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Kevin Powell

Heaven Hell Dave Chappelle

by Kevin Powell

None can imagine what it is like to be Dave Chappelle on this very night. No one. Here he is, the comic genius of America, curbside at the aristocratic Beverly Hills hotel Raffles L'Ermitage, Hollywood's new celebrity magnet, pacing back and forth, habitually fielding phone calls and thumbing through his BlackBerry and inhaling Camel after Camel as he anticipates a ride to the 2006 Grammy Awards from Chris Tucker, a longtime friend and funnyman frat brother. Disrobed of his customary hip-hop uniform of sagging, ballooned jeans, agitprop T-shirt, tennis shoes (as they say in the Midwest), and a charcoal-black hoodie, Chappelle is wearing a brown pinstripe suit, a crisp white shirt, a coffee-colored tie, and tan leather shoes--very much resembling a young man in a courtroom awaiting his fate. And appearing very uncomfortable, as if he is in the wrong costume for a morality play in which he is the reluctant lead actor. Certainly, it is hard to say what, precisely, is running through Dave Chappelle's mind on this muggy February evening in southern California. On the surface, at least, he is at once excited and mad nervous.

Excited because tonight, for the first time since his well-documented exit from his hit Comedy Central variety program in May 2005, the critically acclaimed Chappelle's Show, he will be in the midst of a constellation of entertainment heavies. In fact, Chappelle will introduce the musical tribute to Sly Stone, the reclusive soul and funk visionary who has not performed in public since Ronald Reagan was president. Stone, as hearsay has it, had grown to despise the limelight and opted out for a less demanding life. The irony is not lost on Chappelle, who too made himself scarce when he became unhappy with the executives overseeing his wildly popular franchise and bolted, last May, midway through the shooting schedule, to Africa. So wildly popular and cultish is Chappelle's Show that it has broken a number of DVD sales records, in spite of being on the air for only two full seasons to date. And Chappelle's Show has been called a singular juggernaut in the annals of American television comedy, a cable show up there alongside Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show, Saturday Night Live, and In Living Color. But Dave Chappelle has been paying the price of the fame ticket for walking away from a deal worth upwards of $50 million. His every public move--on Oprah, on Inside the Actors Studio, as he bikes down Xenia Avenue in his hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio--has been dissected, applauded, and, yeah, ridiculed; his paper-thin sanity has been questioned and shredded; his virtual body bandied about by a mosh pit of hands and handlers who've come and gone; and his rubbery soul, the one that believes very quietly yet very deeply in Allah, in the religion of Islam, has been deformed by media, fans, and the player haters. There are Web sites set up by Chappelle worshipers and fanatics on which Chappelle can do no wrong; and, likewise, there are sites proposing bizarre and warped conspiracy theories on why Chappelle pulled the plug on himself. It seems, these days, if Dave Chappelle merely catches a cold, it winds up in the media or on the Internet.

So it is understandable that tonight Dave Chappelle is nervous. He does not know how his peers will receive him, if at all, for he has done something that is unthinkable for the rich and recognizable: He has openly rejected the glamour, the mystique, the fast money, and the fast life. Chappelle, as he will say again and again over the nine days I spend with him, simply wants freedom--the freedom to make art the way he feels it should be made; the freedom to live wherever he pleases; the freedom to control his own destiny, his own identity. So even something as minor as the script he has been handed to study for the Sly Stone monologue becomes a raging internal battle for him. These are not my words. I would never say something like this. Is it weird that I am the one introducing the Sly tribute? No, Chappelle is not going to do it. There is more pacing, another drag on another cigarette, sidewalk consultation with his publicist. Okay, I will do it, but I will change it, improvise, make it feel natural, proudly identifying with Stone's legacy of doing things his way.

As Chappelle rotates the script, like a diploma, between his long brown fingers and walks back and forth once more, Chris Tucker finally arrives. He is not in a limousine nor in a Town Car but in a bus, a great big tour bus, complete with bodyguard, television set, DVD player, booming stereo system, fully loaded refrigerator, washer and dryer, and bedroom. Not yet dressed for the Grammys himself, Tucker peeps Dave Chappelle's pinstripe suit from head to toe, circles him like a tailor assessing a client, squints his eyes to gain the correct focus, cocks his head the way they do in his native Georgia, then exclaims, with that whiny megaphone of a voice of his, "Man, Chappelle, you look like a preacher who done lost his congregation!"

