Marc Lamont Hill lets out an incredulous laugh that blaringly slices through a cacophony of background noise. The highly opinionated author, journalist, activist and host of his very own weekly talk show VH1 Live!, set to debut this Sunday (July 17), at 10 p.m. EST, is literally a man on the run. He is attempting to conduct a phone interview while maneuvering his way through the clutter and controlled chaos of a New York airport. In just minutes, Hill will board a flight to Cleveland, ground zero for the Republican National Convention’s official coronation of bombastic GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. So it goes without saying that in these unpredictable, up-is-down times where a reality show star can effortlessly hijack a legitimate political party, there’s not much that can shock the professional talking head.
That is except for Hill’s recent appearance on a CNN panel this past Monday (July 11) to discuss the galvanizing police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile as well as the shocking shooting deaths of five law enforcement officers in Dallas. “The first thing I said was, ‘You didn’t mean that, right?’” he recalls of the now infamous segment in which former NYPD detective Harry Houck boldly claimed that blacks were “prone to criminality.” A visibly disturbed and angered Hill was at a loss for words.
“I’m thinking am I on an episode of Punk’d? Is Ashton Kutcher about to run out on me?” he adds, trying to find some levity in an otherwise deadly serious subject. “And it’s not just that [Houck] was saying this…it’s that he thinks he’s right! He represents a sector of the American public that believes that black people are not full human beings; that we don’t deserve citizenship, rights, freedom or protection.”
Hill continues, “[Houck] sees me as different because I’m on CNN with him, but the only difference between me and the people he is demonizing is that I’m wearing a tie today. If I’m walking down the street in America there is no difference. These shootings that are happening are tragic. And I want them to stop. I want shootings by police and of police to stop.”
For over a decade, Hill has enjoyed a steady rise dating back to his early days as the earnest host of the syndicated TV show Our World with Black Enterprise. Today he stands as one of the most respected and uncompromising voices in the social and political arena. From the polarizing shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman and the controversial police-related deaths of Michael Brown (2014) and Freddie Gray (2015)—both sparking massive civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore—to the explosive birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, Hill has been at the center of it all, contributing his form of F-your-feelings, academically-informed perspective.
“When Mike Brown was killed by Darren Wilson, I think the world changed,” he explains when asked about the perfect storm of highly charged racial and ideological polarization; the instantaneous apex of social media; and the final term of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American commander-in-chief. “If you look at everything since Brown has died we have had a movement. I think that we can see the resistance on campuses to racism in the form of white privilege. You go Ferguson, Sanford, LA, Chicago, or Philly the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t stopped. So for me it’s like we just have to keep going…keep working.”
And what of surreal political rise of Donald Trump? “You know how when you were a kid and your parents told you, ‘Hey, you keep playing with that you are going to poke somebody’s eye out?’ Hill breaks down of the brazen billionaire. “The end result is Donald Trump. The Republican Party was fine with playing to the cheap seats and cultivating racism among poor whites. They kept doing all the stuff that leads to this, right?”
Hill says the GOP now finds itself face to face with its own Frankenstein monster. “All of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh sh-t…we lost control of the party.’ They kept talking about gay rights, Mexicans taking jobs and irresponsible poor black people. In the age of Obama, they kept ginning up this hateful sentiment that at some point became the dominant message of the Republican Party.”
The 37-year-old Philadelphia native boasts the kind of annoyingly impeccable credentials that has helped make him a prime target of the conservative media machine (in 2009, Hill was reportedly “fired” from his thankless side gig as Fox News’ liberal commentator for what officials viewed as Hill’s reputation for being too passionate as a critic of police misconduct). Of course, when you are infectiously confident, young, handsome, black, with a PHD in anthropology and a distinguished professor of African-American studies at the historically black university Morehouse College, you are bound to ruffle some feathers.
For his part, Hill welcomes the heavy expectations—and hate—that comes with such a high profile position. “I’m humbled to have this platform,” he says. “It’s like one day you are on Twitter and you wake up with 250,000 followers. People have come to respect and appreciate, if nothing else, the honesty of my voice. They know that I’m going to say what I think, and I’m not always going to be right, but I will try to give the best analysts that I can.”
Which is why Hill’s venture into the more light-hearted, and at times absurd pop culture world is eyebrow-raising. He envisions VH1 Live! as the ultimate cross-pollination party where he can chat with everyone from Love & Hip Hop New York’s animated breakout star Cardi B (“I find her fascinating,” he says of his fellow VH1 notable) and pop siren Rihanna to newly-signed Golden State Warriors star and unlikely NBA villain Kevin Durant.
But while many viewers may see the BET news correspondent and HuffPost Live host as punching below his serious-minded weight, Hill says his VH1 Live!, which is being produced by Embassy Row studios—the company behind Andy Cohen’s influential Bravo staple Watch What Happens Live—should not come as a shock to the folks who have paid attention to his varied career. “In my personal life, I’m a reality TV show junkie, and I’m always on Twitter,” he proudly admits. “I’m a music head because I started out as a rap journalist reviewing albums for Pop Matters. So if I’m going to have a TV show, I want it to cover a range of stuff that I’m into.”
Hill then flashes his hip-hop head card and gushes, “When I heard Joe Budden make that diss record about Drake, I didn’t have to do any research. I already knew the history. I want to know what’s going on with [Love & Hip Hop’s] Joseline and Stevie J. I want to talk to Hillary Clinton. All of that sh-t matters to me.”
And what would he ask the Democratic Presidential nominee? “Why should we trust you?” quickly answers Hill, who is dropping his fourth book Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond on August 2nd. “And tell Trump to come through…I’ll be nice [laughs].”