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Nick Cannon is known for many things — his marriage to Mariah Carey, his divorce from Mariah Carey, and the occasional off-the-cuff remark he drops during interviews while promoting one of his hundred projects — but underneath the Class Clown exterior is an activist who has been advocating for Black lives long before the hashtag.

Cannon is a student of religion and civil rights, mentored by the likes of Harry Belafonte. He dedicates countless hours to both understanding the needs and grievances of the community, and giving back to it. He’s marched in Chicago, Dallas, and at the RNC. Once a month, he teaches poetry to kids in juvenile detention. And that’s all far away from TMZ’s cameras.

Recently, Cannon launched a new series called Spoken Sundays, a once-a-week drop of spoken word that serves as a digital confession booth for him to clear his mind and soul. We hopped on the phone with Cannon to talk about race in America, putting Jay Z and Beyoncé on blast, the current state of affairs with his ex-wife — and finally got an answer about the deal with his beloved turbans.

Why did you decide to channel your thoughts about what’s happening in the Black community into your art, rather than just, say, tweeting about it?

I think I have to do more than [just use] a hashtag. I consider myself a leader and an advocate in the community. I had to do something other than just tweet about it. I got really inspired when I did the film Chi-Raq with Spike Lee. He said art for art is fine, but art with a meaning and a passion and a movement behind it can change the world. From this point on, everything that I do, I can still have fun and joke, but I needed an outlet to express myself not just in an artistic matter, but for the greater of our people.

You call your series Spoken Sundays. There seems to be an element of faith in it. What role does faith play in your life?

One hundred percent of my life is faith. Everything I do is faith-based. I come from a long line of ministers, from my grandparents to my father, everybody, uncles…they’re all pastors. I knew I wasn’t going to go down that path because I’ve done too much sinning, but I still have that, it’s in me to speak to people bettering themselves. I think that could be one of the major issues why the world is the way it is, because they say we no longer need faith or spirituality.

‘Dallas Flowers’ is interesting because it presents both sides of the Black Lives Matter argument — that cops face danger too. Do you think the community should speak out more about that?

Well, to understand what I did with ‘Dallas Flowers,’ you have to go back to what I did previously with the Black Lives Matter one, and I got a lot of scrutiny because I think people didn’t really understand what I was trying to say – all they really heard was the last line where I said, “Put on my tombstone damn right black lives matter.” I got all this hate mail, all these angry comments saying that I was supporting and leading a racist terrorist group, that the views that I expressed were un-American, and that I supported cop killers. People want to take something that is a purely positive thing and find the negativity in it. I would say, at the end of the day, everybody is just trying to make it home. That inspired me to then go to Dallas and talk to these people directly and show that just as much as I care about the people in the South Side of Chicago, I care as much about the people in Dallas.

You don’t get enough credit for having boots on the ground with these issues.

Yeah, it’s the only thing that I do that I don’t promote, because that’s what I’m doing. It’s really easy to do charity work in your community in L.A. or New York, but to take the effort and go to where these families are, I do it quite often. I also go to where these families are, and I don’t go with cameras, I show up and I lend my support in whichever way I possibly can and wherever I am needed. I feel like people like MLK, Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, people who have come before me and have been mentors would actually show up. I’m going to continue to do it, as things continue to go wrong, even if I have to alter my schedule, my community is more important than my career to me.

A lot of people critique Black celebs for not doing enough or speaking up enough. Harry Belafonte in particular was vocal in his criticism of Beyoncé and Jay Z. Do you agree? 

I don’t think he’s a rabble-rouser, but he was saying it is our duty as people who have been given this opportunity, a spotlight to actually stand for something. When you know Jay Z and Beyoncé, and you know the kind of people that they are, I think they needed to hear that. It wasn’t that they didn’t do amazing things, but to be pulled to the frontline, it’s almost like the general calling the soldier being pulled to the front lines of war. I honestly think that inspired Beyoncé…ever since then, if you pay attention to it, Jay Z’s art and Bey’s art has been more outspoken and they have been firm for their community and even supporting Black Lives Matter. I think if Harry Belafonte hadn’t stepped up and said something, and challenged them, then that type of thing that we see now might not have happened, so I think that’s the right thing.

You’re a mainstream celebrity and have been embraced by network TV and people across many demographics. Why do you feel compelled to speak out? 

I’ve said, that’s the way I was raised, by community activists and leaders and I’ve always cared about the young Black men in our communities and the senseless violence, because I come from that. I feel like I escaped that. I’ve had many classmates and friends who have died to gang violence and drivebys and shootings at parties that I was DJing as a teen. So I’m not speaking just my opinion, this is something that I’ve lived through. And then I think I’ve also had the ability…it’s almost like you catch them off guard because people are like, “Oh he’s funny, he’s the corny kid, he doesn’t mean any harm.” So that I can say things in the way that most people probably can’t.

How do you deal with all the scrutiny on your personal life? 

It’s almost humorous to me at times. If you go through my comments or my tweets, its like, these people are wild. Sometimes, its like, ‘I’m gonna just pray for you.’ I’ve never been this upset about anything. That’s kind of my vibe, I know what is going to get people’s attention and I know what the media is going to say, you kind of have to be one step ahead of them, otherwise they’ll catch you off guard. If you notice, I love when TMZ is at the airport or coming out of a restaurant, because I already know what they’re going to ask. I know how to make a joke out of it.

Do you tell your kids about the way your divorce is playing out in the media? 

Yeah, I mean it’s funny I put that freestyle out called ‘Divorce Papers’ and one of the lines in there is, ‘I wonder is my son going to judge me and hate me for what the media says about me.’ Ultimately that’s the thing where, as long as they know that I love them unconditionally and that their mother loves them unconditionally, that’s all that matters. Never getting off the phone without expressing how much I love them. It’s a difficult conversation, because they don’t understand why Daddy can’t spend the night everyday or why they can’t be with me all the time. But you know, we deal with it and that’s what life is and I feel like it’s only going to make us all stronger.

Do you talk to your kids about growing up Black in America?

I do. At the end of the day, at this age it’s a very simple conversation. It goes back to safety and getting home safely, but ultimately it’s about respect. You want to be respected, you have to be able to give respect before you get it. With my kids, everything is ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’ and carrying themselves in a manner that garners respect. It’s a simple life lesson that I think a child can understand that hopefully establishes something for when they are of age and dealing with law enforcement — they command a type of respect because they’re giving it.

OK, you gotta tell me about the turban. Are you going to come out with the Nick Cannon turban line? 

[Laughs] It actually goes back to what we’re talking about. It’s about standing for something and reconditioning the mindsets in our community. It’s a crown, a spiritual crown, a sign of leadership and sovereignty more than anything. And I like having that conversation with people who question it — especially when young men in the community ask me about it because it represents a peace thing. I do it…one, because I am an attention-seeker and I’m never going to act like I’m not [laughs], and as an entertainer and artist, I love to spark curiosity. But at its core, I’m trying to teach these young men in these communities that we are royalty, and we are truly kings. We are not savages. We are not thugs, we come from kings.

PHOTO CREDIT: BET

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