There is a comfort level that Chappelle feels on this bus with Chris Tucker. It is a safe space before the rush of his evening to come. As Earth, Wind & Fire's "Fantasy" wafts from the stereo system, Tucker and Chappelle engage in the sort of easy, carefree banter reminiscent of childhood pals. Chappelle does not have to explain to Tucker what cross he is bearing, because Tucker understands instinctively. They met in the early 1990s, a period that witnessed a renaissance in American comedy and black American humor, thanks to what Eddie Murphy had wrought throughout the 1980s: the comedian as rock star. And if you were a black stand-up comic, you automatically had that infrared light trained on your forehead, targeting you as the next Eddie Murphy. Chris Rock had it. So did Martin Lawrence, so did Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac, Damon Wayans, Chris Tucker, and, yes, Dave Chappelle. Tucker had his mind-boggling explosion first, becoming a box-office smash and multimillion-dollar star in the process. And today Chappelle is there, or somewhere near there, and it has been a tremendously complex adjustment. As he would say on another day: "It's like someone saying, 'You're the CEO of a $50 million company--good luck!' And then kinda leaving you to your own devices. I've been a comedian since I was fourteen. But I've never really been a CEO."

Tucker and Chappelle disappear to the back of the bus to converse in solemn, hushed tones. It would become a pattern throughout Grammy night, of Chappelle huddling with the likes of Chuck D, Jamie Foxx, Stevie Wonder. You get the impression that Chappelle is both fighting and finding himself amid all the impromptu discussions. Then the Tucker bus barrels into the parking lot of the Staples Center. When it is made known that Chris Tucker and Dave Chappelle are on board, the atmosphere becomes electric. The two old buddies say their goodbyes for the moment (Tucker has to don a suit) and pledge to cross paths at Prince's annual post-Grammy bash in a few hours. In one breath he is relaxed and hysterical with Tucker on the bus, and in the next breath Chappelle, as his loping strides stamp the pavement, is suddenly taut, and in dire need of another cigarette. He fumbles inside his jacket and pants pockets. Light. Drag. Eyes flicker open and shut. Exhale. Sigh. Okay, he is ready for that close-up.

Passing through the celebrity entrance, Chappelle is taken aback by the instantaneous and hearty adulation he receives from parking attendants, security personnel, greeters, laborers, sound technicians, and stagehands. Inside, as he snakes his way through the hordes offstage, there are pounds on the back, firm handshakes and hugs, and several cries of "Welcome back!" "Are you okay?" and "We missed you!" There is Madonna with an entourage of what seems like fifty. "I think she gave me a dirty look," Chappelle says impishly, although I don't see Madonna see Chappelle as her cloud of bodies whisks her by the ooohs and aaahs. There is Carlos Santana and Paul McCartney. There is Sting and Jay-Z. There is Green Day, led by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, running like unabashed groupies up to Chappelle for a picture, testifying to him how much they admire his work. There are the youth, black, white, it does not matter, here with parents or whomever, screaming--screaming--as Chappelle saunters by, begging for autographs and photos, chanting Chappelle catchphrases that have become a part of the American vocab--"I'm Rick James, bitch!" Chappelle is at once tickled and embarrassed by this ruckus, stops for every single person, famous or not, who says his name, then finally makes a beeline to the rostrum to do his Sly Stone bit. There is lengthy applause and an appreciative air. Chappelle basks in it for a brief second, then says, "The only thing harder than leaving show business is coming back." One minute is a lifetime in the entertainment industry, and Chappelle, done and satisfied, swiftly retires to the sound-equipment loading zone, grabs a squat on a golf cart, and lights up a Camel as he digests this Grammy affair--his triumphant return, on his terms--with his publicist.

