It was a striking double-down from a mainstream figure accused of hate speech. The move spurred a tsunami on social media, inspiring figures such as Diddy to hail Cannon as a folk hero calling out corporate hypocrisy — and a wide range of commentators to decry him as a peddler of bigotry rightly called out himself for spreading dangerous lies.
But Cannon was not done.
On Wednesday evening, not 24 hours after he let loose the scabrous social media post, the star swung entirely the other way. In a response to an announcement from Fox that the network would not fire him from “The Masked Singer,” he said, without walking back or addressing the Viacom comments, that he feels "ashamed of the uninformed and naive place” his anti-Semitic comments came from, that he would remove the video (he did), and that he extended his “deepest and most sincere apologies to my Jewish sisters and brothers for the hurtful and divisive words that came out of my mouth.”
It was, to say the least, a far cry from the defiant celebrity who had just said he would not be forced "to kiss the master’s feet.” So which kind of public persona is he going for?
Both, it turns out. And it’s a ballet he has been attempting for some time.
A little while back, in the neo-ancient period known as January, I spent a day with Cannon in Los Angeles for a potential story. What I witnessed — throughout a mostly handler-less set of interactions in his trailer, at his startup-vibed Burbank office, on the “Masked Singer” set, in his keyboard-equipped van — throws light on the contradictions of someone who is fast becoming among Hollywood’s most enigmatic personalities.
One doesn’t need to be Jewish to find Cannon’s comments abhorrent, a string of malicious and delegitimizing myths about Jews worthy of universal condemnation. But as a social matter, it’s also easy to find his reactions to the backlash fascinating. Cannon is an entertainer seeking more than almost any other in recent memory to balance hardcore views with a shiny corporate-friendly face, an effort that for him is both internal struggle and canny calculation.
His story provides a telling look at the colliding demands of political activism and broad entertainment that is Hollywood circa 2020. Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and head of a study on Hollywood diversity, captured the conundrum: “If you look at the history of talent of color in this industry there’s a fear going back decades, of speaking out and being blacklisted,” especially in the controversy-free zone of broadcast television. But, Hunt hastened to note, "what you’re seeing now is also more space being created to discuss social topics, like police brutality, that haven’t always been mainstream.”
That desire for space on Cannon’s part was evident on that day in January.
Far from the celebrity standup, the tabloid fixture and the entertainer-for-hire persona some of his professional roles suggest, Cannon came across as an activist with bigger aims on his mind; all this other stuff, especially the TV gigs, are a means to a platform-obtaining end. Underestimate his social and political ambitions — write him off as Mariah Carey’s ex or what-have-you — at your peril. And across 16 hours of a marathon day and again during a radio show at an ungodly predawn hour the following morning, it became clear that Cannon was willing to work with a Prince-like fury to achieve it.
Even more apparent than a man enthusiastic to work was a man eager to learn, even if, as he would be the first to admit, he still had a long way to go. His bachelor’s degree in criminology from Howard University, received just last year, makes this inquisitive point. So does an office conference room packed in uncharacteristic Hollywood fashion with history books. In multiple conversations, he showed a sincere and endless curiosity, whether it was discussing a documentary he was working on about alternative healing or questions he asked about journalism.
He did not express hatred for anyone (except Eminem over their long-running feud — that’s genuine). But he also revealed himself as someone at battle with himself daily over how much to say, what role to play — who exactly he wants to be in this firmament.
He said he spends a lot of time tamping down the comments he really wants to make, issuing the sort of politic lines of the apologetic Fox news release. He then shared with revealing candor the mental process he runs through before often smiling and saying nothing.
“I can’t jump onstage being Turban Nick, people won’t listen,” he said. (He sometimes wears a turban in public, as a political statement of sorts.) “I can’t be an angry black man. I can’t get out there and be angry even when I am angry, even I have what I would call answers to these problems.
“There’s never a time when I’m not an authentic version of myself,” he added. “But I have to play the game for the long haul. I’m not going be the angry black man for no reason. Because if you do, when it’s really time to be that, you lose your potency. They’re going to say ‘He’s always that.’ ”
The ViacomCBS response would seem to run counter to this. But in the interview, he cast light on what makes him flip the switch. Cannon left “America’s Got Talent” — a hugely popular reality-competition show on NBC that is to summer ratings what “Masked Singer” is to fall and spring — in 2017 over jokes he made about NBC and race. He similarly did not hold back at the time about why he did so, saying, “My soul won’t allow me to be in business with corporations that attempt to frown on freedom of speech.”
As he sat in his trailer on the Fairfax District back lot where “Singer” was being shot, he amplified his thinking on that move.
“Culturally, I stand firm in the decision I made — it’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said. “I don’t think executives are thinking of cultural insensitivities — they’re thinking of how many people are watching. It’s the machine and they don’t really think about who’s in the basement pedaling. But I also can’t allow people to treat me like a piece of property. People would say, ‘You have to behave.’ They’d say, ‘We love what you’re doing, we want to invest in you.’ But they would say, ‘You have to behave.’ ”
Cannon’s genius, it became clear that day, was this chameleon-like facility to switch between modes. He can make candid comments like that one and still quickly be wooed by another network. He can have the ViacomCBS reaction and the Fox reaction — in the same day. He can preside over a suave family-friendly finale of “Singer,” broadcast TV’s biggest hit, then, days later, deliver an extremely sharp BLM spoken-word lauded and debated for its frankness. (“I can’t understand how the white man never understood how to handle the Hue man properly/The honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Noble Drew Ali/spoke Constantly, consciously and cautiously/about this ungodly prophecy/and you still worried about your profits, see.”)
In a world of black celebrity that features both Colin Kaepernick and Will Smith, Cannon is essentially asking: “Why can’t I be both?” “Why can’t I jump back and forth over a line many entertainers stick decidedly to one side of?”
But if Cannon’s genius was in the attempt, his fatal mistake might be in thinking he could succeed. Shortly after the Fox statement, he said he would “take some time away” from his radio show, while a planned syndicated television talk show, backer Debmar-Mercury announced, would be pushed from this fall to fall 2021 so Cannon can "continue the healing process as he meets with leaders of the Jewish community and engages in a dialogue with our distribution partners to hear their views.”
Or is it fatal? Fox has kept him on its highly rated show, and in a fervently cancel-culture moment, Cannon, at least for his most prominent gig, has seemingly rebounded from anti-Semitic remarks in the space of just a few days, even striking back at the company that first called him out for it.
Pressed on how he felt about the “AGT” exit, Cannon said something illuminating. "I didn’t want to stand for insensitivity. But I also played it in a very strategic way. I wouldn’t be here as a host and producer on ‘Masked Singer’ if I didn’t.”
That instinct for strategic behavior was again on display last week, as he issued a diplomatic apology just a day after an anti-corporate screed.
He also, it should be noted, cited a rabbi he began a dialogue with at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and said it was “just the beginning" of a set of meetings that "will help me as I further commit myself to more profound learning.” Was he being curious or canny? Strategic or sincere? The enigma only deepened.
But there was one last twist.
After he undertook the apology and the learning tour, Cannon wrote this on Twitter on Friday:
“I hurt an entire community and it pained me to my core, I thought it couldn’t get any worse. Then I watched my own community turn on me and call me a sell-out for apologizing.”
An hour later he seemed to give up entirely. The ever-shifting lines of social media, it turns out, may be too tricky even for a deft toe-tapper like Nick Cannon.
“Y’all can have this planet," he wrote. "I’m out.”