janet Mock appeared on the show. At one point, DJ Envy says, “I love when Duval is up here, he be acting a fool,” mere moments after intentionally presenting Mock’s book in Duval’s field of vision, leading to Mock being forcefully misgendered on live air. As Mock said herself in an essay response, “On a black program that often advocates for the safety and lives of black people, its hosts laughed as their guest advocated for the murder of black trans women who are black people, too!”
In a self-assessment of their accountability, not only were the malicious messages redistributed, but the collective also refused to accept any complicity in material harms, soliciting viewer feedback to affirm themselves, and only opening the trans community to further derogatory comments to be said on-air. Instead of truly assessing their responsibility to the Black communities they serve, the discussion diverted into whether or not they should be held to the offense over something a guest said and has refused to apologize for, ignoring media’s responsibility in framing, directing, and guiding discussions. Since then, Duval has appeared on the Breakfast Club twice more, unfettered.
In a repetition of the animus behind Lahren’s presence, a more recent incident involved a highly-publicized interview with Rush Limbaugh amid one of the biggest nationwide fights for transformative accountability of the state-sanctioned death of Black lives lost through police brutality. In an echo of the rationale for inviting Lahren four years prior, grounds were presented on the basis of introducing Limbaugh’s platform to the gravity of the Black community’s plight. The rhetoric hit all of the predictable points: circling around the drain around white privilege; white supremacy; and explaining how individual Black accomplishments don’t dismantle systemic issues — all in the shadow of George Floyd’s memory. While Charlamagne — who would later say the discussion was a “corporate” decision from iHeartMedia — may have insisted, “I’m not letting nobody politicize black pain,” a pre-taped segment that inevitably devolves into discourse for discourse’s sake does exactly that. The segment forced audiences to endure a tête-à-tête over the “liberal, political constructs” that Limbaugh categorically rejects. As Toni Morrison is famously quoted as saying, “racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” There was no substantive reason to engage in this exercise in masochism. However, for the Black audiences that consume the show and are overwhelmed by the delicate choreography that is just existing at the moment, being confronted by that dismissal in yet another space that is primarily sectioned off for them extends beyond unproductive and into firmly counter-revolutionary.
Most recently, the platform extended a friendly invitation to “godfather of hip-hop” Russell Simmons, currently under scrutiny for multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment as several of his survivors tell their stories in the documentary On the Record. Warmly greeted with the honorific “Uncle Russ,” he is granted an unfettered and largely unchallenged space to push his counter-narrative on the largest urban platform from his remote enclave in Bali. Safe from any extradition laws, Simmons insisted that his bevy of romantic relationships with women in Hollywood that have transitioned into extended platonic relationships – in addition to his inclusive hiring practices – inoculate him from criticism. When pressed, he parried with “I really don’t think we should be relitigating 30-year-old stories that had never been told,” a statement that is incorrect considering his accusers — Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher, and Sil Lai Abrams — have alluded to the stories in public in various capacities. He alleged that “any investigative reporter would tell you that those stories would have been printed,” dismissing the thorough work of the New York Times and Hollywood Reporter investigative teams. Perhaps most troubling about this interview was that it was allowed to be co-led by Charlamagne tha God, a man with his own documented history of admitted gendered domestic violence of his very own. As of yet, none of the women featured in the documentary have been invited to speak their own truth to power on the platform. (Ed note: Sil Lai Abrams appeared on The Breakfast Club for an interview with Angela Yee the day after this post was published.)
The Breakfast Club’s contracts are slated to end at the close of the year, rounding out a strong 10-year run. Rumors have persisted that Charlamagne, who has gone on to publish a New York Times bestseller, have a top-rated podcast, several TV shows, and a spinoff interview platform of his own, is unlikely to return, ending the reign of the brand by default. At this moment in time, it may be for the best. The aim of Black media platforms shouldn’t be to replicate the harmful norms and standards of their mainstream counterparts. It should be to set a new one that centers Black issues and content in a meaningful and thoughtful manner. The Breakfast Club has shown that they want to lead the market but not lead the conversation, and when times are more tumultuous than ever, to accept that as an adequate approach to media is a disservice to the increasingly scarce platforms that serve our communities.
In a 2016 profile for Vulture, Charlamagne said that there were two critical things to have a finger on to stay on top in the social-media era: “How to keep a conversation going and when to change it.” The trio has made skillful mastery of the former in the annals of their Tribeca Studio. However, on the latter, change commonly seems to come after reprisal and not from a place of thought leadership. Heavy may be the head that wears the crown, but the burden of desiring to be the preeminent space for courting heavily trafficked conversations throughout different subsections of the Black community comes with a remit to stay on the vanguard of those conversations with empathy and care. Until that becomes the established priority, they will continue to be challenged on the merits of their programming.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article referred to allegations against Charlamagne tha God. Since we do not have additional reporting to add to this case, and instead linked to a Daily Beast article published on July 26, 2018, we have removed the wording from the piece.