Dave Chappelle shows up to our interview in a red t-shirt, blue jeans and shiny white sneakers. He lopes around in his usual style, pacing a lot, but does not seem like a man struggling to speak or to order his thoughts at all. He's lucid and thoughtful and a couple of times asks me to give him some time to think about answers. He concedes that he is dealing with a lot of issues and mentions that he had consulted a psychiatrist about a week ago for a forty minute session. He is also quite fastidious about keeping his new sneakers clean and stops at least twice to wipe smudges off their toes.
The first thing Chappelle wants is to dispel rumorsthat he's got a drug problem, that he's checked into a mental institution in Durbanthat have been flying around the U.S. for the past week. He says he is staying with a friend, Salim, and not in a mental institution, as has been widely reported in America. Chappelle says he is in South Africa to find "a quiet place" for a while. "Let me tell you the things I can do here which I can't at home: think, eat, sleep, laugh. I'm an introspective dude. I enjoy my own thoughts sometimes. And I've been doing a lot of thinking here."
The picture he paintsand it seems a fairly honest and frank assessment is of someone struggling to come to terms with a new position and power who's still figuring out how to come to grips with how people around him are reacting to the $50 million deal he signed last year with Comedy Central. Without naming specific characters, he seems to blame both some of his inner circle (not his family) and himself for the stresses created by last year's deal.
"There were things that overwhelmed me," he says. "But not in the way that people are saying. I haven't spent any of the money. All that stuff about partying and taking crack is not true. Why do I live on a farm in Ohio? To support my partying lifestyle?"
The problems, he says, started with his inner circle."If you don't have the right people around you and you're moving at a million miles an hour you can lose yourself," he says. "Everyone around me says, 'You're a genius!'; 'You're great!'; 'That's your voice!' But I'm not sure that they're right." And he stresses that Comedy Central was not part of the problem and put no more than normal television restrictions on what he could do.
"You got to be careful of the company you keep," Chappelle says. "It's hard to know how much to say. One of the things that happens when people make the leap from a certain amount of money to tens of millions of dollars is that the people around you dramatically change.
"During my ascent, I've seen other people go through that wall to become really big. They always said that fame didn't change them but that it changes the people around them. You always hear that but you never really understand it. But now that I'm there that makes a lot of sense and I'm learning what that means. You have to have people around you that you can trust and aren't just out for a meal ticket."
The breakdown in trust within his inner circle seems to have led him to question the material they were producing. He seems obsessed with making sure the material is good and honest and something that he will be proud. "I want to make sure I'm dancing and not shuffling," he says. "What ever decisions I make right now I'm going to have live with. Your soul is priceless." The first two seasons of his show "had a real spirit to them," he says. "I want to make sure whatever I do has spirit."
But Chappelle also says that he must share the blame for the stalled third season. "I'm admittedly a human being," he says. "I'm a difficult kind of dude." His earlier walkout during shooting "had a little psychological element to it. I have trust issues, things like that. I saw some stuff in myself that I just didn't dig. It's like when I brought a girl home to my mom and it looked as if my mom really didn't like this girl. And she told me, 'I like her just fine. I just don't like you around her.' That's how I feel in this situation. There were some things about myself that I didn't like. People got to take inventory from time to time. That's what this [coming to South Africa] is for."
This is Chappelle's second trip to South Africa. He first came to Durban, and visited Salim, in 2000. Chappelle won't tell me exactly how he met Salim but describes him as a family friend. A soft-spoken Muslim, Salim seems also to be something of a sounding board to Chappelle, who converted to Islam several years ago. While Chappelle is not doing a formal religious course in Durban, says Salim, who wore a simple cotton robe and hung back through the interview and photo shoot and only spoke when I asked him a question, "if he wants to talk religion then I'm there as someone to talk to." Says Chappelle: "This is kind of my spot where I can come to fill my spirit back up. Sometimes you neglect these things if you are running on a corporate schedule." The crux of his crisis seems to boil down to his almost obsessive need to "check my intentions." He uses the phrase a few times during the interview and explains that it means really making sure that he's doing what he's doing for the right reasons.
His family, he says, has been a huge support over the past eight months. "They've been phenomenal really, just incredible. What beautiful people. Everyone loves their family but it's good if you can like them too."
His religion is also crucial. "I don't normally talk about my religion publicly because I don't want people to associate me and my flaws with this beautiful thing. And I believe it is a beautiful religion if you learn it the right way. It's a lifelong effort. Your religion is your standard. Coming here I don't have the distractions of fame. It quiets the ego down. I'm interested in the kind of person I've got to become. I want to be well rounded and the industry is a place of extremes. I want to be well balanced. I've got to check my intentions, man."
That includes planning for the future. When I ask him if he would ever buy a place of his own in South Africa, Chappelle replies, "First of all I've got to make sure I've got a job."
He says that he's only been recognized five or six times in the two weeks he's been here. "It happens so sporadically that when it does it freaks me out because I have to remember, 'Oh, yeah, I'm famous.'" At the end of our interview/photo shoot an American woman does recognize him. "Number seven," he cries. "Wow, I'm not that big in Africa. I've got to do an action film here."
During most of the hour and a half that we talk, Chappelle is serious and introspective. But he still has his sense of humor, which comes out as we near the end of our conversation: "Is that enough to prove I'm not smoking crack or hanging out in a mental institution?"