As he sits there pulling on his cigarette, I rewind to the Dave Chappelle I met in 1993 in New York City via my then girlfriend, an actress who'd attended Washington's illustrious Duke Ellington School of the Arts with him. Then fast-forward to the last time I saw Dave in person, Saturday, September 18, 2004, when he staged and filmed Dave Chappelle's Block Party in the very nook of Brooklyn where the late rapper the Notorious B. I. G. had grown up. On that rainy September day, Dave Chappelle was, so I thought, at the apex of his personal joy around his successful show, and very much at ease with his spanking-new notoriety. Dave swam through the crowd, soaking in its love for him, reaching for people as they were grabbing at him. He chastised employees who were taking too long to permit fans through the barricades to see this free concert featuring him, Kanye West, Erykah Badu, and other personalities; and Chappelle made it a point to bring residents on buses, at his own expense, from his Yellow Springs community in Ohio to Brooklyn for this Woodstock-meets-Wattstax gathering. Indeed, Chappelle had financed much of the day, including the film crew, from his own bank account. It was surreal, truthfully, to view Dave Chappelle in this light, because it had been a long time coming.

I remember being at the Boston Comedy Club in Greenwich Village and watching this tall, bone-thin young man with the contagious, toothy smile, the deep-socket, saucerlike eyes, and the perfectly oval head atop a twig of a neck wreck the mic, the stage, and the room like an old-school rapper. Only nineteen at the time, Chappelle was nicknamed by Whoopi Goldberg "the Kid." Even then there was a razor-sharp racial consciousness to Chappelle's material--he had a keen eye for that gray area between social satire and pop culture--and on that occasion I was lucky to witness something very special. Here was the classic working-class intellect of Charlie Chaplin's conniving tramp, the jazzy, in-your-face audacity of Lenny Bruce's birth-of-cool bebopper, and the gut-bucket, bluesy aches and pains of Richard Pryor's dead-on mimes, all in one. There are comedians who have to work at being funny, but Chappelle seemed born to it.

Back at the Grammys, Chappelle discards another cigarette (I've lost count at this point), the show is over, and we head out of the Staples Center to Prince's party. As the rented black SUV nudges its way around West Hollywood, Chappelle is relieved. "I didn't know what to expect, even though I swear Madonna gave me a dirty look." Laughter pops inside the SUV as we arrive at Prince's mansion. And what a mansion it is. Tall iron gates. Beige granite with the numbers of the address deliberately jumbled. A swarm of chiseled, no-neck security men. Parking valets zigzagging from vehicle to vehicle. A Gothic doorman with black eyeliner, black fingernail polish, and a black tongue ring, standing there with a guest list on a clipboard. "Is this a club or Prince's home?" Chappelle asks no one in particular. Dave Chappelle is not on the sheet, but he's admitted after Prince himself is told who is waiting outside the iron gate. A shuttle van is sent down to ride us up the hill to Prince's palace. It is a thirteen-second excursion we could have done by foot.

If Dave Chappelle is hyped to be here, he does not show it, and as we go by two hostesses at the colossal threshold to Prince's home, one of them says to Chappelle wryly, "You need to thank Prince for letting you in." No reaction from Chappelle, but he does make it a point to spot Prince, promptly, and walks right over to thank him for his hospitality. Although Chappelle stands nearly six feet and is long and wiry, it is the elfin Prince, in natty out?t--a blue blazer, white slacks, white shoes--who is the Goliath in this instance. Dig if you will this picture: Chappelle's a kid all of a sudden, the pubescent Dave who worshiped Prince in the 1980s. His gaunt face is tight and nervous, and his gleaming eyes bounce like ping-pong balls from the Purple One's face to the hardwood floor. But ain't Dave Chappelle famous, too? And for sure, dues-paying members of the fame club are omnipresent and accounted for at this joint: Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Jeremy Piven from HBO's Entourage, and Morris Day and the Time, the headliners for the evening.

