TMZ's Van Lathan Talks Kanye, Kaepernick and Jumping Outside of Today's Celebrity Story

Source: TMZ

The San Francisco Bay Area has a long standing reputation for flourishing in the spirit of social activism as it is the birth place of the Black Panther Party and a hashtag that started the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a place where its residents will protest about anything. Van Lathan found that out while trying to drive across the Bay Bridge on his way to Oakland. "Yo, it took forever to get here," Lathan explained in what would be our first in-person interaction. "There was a protest going on about whales! You all protest about whales out here?"

The Bay Area is also the former home of a controversial athlete who started a debate about an anthem. Colin Kaepernick and Van Lathan recently found themselves intersecting via social media when EA Sports removed Kaepernick's name from its Madden 19 video game soundtrack; which they eventually added back and apologized for. Lathan took issue with this and urged his social media followers to use the $59.99 they would have spent on the game to support the Know Your Rights Camp.  Through this charity, Kaepernick hosts workshops for youth to teach them how to maneuver the justice system should they come in contact with law enforcement.

"When I saw that EA Sports had edited Colin Kaepernick's name out of Madden 19, to a lot of people that felt like a very trivial thing but to me it's incredibly symbolic," Lathan told TSFJ. "It symbolizes how a corporation, traditionally a white corporation, utilizes the black athlete, the black man, the black woman, the black people, and then when we start to have a voice for ourselves, they do what they have to do to mute that voice."

Lathan's social media posts went viral and sparked a larger conversation surrounding the use of our buying power as a form of protest. Since this was the second consecutive year EA Sports removed Kaepernick's name, it seems as if it wasn't an oversight on their part but a means to punish the athlete for having the nerve to speak about social injustice while in the confines of a football stadium.

Olympic Project for Human Rights Founder and sociology professor, Dr. Harry Edwards, says this is not the first time we have seen a corporation be complicit in the promotion of black oppression as aspects of the slave trade were financed with corporate funding.

"This enduring residual of enslavement culture and economics is what is manifestly evident in EA's redaction of Kaepernick's name from Madden 19," Edwards told TSFJ. "In so doing the unambiguous message and aim of eliminating the presence of the man is to diminish the legitimacy of the idea that sports could and should be an effective platform from which to protest injustice."

In contrast, it appears the folks at Nike must have stayed up late doing their homework. They used their market research to prove that there is power in the black and brown dollar.

Lathan's appreciation for athletes who use their own platforms to promote social justice crosses over into his weekly podcast, "The Red Pill," named after a reference to "The Matrix" movie. He recently sat down with retired NBA player, Matt Barnes, to discuss among other things, the reasons why the NBA is better than the NFL at addressing athletes' social justice issues.

"We're out here wearing 'I Can't Breathe' shirts in warm-ups on nationally televised games. You couldn't see no sh-- like that in the NFL," Barnes stated. " I think it's great the NBA allows us to utilize our platform without punishing us because our voices are heard and we're putting a positive message out there even though it may be something the people don't want to hear."

In particular, Lathan observes that where LeBron James uses his platform to educate and speak out on matters that involve disparities in the black community, Kaepernick's approach to activism is very direct.

"I think Colin Kaepernick went right at the heart of the matter," explains Lathan. "What he said was, 'I'm showing allegiance to a flag that has never really delivered on the promise that the fabric is supposed to mean. And I don't feel comfortable doing that until we have a conversation about why that is. It's bound to ruffle some feathers."

Dr. Edwards believes that Kaepernick is this century's poster image of athletes who continue to hand off the activism torch passed down by those such as John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

"The flag, the words of the Pledge of Allegiance and of the national anthem are not the problem," Edwards says. "They merely highlight and point up the distance between the professed quest for freedom and justice for all, for that 'more perfect union' and the reality of mainstream America's apparent willingness to settle for far less for citizens of color."


Lathan's road to his now public life on television started down South in Baton Rouge, La. where as a kid, he had an insatiable curiosity for understanding things that his peers may not have taken an interest in. "Early on in life I developed an ability to look at my surroundings and extrapolate out of them things and stories and patterns that fascinated me," he said. "And those discussions, having them inside my community, I couldn't always talk to people around me about things that I saw or bigger issues that I wanted to dive into." Lathan's desire to learn and express more turned him into a writer.

While working on a movie set in his hometown, the region was hit by Hurricane Katrina. The effects of the adversity and destruction around him, inspired Lathan to start writing about what he saw his community experiencing. As a result, the producers he met encouraged him to take his creative skills to Los Angeles.  After years of hustling to prove himself as a writer and producer, he landed a job as a producer for the "TMZ Bus Tour" and was quickly promoted into the newsroom.

