Nick Cannon On ‘Chi-Raq,’ Spike Lee, Fake Realness In Hip-Hop
Opening this Friday, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is a modern-day retelling of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play Lysistrata set in Chicago’s South side. Nick Cannon stars as the titular character, a drill rapper caught up in a gang war with a crew led by a man they call Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). With men, women and children dying on the streets every day as a result of the rivalry, the gangsters’ female counterparts decide to deny their partners sex until they stop the violence and come to a peace agreement. Led by Chi-Raq’s girl, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the militantly celibate women hold their ground as the gangs, the police and politicians ponder the price of their senseless dick-measuring.
In a roundtable interview in San Francisco we spoke to Cannon about the film, which opens this Friday and also stars Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson and John Cusack.
This role is different than anything you’ve done before.
It’s quite different. [laughs]
What was the biggest challenge for you, working on a movie like this?
The overall piece is a challenge, to take something Aristophanes created over 2,000 years ago and set it in Chicago with Spike Lee at the helm…that’s brave, you know what I mean? That’s a challenge because Spike is a visionary, but it’s also taking something that’s so classic and true, and the film’s in verse. [Spike said,] “I feel like you can fulfill this role.” Him making that creative choice, it’s like, it’s an honor, and I’m going to give you my all. Everything I could do to honor the authenticity of the souls in that community is what I attempted to do.
Spike Lee said recently that everything he’s done has led to making this film.
He did say that! It’s true. He came to me before I saw the script, before I heard the full synopsis. He said, “I want to save lives on the South side of Chicago. I was like, “I’m in!” It’s true when he says, “If I save one life, if I bring awareness and stop one senseless act of violence, I’ve done my job.” For all the other films that he’s made that have made strong statements and empowered so many in front of the camera, behind the camera, people whose lives have been changed by this gentlemen…for him to really get connected with the community and say, “We have to stop the killing of our own,” not just in Chicago, but all over the world…that’s a big task. I understand why he’d say everything he’s done has led to this point. He knows how precious life is, and if he saves a life, that’s tremendous.
There’s been some controversy surrounding the film.
See, that’s the thing. I’m all up for opinion, all up for the debate. But I want it to be intelligent, you know what I mean? I want people to understand—it’s a satire. Some people don’t even know what that is, but they want to comment. You’re more than welcome, but understand that satire is what Kubrick did with Dr. Strangelove, what Spike has done before with Do The Right Thing. There were some hilarious moments in Do The Right Thing. There’s nothing exploitative about what’s going on in that film. The same thing is true with Chi-Raq, if not even more. You can’t judge anything off of a two-minute trailer. That’s coming from a place of ignorance. No one has seen it. I still haven’t seen it. You can’t speak on it in that sense. The devil is the author of confusion. We should be upset about a lot of things, but not this. The man is using his art to raise awareness, to create a conversation. Let’s be upset about what’s going on in our community. Let’s be upset that there was a 9-year-old executed in the same neighborhood we shot this film in.
I’ve been coming up with all these different ways to digest what’s going on in the social media aspect [of the film.] It’s as if someone’s like, “Man, look at that Picasso. That don’t make no sense! It’s too colorful! He’s coloring outside the lines!” If you don’t understand what Picasso’s artistic vision was…this is this man’s artistic choice to [use] an elevated sense of satire and a classic tale to portray this story. This is art. He’s using art to evoke change.
Hopefully, once the film comes out, people can have an intelligent debate about what’s going on. There are so many powerful messages in this movie. I think a lot of people are going to take back the things that they’ve said once they see it. That happened with Do The Right Thing. When that came out, people said, “This is going to cause riots. This is bad for our community. It’s a hate film!” And then it went on to be one of the greatest films for our community ever. Spike knows what he’s doing. I’m saddened by a lot of the voices that have come out to speak against the film and haven’t seen it.
Do you think the movie’s trailer is a good representation of the film?
I love the trailer. I think it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. It’s created this interesting conversation. It’s got people stirred up. That’s what art’s supposed to do. The thing that saddens me are the comments coming from some of people speaking out. Do you see that you don’t sound intelligent the way you’re speaking right now? That you don’t even understand what satire is? It makes me cringe. People who understand satire and Greek theater, they love it. People who don’t understand what art is…I guess we probably didn’t make this for you. It hurts my soul when people say, “They ain’t got no real killers in this movie! It’s real out here!” What?! We know, but we don’t want to glorify that. Let’s tell it in an intelligent way. Spike chose a high-versed style, something most can’t do. People will see that he’s a genius and he knows what he’s doing.
I’m a huge fan of hip-hop culture.
Thanks for that…I am, too! [laughs]
I’m a big fan of battle rap, too. You’ve given a platform to Hitman Holla and Conceited on Wild n Out, so thanks for that.
We got a couple of new cats coming too. We gon’ go in next season. We got two new secret weapons we gon’ lay on ya’ll.
It was striking to me that, in the lead-up to this film, you released a song in character.
And people don’t get it.
Yeah! The crazy thing is, I’ve got a whole album of that drill shit! I’m sitting on it. I ain’t ready yet, but it helped me get into character. Wesley Snipes plays the antagonist of the film. His name is Cyclops. They’re the Trojans and we’re the Spartans. There are these Greek war references but in a drill music fashion. I was like, they’re not ready for it. Hamilton’s on Broadway right now. You can take elements of hip-hop and teach history and show the juxtaposition between love and war. But some of these cats ain’t ready for that. I think hip-hop has evolved. You wouldn’t be mad at Frank Sinatra for releasing a record from one of his movies in character. “That ain’t you, Frank!” Yeah, of course it’s not me! It’s the character I’m playing! When you think about embracing the art, how dope is it that I can release a whole project as a character from a film? I would love hip-hop to understand that we can evolve to that space, but we’re still kinda stuck in that mentality of, “If you ain’t real, you shouldn’t be talking about it.” So Al Pacino couldn’t be Scarface? He wasn’t from Colombia, you know what I mean? He don’t talk like that. But he embodied a character and gave you a piece of art. That’s what we did with Chi-Raq, not just with the film, but with the music as well.
Rappers have been killing people on records for years, but none of them want to come out and say that, really, most of them are playing a character.
You know what’s interesting? Hip-hop has always been about how “real” you are. “Keeping it real.” But none of those guys are really who they say they are! I don’t have no fake name—my name is Nick Cannon, and I’m never trying to be anything that I’m not. I’m happy being this guy. But some of the guys we look up to and call themselves “the realist”—it’s like, yo dawg, you stole someone else’s name, someone else’s whole persona, and you think that because whoever you’re affiliated with you’re allowed to talk tough-guy gun talk? You’re an entertainer. You’re an artist. If you were the biggest dope dealer in the game, you’d still be doing what you were doing! Unfortunately, what has gone on even in the South side of Chicago is, we got it all screwed up and misconstrued. We think, “I gotta really be a killer to be a dope rapper. I really gotta have bodies.” No! We’re kings and queens. Respect life. Let’s focus on that. We can talk about the hardships we’ve experienced, but let’s not think it’s cool to kill somebody to make us more popular and make us more money. We’ve gone down a demonic path if that’s what we’re doing.