Marc Lamont Hill’s resume is impressively unique. He’s an author, professor, activist, award-winning journalist, CNN commentator and – as of this summer – the host of VH1 Live!
In the surreal year that was 2016, this uniqueness makes Marc the perfect person to give well-informed hot takes on pop culture, politics and how they converge. VH1 spoke to Marc about why, after years of focusing on “serious issues,” he decided to host VH1 Live!, a late night talk show that mostly covers things like Yung Joc’s new haircut, but sprinkles in commentary about Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest as well.
“VH1 was already home for me as a viewer, so it was an easy decision to come hang out with the network for a show,” Marc explained. “I think there’s a way to do pop culture that’s tasteful, and interesting, and fun, and most of all, smart.”
Marc admitted, though, that even his friends were skeptical of this project at first.
“A lot of people say ‘why would a guy who does serious news do this?’ and I’m like well, because I’m a person. People have different sides to them. And one side of me wants to talk about presidential elections and the economy and wars overseas, and part of me wants to talk about who’s the father of Joseline’s baby or was Tami right to try to fight Duffey.”
He also thinks that there are aspects to VH1 programming that touch on important issues that people don’t typically give the shows credit for.
“When we look at what’s happening to Mendeecees, we see mass incarceration,” he said. “We see somebody who’s being torn apart from a family.”
“When we look at Scrapp on Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, we see somebody who’s going to jail for weed, something that is legal in a whole other state. We see women who have had poor relationships with their fathers, and men who have had poor relationships with their mothers. Look at Stevie J, basically growing up motherless. We’re able to have interesting conversations about what it means to be human. That makes me, as a journalist and as a thinker, intrigued.”
Marc doesn’t believe he’s alone in this viewpoint, and the success of his show is proving him right.
“People underestimate our audience,” he said.
“They think that just because you like Stevie J, and just because you like Joseline, and just because you like Dating Naked and just because you like Ceaser and Black Ink Crew doesn’t mean that you also don’t care about social issues. And too often people think that if you’re smart, you don’t wanna let your hair down. I’m not even trying to appeal to different people as much as I’m trying to appeal to the whole person.”
Sticking to his mantra of taking pop culture seriously when applicable, Marc also told us what it taught him this year.
“We love a good celebrity meltdown,” he said.
“I think sometimes we forget that celebrities are people. You know, Kim Kardashian gets robbed and we’re making jokes. Like, that’s not funny. She’s a person. Even if we don’t like Kim, no one deserves that. Kanye is clearly struggling with some issues. Let’s support him. It doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of him, but to mock his pain to me is disappointing.”
Not all of Marc’s pop culture takeaways were negative, though.
“This was the year of Black Girl Magic,” he professed. “From Simone Biles at the Olympics, to watching Ava DuVernay shine as she has all year, to watching Issa Rae on Insecure. I mean, it’s just been the rise of amazing black women doing amazing things.”
Marc’s takeaways from politics, however, were noticeably more grim. He said that “it’s scary to think that the America we thought we were in – that some of us thought we were in – doesn’t exist,” referring to the shock felt across America and the world when Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton on election night.
“Some of that has to do with Clinton not running a solid campaign in certain ways,” he explained. “I do think that liberal arrogance reared its ugly head as well. But some people just weren’t ready for a woman president. I think some of it is sexism. I think some of it is like, ’okay, we had a black guy. What else do you want? We did the whole progress thing. Let’s go back to what was working for us.'”
While Marc, who voted for and was a surrogate for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, showed a clear bias to Clinton over Trump, he doesn’t think either major party has done a good enough job at addressing the needs of Black America.
“The mass incarceration question simply hasn’t been addressed in sufficient fashion,” he explained. “The question of food insecurity hasn’t been addressed. Economic investment, labor market issues. None of these things have been adequately addressed by the Democratic Party. And the challenge is that because black people vote democratic almost semi-automatically, there’s no leverage. They’re what political scientists call a captured electorate.”
He offered up a solution to how black people can solve this issue.
“So part of what we need to see in response to the Democratic Party – hasn’t done us well, hasn’t served us sufficiently – is leverage our power and our vote,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean that everybody vote Republican, because Republicans have done nothing to earn our vote either. But it means that we have to be willing to at least leverage our power, organize, and vote in ways that respond to our needs, not our fears.”
In the activist realm, standing up against fears for Marc means fighting for yourself as well as others who experience injustice and inequality.
He explained that “it’s not just about protecting my blackness, it’s also about affirming someone else’s queerness, or someone else’s woman-ness, or someone else’s immigrant status.”
If 2016 came with any sort of progress, Marc thinks it’s that this type of empathy and fearlessness has improved.
“We’ve become even more open and affirming to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters,” he said.
“Not perfect by any stretch, but the fact that we have more trans representation on TV makes me happy. When homophobic and heterosexist things are said, you see a lot more public criticism of the person saying these awful things. I think that matters. I think there’s a generation of folks that are willing to have tough conversations about race, tough conversations about politics in ways that other people may not have.”
Marc left the impression that fighting for progress is as much of a personal journey as it is a collective effort.
“No matter how much you tell those people you’re human, they still can’t see the humanity in you, so that’s always going to be a real challenge,” he admits. “But I think you have to hold on to your principles. I think you have to be comfortable in your own skin.”
In activism, academia and now entertainment, staying unapologetically comfortable in his own skin seems to have served Marc Lamont Hill well so far.