But rather than indulge in the festivities, Chappelle retreats outdoors to the patio area, to a double-back chair positioned against a back wall next to one of four bars operating this evening. Swirling around him are servers feverishly rotating finger foods, music royalty like Carey, Jermaine Dupri, and Common powwowing near the kitchen, industry check writers making deals over cocktails, industry wannabes swapping business cards and phony pleasantries, party crashers whispering, pointing, and stargazing, and Morris Day and his sidekick, Jerome, working the crowd into a sweaty frenzy as the band whips through its classic songs like "777-9311." But Dave Chappelle sits, and sits, and sits, from round midnight to after 4:00 A.M., methodically smoking his cigarettes, sipping on spring water, eating the cupcakes floating on the server trays, and engaging anyone who sits down next to him. He looks uncomfortable in this scene. Indeed, slouching low in the chair, his spine curved into a tight knot, Dave Chappelle looks as if he is hiding: hiding from his peers, hiding from the attention, hiding from that part of himself that is a major star.

After all, Dave Chappelle is really just a simple Midwestern homeboy, with uncomplicated, wholesome Midwestern values, who happens to have a bottomless well of talent. Through the course of the evening, from Raffles L'Ermitage to the Grammy Awards to his cushiony seat as a spectator at Prince's party, Chappelle seems to be having an out-of-body experience. It is him, but then again it is not him at all. Or, rather, as he says to me during one of the many hours we are there with Prince and company, "Man, I don't drink, I don't dance, I don't party--this ain't really my thing." Problem is that when you become an icon, as Dave Chappelle has become, it does not matter what you want. The people want you. And so Dave Chappelle is trying to understand how to give the universe what it demands of someone with his calling while keeping some version of himself for himself. And that is why he refuses to do a Hollywood shuffle, ever. What is evident, here at Prince's mansion, as his bottom remains pasted to that chair, is that he is not going to budge, not now, not for just anyone.

At the close of the night, Chappelle finally leaps from his seat when he eyeballs music impresario Quincy Jones. Like a little boy, he shyly introduces himself, but of course Jones knows who he is. When Chappelle was a student at Duke Ellington, Jones came to screen the documentary film Listen Up, brought copies for the school, and books of the same title, for the entire student body. Chappelle said that Jones came into the auditorium while he was onstage doing comedy, and that goosebumps covered his body. "You never really stop looking at these people as how you saw them as a child, as a kid," Chappelle says in reference to Prince, to Quincy Jones, to Eddie Murphy, his boyhood idol. "I mean, man, I love them."

And they love Dave Chappelle, but Chappelle truly believes, in his heart, he is not part of the club. "Look at where I live, man. I don't have that kind of connection with me being famous. Fame for me is like a place, a country I'm taking a tour through. You just don't walk around feeling like 'I'm a goddamn star.' You walk around feeling like you."

Chappelle, as it turns out, stays too long in Los Angeles. He is moving in too many directions, is too unsure of himself in that environment, too cryptic about those phone calls he is retrieving from lawyers, colleagues, whomever, which leave him one minute elated and the next very obviously on the edge of dismay and anger. And when he ultimately has enough of the sun, the shades, the posturing, Dave Chappelle decides he is going back to Ohio, to be with his family, to detach himself, for a few days at any rate, from the showbiz machine.

Yellow Springs is a sleepy outpost in southwest Ohio, population hovering near four thousand, and address of the ultraliberal Antioch College, where Dave Chappelle's late father was once a professor. Everyone seems to know everyone, everyone speaks, nods a head, or proffers a wink, a peace sign, or a thumbs-up. The Underground Railroad, that gateway to liberation for escaped slaves from the South, ran through some of Yellow Springs' older dwellings, with secret hideouts still intact. And it is in this mostly white community of artists, intellectuals, and activists that you can get a supersized cup of espresso or herbal tea at Dino's Cappuccinos, a vegetarian meal at the Sunrise Cafe, and be Dave Chappelle, regular American citizen. Practically from the hour he hits the pavement on Xenia Avenue, the hub of this remote village, Chappelle is rejuvenated.

There he is borrowing a random kid's skateboard and darting, skillfully, between moving and parked cars. There he is chasing one of his two teeny sons, like a giant monster, into his family-pack Toyota SUV. There he is teasing and making faces at his lovely wife, a petite Filipina from Brooklyn. And there he is, in a montage of scenes, with his brother, home for a spell from his postgraduate religious studies in California; with his sister, clad, like Chappelle's brother, in full Muslim garb; and with his mother, a prominent African-American-studies scholar and the first black woman in this country to be named, in 1981, a Unitarian Universalist minister. And his mother, too, is a Muslim.

