Most people have a few more years on them by the time they become seen as something of an elder statesman in their industry, but Nick Cannon has that recognition in the entertainment world while still in his early 40s. In the quarter century since becoming the youngest staff writer in broadcast television history, at the tender age of 17, Cannon has amassed an impressive body of work through a combination of grit and gratitude.
He has hosted two major prime-time shows (America’s Got Talent and The Masked Singer), appeared in almost 30 movies and television series, released five albums and hosted three radio shows. And then there’s the long-running (and groundbreaking) comedy and rap battle series he created, Wild ’N Out, which has been a springboard for other talents like Kevin Hart and Pete Davidson.
That track record explains why Cannon was one of the keynote speakers at Forbes’ inaugural ForbesBLK Summit, “The Future of Black Entrepreneurialism: Convening Culture, Creativity and the Community,” in Atlanta in November.
He has achieved everything with an apparent effortlessness that disguises a lot of drive and determination. Cannon attributes his busyness to being at ease with everything on his plate. “This is a love, this is a passion,” he says of his multitasking career. “It doesn’t feel like work. It takes a lot of effort, definitely takes a lot of energy, but I love it so much. From the outside looking in, people are like, ‘Man, you are always on the go, you are always grinding, you always work, are you ever gonna rest?’ And it’s like, ‘No, this is my vibration, this is what keeps me alive.’ I’m a shark; I gotta keep swimming.”
‘No, this is my vibration, this is what keeps me alive.’ I’m a shark; I gotta keep swimming.NICK CANNON
Cannon developed his artistic talents early, growing up as the son of a preacher, though he knew he wouldn’t be following in his father’s footsteps because “I do too much sinning.” Cannon warmed up the audience for Dad’s religious cable show by rapping, telling jokes and doing impressions. He inherited his maternal grandfather’s musical instruments and Cannon taught himself piano, drums, guitar and bass.
He won his first talent show at the age of 12. “And from there, I just fell in love with stand-up,” he recalls.“I was always the youngest. I would be on stage and people would belike, ‘Yo, who’s this little kid telling jokes?’ And so, I would stand out, and that opened up a lot of doors.”
Setting an example
Cannon is grateful for the many mentors who offered encouragement, advice and an example to the young talent. “I hung around people like Dick Gregory quite a bit. I had the opportunity of sitting at the footstool of Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones,” he tellsWayMaker Journal. “Watching them showed me what it was all about before the industry could put that cloak of fakeness on me. I had some real ones that said, ‘Nah, young blood, this is how you’ve got to maneuver out here.”
Cannon singles out Belafonte and Gregory as pioneers to honor. The first person to sell a million records, and a major presence on television and the big screen, Belafonte was “one of your first multitalented, multifaceted entertainers.”Gregory paved the way for others—without him, “you wouldn’t have your Richard Pryor, all the people that we love. And then, he took his talent in entertainment to activism and was one of the first, before it was a trend, to be stepping out. He was marching, one of the pillars of the civil rights movement.”
Cannon name-checks Jamie Foxx and Will Smith as two of the people who served as personal role models along the way. “They definitely not only blazed the trail, but they created a blueprint,” he says. “I feel like I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m trying to trudge along and accomplish a percentage of what they’ve done.” Cannon singles them out not only for being multifaceted but “also being just all-around good people. No matter what adversity they’re faced with, they always show up professional; they work their ass off. They’ve got this spirit, this charisma… they’re on the highest frequency, and no matter what’s going on in life, they’ve always got a smile on their face, they always treat people kindly and with respect.”
One lesson he’s absorbed from others is to “keep cooking while the pot is hot… When they let that foot in, kick the door down and stay in that room as long as they’re going to let you stay in there,” he says. “It’s about working hard, it’s that dedication, and not taking any opportunity for granted. I don’t turn down nothing but my collar.”
The helping-hand example set by those he views as mentors fuels some of the emphasis of the projects he is pursuing through his N’CredibleEntertainment production company, which include Nick Cannon Presents: Future Superstars. “I believe one of the gifts I’ve been blessed with, one of the talents, is to be a curator and to be an eye for talent,” he says. “I feel like everything in my career and everything that I touch now is platform-building, community-building, because I’ve received so many blessings. I’ve done everything that I could ever want todo; I’ve won in life. I’m playing with the house’s money now. All I can do is give back.”
This desire to make a difference isn’t restricted to the entertainment world. Until a few years ago, the closest Cannon had got to college was playing an HBCU student in the marching band movie Drumline. But since becoming a father and wanting to encourage his kids to pursue education, he figured he needed to set a good example, so he applied for a place at Howard University to study communications.Having already been involved in trying to help young offenders in his philanthropic work, he was inspired by associate professor Bahiyyah Muhammad’s work in the prison system and switched his major to criminology.
“I didn’t want to just be another celebrity with an opinion that didn’t have any substance to back it up,” he says. “I really dove headfirst into the world of criminology, just studying, understanding why the laws were certain ways and the true systemic issues that our people have been faced with for quite some time.”
It was a serious commitment that Cannon juggled with his many career responsibilities, flying in from the West Coast for his weekly classes and then heading straight back. “I never missed a class, never missed an assignment.”
