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Here’s as clear an example as you’ll find of how rape culture works. Last week Comedy Central debuted its new weekly late night show hosted by “multi-media mogul” Lenard McKelvey, a.k.a Charlamagne Tha God. Titled Tha God’s Honest Truth with Lenard McKelvey, the show is co-produced by Stephen Colbert, who in a press release called McKelvey “fearless” and “peerless.” McKelvey is best known for hosting the radio show The Breakfast Club, though he also co-hosts the podcast The Brilliant Idiots with comedian Andrew Schulz.
He’s known for some other things too. A few years ago The Daily Beast reported on recently resurfaced charges that in 2001, when McKelvey was 22, he raped a 15-year-old girl:
A Berkeley County incident report from June 2001 details the alleged sexual assault. According to the report, police responded to the Short Stay Naval Recreational Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 9, 2001. There, Reid’s friend told deputies they had been given a drink that “tasted like soda.” She said she woke up to a man trying to kiss her. She then “found Reid, in the room across from where she was, naked and crying stating that she had been raped.” The two girls were subsequently transported to the Summerville Medical Center, a 45-minute drive away.
McKelvey, aka Charlamagne, was arrested on June 22 and served with a warrant for criminal sexual conduct with a minor in the second degree. That warrant stated that “the Defendant, who is a twenty two year old adult male, did willfully, unlawfully and feloniously engage in penile/vaginal intercourse with a fifteen year old female child,” and that Reid had implicated McKelvey while at the Summerville Medical Center, where examinations corroborated the sexual assault. The warrant also revealed that the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office was initially contacted by Reid’s mother, Joslyn Sullivan.
According to the Blast, Reid was “uncooperative” with prosecutors during the case and, “as as a result, they felt a conviction of Charlamagne on the arrested charge would be impossible.”
McKelvey pleaded guilty at the time to “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” a less-severe charge, and received three years’ probation. Now, almost two decades later, Reid’s mother Joselyn has taken responsibility for her daughter’s lack of cooperation, telling the Blast that “she was trying to protect her daughter from suffering.” With the support of her mother, the now 32-year-old Jessica Reid is exploring her legal options and speaking out about the allegation.
As that article describes, McKelvey denied the charges again in 2013, claiming he was arrested because he went to the police station to take responsibility for hosting the party where the rape occurred. Reid’s effort to get the case reopened in 2018 was unsuccessful; local authorities said they were “required by law” to honor the plea deal they made with McKelvey at the time. (Sounds familiar.) Digital Music News reported earlier in July that Reid is raising funds to pursue legal action against two men who allegedly physically restrained her during the rape.
That’s not the end of it. The Daily Beast goes on to describe The Root’s reporting on a 2015 episode of The Brilliant Idiots in which McKelvey described drugging a woman and having sex with her while she “wasn’t coherent,” though he insisted the sex was consensual. (Schulz was himself accused of abuse by an ex-girlfriend earlier this year. He admitted to, and mocked, many of the allegations in his other podcast, Flagrant 2; a clip of that used to be on YouTube, but has been removed by its uploader. Here’s a Reddit thread devoted to the now-removed YouTube video.) Here’s The Root’s rundown of the 2015 episode of The Brilliant Idiots:
“I got this girl real drunk, and I fu—we fucked,” McKelvey says before Schultz cuts him off.
“Just that sentence sound a little fishy,” Schultz interjects. “‘I got her drunk.’”
McKelvey continues his story, detailing how he went to “the sex store” to get Spanish Fly, which he then put into both of their E&J drinks. Once the girl got drunk, McKelvey says he had sex with her, adding that “a lot of my boys” also tried to come in and have sex with the woman (he says he turned them away).
“Running a train on her, that’s rape,” McKelvey says, laughing.
The next morning, however, McKelvey says the girl had no recollection of their sexual encounter, asking him what happened the night before. When he told her they had sex, McKelvey says the girl told him, “‘Well I’m just glad it was you.’”
“That’s a huge compliment man,” Shultz replied, sarcastically. “A girl says, ‘At least you raped me.’”
McKelvey insists that it wasn’t rape because he and the girl “had every intention of having sex” that night.
“So then why would you put the Spanish Fly [in her drink]?” Schultz asked.
“I was a freaky motherfucker. I’m still a freaky motherfucker,” McKelvey responds.
“Was she passed out?” Schultz presses.
“She wasn’t coherent, but she was up,” McKelvey says, adding, “like when you’re blacked out.”
McKelvey’s spokesperson told The Root the incident in question occurred 20 years before the episode and was entirely consensual. According to The Daily Beast, McKelvey responded to the reporting in a 2018 episode of The Brilliant Idiots, saying he was trying to have a conversation about rape culture but “didn’t explain that situation well”:
“Back in 2015, I attempted to have a dialogue about rape culture with an emphasis on the role men play, and a clip was pulled from that conversation, and I can honestly say that I communicated that all wrong,” he offered. “I totally understand why y’all on my ass, and you have every right to be. I didn’t handle that conversation in the right way.”