For Dave Chappelle, there is a tranquillity about this town, where no one probes his or his family's faith or personal lives; where no one asks for an autograph or photo but once during the five days I am here with him; where an employee at Yellow Springs' lone movie theater shrugs her shoulders indifferently when told, by Chappelle himself, that Dave Chappelle's Block Party will be coming soon; where he, in spite of the change in environment, blazes cigarette after cigarette like a fireplace burning log after log. Except here in Yellow Springs, his lips do not clamp down as hard on the cigarette, and the sucking in of nicotine is not as resolute as it was in Los Angeles.

But Dave Chappelle is still not entirely at peace. And he is finding himself incapable of pausing to talk. I don't think I can do this, he says. In a way, he still seems to be fleeing whatever he was fleeing when he left for Africa. He is in constant motion, pacing up and down Xenia Avenue on the cell phone and thumbing, as usual, through the BlackBerry. And each time we settle into Dino's or the Sunrise to talk, it is not long before he is up again, his mind and soul so tormented, it appears, that he is not even sure enough of who he is at this very moment to talk about himself. It is not until I am here for two days that we climb into Chappelle's Toyota and begin driving in circles around Yellow Springs, during sunlight and late at night for hours, for three straight days, and he begins to speak.

It comes in a swirl, impressionistic and crackling funny, and Chappelle's reticence is swept away in a cascade of words and turns of the steering wheel. "I got crib memories. I can remember people looking down at me when I was in the crib. I have a loooong memory. Perfect for holding grudges! . . . In the last year, I started getting perspective on how my machine works--my joke machine, or my creative process. Which is at odds with how this business works to some degree, 'cause I'm a complainer by nature, which is just part of my machine. . . . I left in pre-crack Washington and came back in post-crack Washington, so I got the before-and-after picture. It was literally jolting, like, what the fuck happened? My freshman year of high school, over five hundred kids my age were murdered. . . . Miles Davis said it was his fantasy to choke a white man, but he made some of the best music he ever made with Gil Evans. It's like artists can transcend race like nobody can. . . . I finished my first show and the crowd went fuckin' nuts. All the comics were in a lounge, and they go, 'How old are you?' And I said, 'I'm fourteen.' And they said, 'Goddamn.' . . . Years later I was pulling up to a hotel in D. C. I had a nice car at the time. And I get out and this old white man is the valet, with a red sweater on. And I hand him the keys, he hands me a ticket, and he goes, 'That's not my car.' He goes, 'I wish it was my car.' And I go, 'Oh, yeah, that's nice, thanks.' So then, finally I realized--I'm thinking he's the valet, and he's thinking I'm the valet. But I said, 'Well, at least I was thinking that 'cause you have on black slacks and a red sweater.' He was thinking that 'cause I have black skin [laughs], 'cause nothing about me was lookin' like a valet. . . . I'm the first person in my family that wasn't a slave that didn't go to college. My great-grandparents were slaves and still went to college. . . . Suffering and humans go hand in hand. Look at comedy. It's dominated by black people and Jewish people. That is American comedy. And if blacks and Jews didn't do comedy, we'd be relying on the Irish. 'Cause they were the next funniest thing. . . . The only movie they kept offering me over and over was fuckin' Soul Plane. They kept giving me the script and I'd say, 'I passed on this script.' And it would just keep coming back. 'No, I don't want to do Soul Plane!' . . . Maybe the pendulum is swinging back and people want entertainment that has a little more substance. Dude, the number-one song on the radio is 'Shake That Laffy Taffy.' There's a group of people out there that rebel against that. Like, this is the shit you're cramming down my throat? 'Shake That Laffy Taffy'? . . . Genius is such a grandiose term. I didn't do it all by myself. Sometimes I get credit for things I don't really deserve. And other times I don't get credit for things that I do think I deserve. . . . This phrase kept coming up: It's not personal, it's just business. If you ever hear a white man say that, even if you are white, run for your motherfucking life.When a person tells you something's not personal, it's just business, that means some ice-cold shit might be about. . . . I want to, like, play Sambo, but I want to give those characters some depth. No, just kidding. No, I'm just kidding, man. . . . You know, nowadays it ain't easy to be anygoddamnbody."

