Legions of devoted fans have elevated Dave Chappelle to cult hero status for over a decade. He was already a beloved comedy legend in 2005 when he walked away from his multi-million dollar Comedy Central television show, turning down an estimated $50 million. Over the years, a variety of reasons were cited to explain his exit, including a nervous breakdown, creative differences with corporate execs about race depictions, and familial strife.
The fact has always remained that both America and the world lost one of their most incisive social satirists when Chappelle discontinued his show. While its political compass may not have been as finely tuned as, say, the Daily Show, its role in providing sociological critiques was invaluable.
While it’s true that Chappelle has been active in the years since his departure from the show— producing Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, his 2006 concert documentary that he called “the best day of his career” —it’s hard not to feel something very important was lost when Chappelle stepped out of the limelight. But now it appears Chappelle may have had something else in mind altogether and that the move he made a decade ago could end up yielding a far more powerful societal benefit.
Chappelle recently received an award from Russell Simmons’ Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. At the event, he gave a speech about returning to stand-up and what he sees as the role of the artist in today’s turbulent sociopolitical environment. Chappelle unabashedly pronounced that there is no greater role for an artist than activism and that “the biggest enemy of the artist is apathy.”
Chappelle continued with a barbed attack on police brutality:
“A kid gets killed by the police and I buy a T-shirt, and before I can wear that one, there’s another kid [killed] and I’m running out of closet space.”
Could this signal the return of one of our nation’s most powerful cultural figures? With Jon Stewart stepping down from the Daily Show, now more than ever we need trenchant activist comedians to step into the fray to help shape the public discourse regarding social inequality, poverty, police brutality, and the military-industrial complex.