“For the record,” he continued, “In 1997, I was having consensual sex with a young lady after we went to the sex store. Key word ‘we.’ And got Spanish fly, which is an aphrodisiac… we were both aware that we were gonna put this in a bottle of brandy.”
“I didn’t explain that situation well at all back in 2015, because the way social media took it was that I was confessing to drugging and having sex with an incoherent woman. That wasn’t the case,” he insisted. “We had consensual sex and then we both passed out, ‘cause we were both wasted.”
“I didn’t take advantage of anyone, and I want to apologize to anyone who was triggered by that story.”
While we’re at it, here’s another Breakfast Club clip described by The Root:
“I keep telling’ y’all. I’ve told y’all this over and over. It’s a lot of things guys did especially when we were young that were rape that we just didn’t consider rape. I’m married to my wife. Me and my wife dated for a whole year, she would not give me no pussy. Me and my wife hung out one Saturday night and she got sloppy drunk and passed out in my momma’s house and I got that pussy. She was f*cking me back and all that but she was really drunk. I asked her yesterday, ‘Yo, did I rape you the first time we ever had sex?’ And she goes, ‘I mean in hindsight, yeah…’”
In response to controversy over this clip, McKelvey called up his wife on air to explain, again, that he misspoke.
You may be wondering why Comedy Central, which has taken obvious efforts to distance itself from its longtime star Jeff Ross, would partner with someone whose resume includes disturbing, credible rape allegations, let alone someone who complained a year ago that “Jewish people… have the power” in media. (McKelvey told Insider in July that he didn’t realize these comments could be taken derogatorily.) One reason is that he’s friends with the boss, Chris McCarthy. Per Vulture last year:
The duo first worked together nearly a decade ago, when the exec ran MTV2 and Charlamagne was a regular on the network’s breakout hit Guy Code. Charlamagne later went on to host two talk shows for the network, Charlamagne & Friends and Uncommon Sense. McCarthy, who revealed his deal with Charlamagne Tuesday in a story about his larger effort to reinvent Comedy Central as a multiplatform brand, said he was glad to be back in business with his longtime friend. “Charlamagne’s voice is very right for today,” he said. “It’s fresh and real and resonating in a way that very few can do.”
Charlamagne told Vulture he and McCarthy started talking about doing a show together late last year, right around the time McCarthy was given oversight of Comedy Central. Given the past history and close relationship between the two men — “Chris was at my wedding,” he says — getting to an agreement was a quick process. Charlamagne was already hosting Breakfast Club on New York radio when he landed at MTV, but he says McCarthy saw the TV potential in him long before he was a national success. “Giving me a TV deal, almost ten years ago, didn’t really make any sense,” Charlamagne says. “I was a radio guy. It’s easy to say, ‘You know what? I think Charlamagne Tha God needs a talk show’ now. But almost ten years ago for him to have that vision, that did a lot for me. A lot of my success right now is because of those looks that I got on MTV2 and Viacom at the time. And none of that would’ve happened if it wasn’t for Chris.”
According to other reporting by Vulture, McKelvey had previously pitched Comedy Central a talk show in 2019. The execs at the time turned it down; they didn’t think it was funny. Then Chris McCarthy took over and called him up.
This is how it works. In the most charitable interpretation of events, McKelvey is a not-particularly-thoughtful shock jock with a history of horribly blowing his commentary on sensitive topics like rape culture and anti-Semitism (who also happens to be friends and partners with one of the more racist, misogynistic comedians lately to muscle his way into the mainstream). In the less charitable interpretation—but still one supported by his own words—he is a rapist and an anti-Semite. Either way it makes no difference. There are scores of brilliant comedians out there who have neither this history nor massive platforms already amplifying their voices. None of them are old pals with the boss.
I often encounter resistance to the idea that comedy workers should hold their peers accountable for the bad actors they associate with—the bigots, the predators, the abusive bosses. It’s a tough business, I’m told. People should hold themselves accountable, but that’s all they can do; you have to fix society’s problems before you can fix comedy’s. The natural endpoint of this rule is Stephen Colbert, who said of Les Moonves that “accountability is meaningless unless it’s for everybody,” lending his prestige to a series nobody asked for by a guy who’s not smart enough to realize when he’s confessing to sexual assault.
Systemwide failures of justice are not to blame for individual abdications of responsibility. They are caused by individual abdications of responsibility, a system’s worth of them all piling up. The persistence of any belief otherwise seems to me a sign of how long the bigots, predators, and abusers have been setting the rules, which is itself a sign of how badly they need to be stopped before they reach positions of power. Big systems are made of smaller systems. Smaller systems are made of individuals. The work starts in our own backyards; nobody else is going to do it for us.
Seth Simons is the writer of Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in the comedy industry. He’s on Twitter @sasimons. Subscribe to Humorism to get articles like this in your inbox.