And Dave Chappelle flows so freely now, on and on, his Toyota SUV seemingly a safe space, a therapist's couch. Round and round Yellow Springs until I have the town memorized and we're mainlining the coffee. Until, on one particular side street, Chappelle presses the brakes and prods the vehicle along and mutters somberly, "That is where my father is buried." It is a quaint, one-story stucco home. His dad's grave is in the backyard, and his widow, Chappelle's stepmother, a white woman, is home right now. We drive on, and I think back to when I first met Chappelle, how he'd introduced me to a young white man whom he described as "my brother." Today it makes sense. It was his stepmother's son.

It is this sort of double consciousness into which Dave Chappelle was born in Washington, D. C., on August 24, 1973, in the shimmering shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, amid civil-rights-era residue, a precocious boy who, by his own account, had a very happy childhood. His father, "a hippie," held down a corporate job for years as a statistician but was really a lover of music, of art, of books, a man with an IQ of 185. His mother, the more overtly rebellious of his parents, once worked for the revolutionary Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and was an independent thinker and dedicated intellectual, constantly reinventing herself in the pursuit of a better grasp of life. Though together only for the initial brushstrokes of Dave Chappelle's life, the two shared duties in shaping the mind of their youngest child. "Growing up, I knew kids who lived with both their parents that didn't have as close a relationship with their parents.

"I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. We were like the broke Huxtables. There were books around the house, everybody was educated to a college level. We used to have a picture of Malcolm X in Ghana. Last Poets records. We were poor but we were cultured."

And there was the home education money could never buy: little Chappelle sitting among adults as they watched and debated To Kill a Mockingbird. Organizational meetings to abolish racism. Regular visits by people as diverse as folksinger Pete Seeger and jazz balladeer Johnny Hartman, the only singer ever to record with the legendary John Coltrane. In fact, on one visit it was Hartman, noticing that the seven- or eight-year-old Chappelle had a knack for humor, who first planted the seed of his being a comedian.

"I was the funny dude. I was real comfortable with adults. I was cutting up in front of Hartman and he was like, 'Man, you're a funny kid.' And he says to me, 'You're gonna be a comedian.' And I was like, 'What's a comedian?' And he's like, 'It's a guy who tells funny stories for a living, like Richard Pryor or Redd Foxx.' I said, 'I want to be a doctor.' And he was like, 'Eh--' "

And why not? African-Americans of Chappelle's generation, carried along in the wake of the civil-rights movement, could be anything, they were told. For they were the first generation of blacks to be raised in an integrated America, to attend multiracial schools, to have friends of many backgrounds. "I use to hang out with the Jewish kids, black kids, and Vietnamese immigrants," says Chappelle. The truth is, many African-American parents like Chappelle's struggled and sacrificed so that their children would not have to, so that they could attend a different kind of school, live in a different kind of neighborhood, dream a different kind of world. What they conceived, ultimately, was the first wave of African-Americans who were what the writer Trey Ellis once described as "cultural mulattoes." Born to two progressive black parents, one a we-are-the-world bohemian, the other firmly rooted in black nationalism in Washington, D. C. ("Chocolate City," as dubbed by Parliament Funkadelic), Chappelle followed his father, during his middle-school years, to Yellow Springs, where his friends and his new family were suddenly, well, white, which created this unique capacity to stand out and blend in, to cross boundaries and set up roadblocks, to make fast friends and quick foes. Or, as the black sage Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, "One ever feels his two-ness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

On my last night in Yellow Springs, Chappelle takes a path foreign to me. When I ask him if this is the sixty-five-acre farm, his "anti-Hollywood estate," as one journalist coined it, Chappelle smiles mischievously and says, "Uh, this is one of my houses. I'm going to smash a rock over your head and take those tapes. You'll never know which house I'm living in." Because it is pitch-black, save some strategically arranged lighting sprinkled about the property, all that can be said about Chappelle's real estate is that it is expansive.

