When actor and America's Got Talent host Nick Cannon told SF Weekly about gang members coming over, shooting up his block and killing an innocent person in the crossfire, he wasn't only describing the narrative of Spike Lee's new feature film Chi-Raq, but also his own childhood experience.
Cannon, who plays title character Chi-Raq, a rapper and gang leader, is no stranger to this world, having grown up in San Diego's gang-ridden Lincoln Park neighborhood. One thing he said he can't relate to, however, is going on a sex strike, a tactic used by the women in the film as a last stitch effort to bring peace to Chicago's South Side. The actor and comedian opened up about his difficult childhood, the challenges of going without, and creating a better future for his children with ex Mariah Carey and ours.
[jump] What are we supposed to take away from Chi-Raq?
The value of life has to be reevaluated. Whether it's gang on gang, police on community or war on terror, I think the understanding that we only get one life — and a life is a life. When Spike Lee came to me originally and he said, 'I want to save lives on the South Side of Chicago,' I was like, 'I’m in.' I didn't even read the script or know what it was about. Ultimately, that's what art is all about and Spike is a genius at using his art to evoke change and create that conversation. That's ultimately what this film has done in a heightened way, using satire and using film to create that conversation.
There are a lot of gang-ridden cities this movie could have been set in: Oakland, Detroit, Compton, Philadelphia, Atlanta and New Orleans, for example. Why did Spike Lee choose Chicago's South Side?
Because when you think about the amount of senseless violence, Chicago is really the one that's sticking out. And when you think of all the prosperous and forward-moving things that go on in Chicago, right adjacent to it is a community that's been turned into Chi-Raq where there is no upward mobility, no building, no tourism, and it's literally blocks away. So I think that creates an interesting dichotomy, where we tend to look the other way, act like it's not happening and allow this genocide to go on.
You grew up in San Diego's dangerous Lincoln Park neighborhood.
That’s why I was able to relate. I did some really dumb stuff coming up as a kid. The ways these things work, and even in Chi-Raq, is that you can't help where you're born. I can't help that if I’m walking to school, people from two miles away are going to come and shoot up our block and hit an innocent person and now that innocent person's family is saying, 'Yo, we want revenge. We want justice.'
How did you make it out alive?
I always say God's favor, a blessing and a little bit of fear, because I started seeing my friends die, get killed, shot at parties or on the way to school. After a few times getting shot at myself, I said, 'You know what? I need to do something else.' Luckily I had entertainment to fall back on.
Can you go back and visit today?
I mean even today there are certain areas of my community that are not the safest for me to go back to, just because of the other areas I grew up in. And it's difficult for me, because I’m trying to rebuild my own community. I’m trying to build community centers, and they're saying, 'But you from over there.' But it's just those mentalities that those guys who lived in those projects shot at these guys who lived in these projects. And it's this ongoing thing, and violence begets violence, and in my teenage years I got caught up in that.
Entertainment and sports have been the way out of the hood for a lot of African American boys and girls. Are there others?
Absolutely, art in general. Art is many different things, even poetry. Even the business of art—through my foundation I’ve created a bunch of programs in media to help young people be journalists, radio hosts.
Why can't these kids become doctors, lawyers and engineers, too?
That’s not realistic. We don't see that. I had a record called 'Role Model' where I’d say, 'We don't know no doctor, no lawyer.' All I ever wanted to be was a baller 'cause that's all I saw. Success in my community was the drug dealer driving around in the Cadillac with the gold rims. That's who the women in the community were paying attention to: the ballers, the dope dealers, the pimps. I didn't have doctors and lawyers to look up to. We didn't even know how to go about being that. That was never a dream of mine. It was either wanting to play hoop or be a rapper. Even me wanting to be an actor or a comedian—that wasn't realistic.
But today there are a lot of things going on in society that are more inspiring to the youth. Barrack Obama is the president. So that's definitely inspiring and opens your mind, like, 'Oh I can do that.' But people don't know the process of how to do that. Or financial literacy, like when you do get money, learning how to keep it, how to invest it and those things — our community was never taught that. I was taught I need to have the flyest shoes, the jewelry and the nice cars when I have money. All that’s stuff's nice, but if I don’t know how to invest my funds and get my portfolio straight, then ultimately I’m not building wealth; I’m just making money.
Was working with Spike Lee a career milestone for you?
It's an honor for me. Spike was the reason I wanted to be a film actor. I wanted to do that: School Daze, Do the Right Thing. How can I be in that world? That actually worked, so I’m excited to say I’m part of Spike’s legacy.
Lee's films definitely court controversy, and Chi-Raq is no different.
From when he started shooting it, just the title alone, Chi-Raq, the man is brilliant when it comes to getting people to pay attention. I say he's a great conductor of the noise to get people to wake up, which is always his message. And he wanted to raise awareness. He said, 'If we just save one life, then we've done our job,' and I agree with him 100 percent. But some people don't understand satire. [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel said this is going to hurt tourism for Chicago. But there ain't no tourism on the South Side of Chicago. Ain't nobody coming to the Wild 100's. So Spike just wanted to get people talking and that's what he's brilliant at. He doesn't say he's got the answers. He's saying, 'Let me shine my creative light on this to show that there are more people dying on the South Side of Chicago than in the Iraq War—and that's a problem.
In the film, the women of the South Side withhold sex from their male partners until a peace treaty is reached among the warring gangs. Do you think men could ever withhold sex?
No. I think women definitely could, but I don't think men could. We're driven too much by that other head. When you get caught up in testosterone and ego that we have so much of, I believe that only a woman can say, 'I’m going to withhold or have a sex strike.' But a guy could never do it.
Over a year after splitting from Mariah Carey, with whom you have twins, how are you handling single fatherhood?
It's wonderful, honestly. We've been able to operate out of love in such a way that we put our children first. I grew up in an unorthodox household and had some wonderful role models. To be able to instill that in my children, who are so intelligent, understanding and loving is great. That's what my ex and I actually focus on, is this is a partnership to raise these human beings to be the best human beings they can possibly be, and it's going really well.
What is your wish for your children and their generation?
I am such an advocate for youth empowerment. The millennial generation wants to change. They want to make this world a better place. But I believe our generation has let them down in so many ways, because we were so materialistic. But this next generation is like, 'Yo, we want to care. We want to love.' The playground, when I think about it, is the most desegregated place on the planet. Kids love playing with other kids. They don't care what they look like. So if we could keep that idea of love, humanity and really making this world a better place…As cliché as it sounds, this generation is the future, and it's just giving them the proper tools and the essentials to do what they need to do.