Cannon’s work, graduating in 2020, enabled him to go from being“a supportive voice to an authoritative voice in a lot of things.” He has been pleased to be part of conversations about new criminal justice policies. “Ending this school-to-prison pipeline became a mission of mine and still is to this day.”
Cannon credits fatherhood—which he describes as his life calling—with giving him “a whole new energy.” While having 12 children with six women brings its responsibilities and complications, he acknowledges, he says he has yet to have any parenting problems. “I’ve been blessed with some amazing children. They’re all young right now, so give them a few years… but right now, I’ve got super relationships with all my kids.” Cannon enjoys seeing the world through their eyes “and it’s a bunch of them, so I get many different perspectives. It’s the most interesting part of my life.”
Though some may think being adad across multiple households would be hard, Cannon believes “that might be the easiest part of my life.” Partly because he loves it so much: “I desire it. I mean, I wake up feeling like a dad. I know my life’s purpose is to be a dad.”And “maybe I owe it all to the mothers of my children.”
Time management is important, naturally. But “I don’t think there’s a parent out there that wouldn’t want to spend more time with their children, even if you’ve only got one,” he says.“But the way I’ve designed my life, I get the opportunity: I can stop, drop everything I want to…”
One of the secrets of Cannon’s success in so many different areas has been his ability to effortlessly shape-shift, from his smooth fronting of America’s Got Talent and The Masked Singer to his edgy ring-mastering of Wild ‘N Out. While some might liken that to being a chameleon, he begs to differ.
“No,” he says, “you’re specific. The thing that people are drawn to doesn’t really have a shape. It’s an energy of, ‘I like this guy.’ Whatever format you put me on, I’m gonna still bring that same energy as authentically as possible—I’m just going to make sure I’m not cussing at the kids and make sure I’m not saying things that may go over people’s heads on other formats. It’s just knowing your environment and knowing how to speak their language.”
After over two decades in an industry where people come and go quickly, Cannon believes he has remained relevant by not trying to. “I always zig when everybody else is zagging,” he says. “I think it’s probably been even a hindrance to me a lot of times because even at my hottest, I would always veer off and go do something else and be unorthodox because I never wanted to do what everybody else was doing. I never wanted to be classified how everyone else was classified.”
If there’s a common thread to the many different things Cannon is involved with, he says it’s his being“a child of hip-hop.” Whether it’s a movie or a TV show, “there’s always this vibration of hip-hop energy that comes forth,” he explains. “That gift of improv, that gift of hip-hop—you can practice it and get better, but the ones who just naturally have it, they just authentically ooze it.”
He has been credited with shaping and influencing culture, but Cannon isn’t a big fan of the word, which he believes is overused. “I’m going to start replacing it with DNA,” he explains,“because everyone can appreciate and even be a part of the culture, but when it’s the DNA, it’s in you, and you pass it on. It’s the DNA of the Black experience. It’s the DNA of hip-hop.It’s the DNA of comedy. It’s the DNA of music. It’s the molecules, it’s the scientific makeup of how we present what we are.”
Self-care and silence
Cannon manages to pursue his many career and charity interests and invest in his families despite the challenge of having lupus, an autoimmune disease that can cause debilitating inflammations. Since being diagnosed in 2012, he has learned to “live with it in a prosperous, healthy manner.”
That means being on top of his health, following a good diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. After initially trying some rigorous food regimens, now “I eat to live,” with “everything in moderation. I’m not as strict because I wanna be able to enjoy life as well. There’s a happy balance, and I’m probably in one of the healthiest stages in my life that I’ve ever been, physically, mentally and spiritually.”
Having to be diligent about taking care of himself is sobering. “I’m working out to stay alive,” he says.“Because if I take days off, if I don’t do something, it’s going to take a lot to get back in shape. So, it’s a constant reminder to me how important that, one, life is super-short and, two, you’ve got to take care of this [body].”
Given the in-the-spotlight nature of much of his work and his easy-going personality, it’s a surprise to hear Cannon describe himself as an introvert. “I internalize everything,”he says. “I’m really super-quiet, and more than anything, I just like being at home spending time with my kids, and then, when I’m not with them, I like being alone. I literally have ‘lonesome’ tattooed on my neck.”
As best he can, he tries to live by the circadian clock, going to bed when it gets dark. That allows him to sleep well and then get up by two o’clock in the morning, which gives him several hours to himself before anyone else is up. “I like that quiet time, that meditation.”
While he may not consider himself preacher material, there’s a deeply spiritual side to Cannon that’s quietly expressed in his often-worn turban. It’s a reflection of his study of “many spiritual philosophies and practices,” including Africana history and Sikhism, in which the headdress is a representation of sovereignty. “And when I found out what sovereignty was, I was like, ‘That’s the embodiment of all that I am,’” he says. “I didn’t really do it for fashion choice… I was really on a spiritual kick of myself-sovereignty.”
Now his turban is “an easy way to explain, ‘Look, I want to go against the grain.’ I don’t want to be like everyone else… I need to stand out to everyone. It’s more about self-discipline, about making this commitment to myself to be a beacon of hope, to be a beacon of light, to be a protector, to be a provider…”