Back on the familiar route, Chappelle noses the SUV through and around the empty streets of Yellow Springs with much on his mind. His face, creased with a smile just a second before, droops. He is a man with monumental decisions to make. The Comedy Central haze is so damn thick that Dave Chappelle wants to say, Fuck the world! all of it, but he knows that he cannot. It is evident now that there is pressure from all sides for him to return to the show, to pay off former associates (or deal with the legal consequences); that he is saddened by the wedge that has been driven between him and others, most notably Neal Brennan, his former longtime friend and writing partner on Chappelle's Show. This is the crux of why Dave Chappelle left the show, why he went to Africa to breathe amid his stunning success, why he prefers life in Ohio. He doesn't like to feel, as an artist, as a comedian, as a black man in America, like he is being controlled, told what he should and should not be doing--ever. This is why, at the close of each episode of Chappelle's Show, there is that image of a shirtless Chappelle with slave shackles on his wrists. This is why Chappelle prefers live stand-up to television, and especially to Hollywood films. And this is why, throughout the course of these final few hours together, Chappelle repeatedly brings up David Mamet's recent Harper's essay, "Bambi v. Godzilla: Why Art Loses in Hollywood," as well as Spike Lee's hotly debated flick Bamboozled.

Then, out of the blue, he begins talking candidly, for the first time, about his conflicts with Comedy Central, his voice lower than before, his words coming a little more slowly.

"I don't want people to think that I feel completely victimized. Like, I always try to make a point of trying to acknowledge the fact that I made mistakes in this process. But believe me, I wasn't making 'em by myself. As a matter of fact, I had an enormous amount of help making mistakes. More help than I get when I'm doing the right thing.

"So basically the renegotiation during the show's second season was what it was. I felt like I was really pressured to settle for something that I didn't necessarily feel like I wanted. The DVD comes out, it's a whole 'nother ball game. Everyone's asking me, 'When you coming back, when you coming back? You'd do it for x number of dollars, wouldn't you?' Like, real specific questions, and it was like, I don't know. You know, I just got real tight-lipped about shit, because the same questions kept coming up over and over, you know, so when that happens, you stop assuming that these are idle questions. You start assuming that somebody wants to know something, and they're asking you via a bunch of different people. And if I would divulge that information, and I did want to come back, it would give me a very weak negotiating position if they knew what I would do something for. Common sense. 'Nigger be careful' is what they say on the streets, right?"

Chappelle asks me to turn off the tape recorder. Should he vent, should he be careful? He sparks a cigarette and continues.

Between the first and second seasons, Comedy Central was sold. "There was a lot of new faces. Viacom had acquired the entire asset of Comedy Central. Certain things happened that were strange at the time." Chappelle straightens his back and mimics the voice of an older white executive: " 'Dave, we're having a symposium on the n-word, and we wanted you to speak about your use of it. It's just for our information.' And I did it, but afterward I was like, That was real stupid of me. Why the fuck would I explain to a room full of white people why I say the word nigga? Why on earth would I put myself in a position like that? So you got me on a panel, me and all of these, like, Harvard-educated, you know, upper-echelon authors, me, and a rapper. So here I am explaining, and I was real defensive 'cause of what was going on at the show at the time--we had just shot the Niggar Family sketch, and I was at a symposium on the word nigger. So I'm feeling like I'm fighting censorship. They say, 'We just want to know how far we should go with something like that.' And the subtext of it is, 'Do you want to know, or do you want to tell me something?'

"You have all these Harvard-educated people saying, 'I think the word is reprehensible' and talking about the destructive nature of blah, blah, blah. . . . You know, pontificating."

Silence. A sigh.