(Photo credit: Cameron Gazaway)

In the seven years since joining TMZ, Lathan hasn't seen much that shocks him except for an infamous fight that took place on an elevator.

"When the description came in that 'Solange just attacked Jay-Z on an elevator while Beyoncé stood and watched,' I'm like that's got to be a lie," Lathan laughs. "I was like maybe she might be arguing with him or yelling at him but actually physically trying to attack him, I never thought that was true until I remember watching it and being like 'Oh my God!'"

Lathan acknowledges that there are stories that aren't being told because they are less salacious, but he contends that although TMZ has crossed over into other genres, it is primarily an entertainment news outlet.

"A lot of stories that need to be covered, they're not fun. They don't have anything to do with people who are beautiful, or people who rap well or people who sing well," Lathan explained. "But they're things that you need to know about to arm yourself with the knowledge to change your society and your world."

We have especially seen an increase in the coverage of celebrities and their addictions including the recent overdoses of Demi Lovato and Mac Miller, the latter who passed away last month. It's unclear what the drugs were laced with and if they knew what they were taking. However, Lathan says there is an even bigger narrative to be shared.

"You know what the real story to me in Mac Miller or Peeps or even Prince's death is? All of those guys were insanely talented people, but the real story is the ever worsening drug culture we have going on in some of the music," he said.

"So what I start to think is how many people took those drugs that weren't Demi Lovato? How many people didn't wake up yesterday that weren't Mac, that weren't Peep, that weren't Prince? As these things become worse who is going to jump outside the celebrity story to cover the epidemic? We have to address some of the aspects of not just hip hop culture but of drug culture becoming prevalent in America and why that's becoming so mainstream."


Lathan is not immune to controversy as earlier this year, he himself became part of "the story." He was catapulted into the national spotlight when he confronted Kanye West on TMZ's live show back on May 1st. On this particular show, West was invited to discuss the reasons why he had been photographed wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat. West engaged in a several minute rant that included a statement about slavery being a choice.

He then addressed the TMZ newsroom by asking if they felt he was thinking free to which Lathan, a senior producer, responded, "I don't think you are thinking anything. I think what you are doing right now is actually the absence of thought." Lathan then proceeded to explain with passion and eloquence the reasons why he vehemently disagreed with West.  "We have to deal with the marginalization that has come from the 400 years of slavery that you said for our people was a choice!" exclaimed Lathan.

It was in this moment that Lathan went from being the "other black guy" on TMZ to actually having a name. His poise in an instance that could have gone in the wrong direction showed his unapologetic willingness to represent his community without fear of consequence.

Although it's arguable that Lathan may have Kanye West to thank for the bigger platform he has today, he doesn't want people to think he schooled West for the purpose of furthering his career.

Last month in Oakland during a panel discussion on "Race & Media in a Changing Landscape" that was hosted by the Bay Area Black Journalists Association and the Maynard Institute, Lathan reflected on the reasons why he felt compelled to speak up.

"Over and over again I have gotten stories about what my responsibility is in terms of not even in the media, but in terms of being a black man. The foremost responsibility as it was explained to me was to your ancestors, " recalled Lathan. "That's the first time in all of the stuff that Kanye was doing that I felt that he had actually taken a direct shot at the ancestors because you can't impugn them. If you ain't never been through the Middle Passage, you don't know what you would've done. So that's where that came from."

Lathan and West recently came to a mutual understanding via an email Lathan initiated and agreed that there is more work to be done collectively. The juxtaposition of these two black men in a newsroom engaged in a contentious debate resulted in an introspective look into the ways the moment itself could turn into something bigger than them.

"The cancel culture that we're in right now is incredibly bad. If we don't have patience with each other, no one will have patience with us," Lathan said. "That doesn't mean we have to accept a bunch of BS from one another. But what it does mean is that I wasn't trying to call him (West) out. I was trying to call him in."

However, it remains to be seen which side of history Kanye West will end up on as his most recent rants regarding the 13th Amendment and his wearing of a "Make America Great Again" hat have us giving 'Ye the side eye again.

On the October 2nd episode of Lathan's podcast, he stated that although he is baffled by Kanye, he is no longer intrigued by him.

"If 'Ye is going to do beautiful things up there in Chicago – a lot of people who I trust say he's very serious – let him do that work. Let it bear some fruit. But for now, everybody pause and change the station."

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