"But the bottom line was, white people own everything, and where can a black person go and be himself or say something that's familiar to him and not have to explain or apologize? Why don't I just take the show to BET--oh, wait a minute, you own that, too, don't you? Same thing happened with the Rick James episode. They gave us the notes and there were like forty-six or some insane number of bleeps that we would've had to put over it. 'Well, Dave, then why don't you go in and explain to them yourself.' So now I'm sitting in a room, again, with some white people, explaining why they say the n-word, and it's a sketch about Rick James, and I don't want to air a sketch with that many bleeps over it; it will render it completely ineffective. Give me another week and I'll just come up with something else. Run a rerun. 'No, we can't run a rerun, we've got ad buy-ins' and blah, blah, blah. Okay, well then, fine, I don't want to do it then. And so then there was a compromise. It was the only episode that aired with a disclaimer. But again, it was a position where I was explaining to white people why the n-word. It's an awful, awful position to put yourself in.

"I'm just saying it's a dilemma. It's something that is unique to us. White people, white artists, are allowed to be individuals. But we always have this greater struggle that we at least have to keep in mind somewhere."

Particularly if you, like Dave Chappelle, hail from a family of intellectuals and if you, like him, have been studying history since you were a child, are attuned to the world in a particular way, have a great-grandfather who is remembered in the Smithsonian Institution, and believe, in your heart, that you are a bridge builder between different cultures. That you can have close friends, like Neal Brennan, who are white, a wife who is Asian. That you have the right (and the bruises) to use the word nigga any way you choose. But at the same time, you feel that you also have a specific responsibility to black America, that you have to think about the sights and sounds you put out there on television because you are not interested in being merely a source of enjoyment for white America at the expense of black America. This is what occurs when black art goes pop, and that black artist happens to have a functioning soul. One ever feels his two-ness--

For sure, it is Chappelle's birthright to talk, provocatively, in his art, about race in America. Yet somewhere in that process of journeying from a grossly underestimated comic to the funniest man in America, Dave Chappelle began to feel trapped by the reactions from the suits, from the fans, from the media from the scholars, from that voice inside his head. These jokes are dangerous in the wrong hands, he would say. That pressure, from all sides, from himself, would lead you, if you were living inside Dave Chappelle's head, to make a mad dash away from the money, real and projected, the fame, the pressures to do season three, of being labeled a brand, an icon, a genius. Just to think--

He drives on, through the dark Ohio night. "I'm in a much better place than I was when I went to Africa. And now things are starting to make more sense, like a fog that's lifting. But there's a part of me personally that's still like a work in progress. It's like the blood's rushing back into me. I feel more optimistic, more hopeful. But I still don't have the definitive course. People are thinking that I'm out here to avoid fame, and that's not it. What I'm trying to avoid is corruption."

And what of the relationship with Neal Brennan, who worked the door at Boston Comedy Club as Chappelle first began to make a name for himself? When Chappelle was in Africa, Brennan told Time of an exchange he'd had with Chappelle, in which he said he had told the comic, "You're not well." Now parking on Xenia Avenue, the lone vehicle on the strip, Dave Chappelle pushes a sigh up from his chest, rolls his window up and down to blow out cigarette smoke, and weighs in on the question:

"I think Neal is a brilliant dude. We were close, man. These situations are intense. I'm sad. I'm not going to say I am angry. I was angry. The thing about show business is that, in a way, it forces dysfunctional relationships in people."

Chappelle falls dead silent one final time, not wanting to say too much about his former partner. Lights another cigarette. Blows. Talks again, becoming nostalgic as he fans the smoke and the subject away from Brennan.

"I have to say, it was by far the best experience I ever had working in television. When you hear me say, like, 'I quit' and all this stuff, I mean, that was literally just like the tension and the dramatic situation of creating something. And the network executives have their responsibilities and I have my responsibilities, so this is a natural tension of these relationships. By far, it was better than any situation I ever had in corporate television.

"It was like taking somebody on a tour through a young black man's subconscious, and I don't think America has been there. So in a way it was kind of like reality TV, right"

As he steers his Toyota home, I ask him, if not Chappelle's Show, then what is it that he wants to do next? Beaming with that mischievous grin again, Dave Chappelle tilts his head against the driver's seat, shoots smoke out of his mouth like an erupting volcano, then says, deadpan, "Spit hot fire."

He laughs. "I want to tell my jokes. I want to have time with my children. I want to entertain people. And at one point, I'll walk away from show business. But I don't want to walk away empty-handed."

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