When it comes to Dave Chappelle and his attacker, there are no winners
Isaiah Lee is talking about his motivations from jail, while Chappelle doubles down on transphobic jokes.
On May 3, Dave Chappelle was attacked during his performance at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the Netflix is a Joke comedy festival. A 23-year-old named Isaiah Lee rushed the stage, barrelling the comedian over before being detained and beaten up by security. Chappelle didn’t sustain any injuries; Lee had a broken arm and two black eyes when the incident was said and done with. Now, Lee is speaking out from jail about why he made such an ill-advised decision to use violence against the comic: he says he was upset by Chappelle’s comedy about the LGBTQ+ community and homelessness.
“I identify as bisexual … and I wanted him to know what he said was triggering,” Lee told New York Post. “I wanted him to know that next time, he should consider first running his material by people it could affect.” Lee explained that he is also a father who has experienced homelessness before. saying, “I’m also a single dad and my son is 5. It’s a struggle and I wanted Dave Chappelle to know it’s not a joke.” Lee also pointed to another comic in the lineup having joked about pedophilia that night as another cause of his state of mind, with the joke having brought up memories of his own molestation when he was 17. Lee says that he is not mentally ill, as some media narratives have painted him, though his lawyer said that he is receiving mental health services.
Lee is facing four misdemeanor counts, one of the more serious of which is possession of a deadly weapon with intent to assault. Lee had on his person a fake handgun that ejects a sharp knife at the time of the attack. He told New York Post that he keeps the weapon on him because he’s a “minor celebrity.” Lee raps under the moniker NoName_Trapper, and creepily enough has a song with Chappelle’s name as the title. Since the charges in the Chappelle incident were made against Lee, he has also been charged with stabbing his roommate last year, with the victim coming forward amidst the viral attack on Chappelle.
Lee seems to feel sound in his convictions as he speaks about his actions. When Chappelle asked Lee why he’d attacked him backstage that night he says, “I told him my mother and grandmother, who fought for his civil rights to be able to speak, would be upset at the things he said,” with Chappelle allegedly retorting back, “Now your story will die with you, son.” Lee disagrees: “But he’s wrong, I’m sitting here talking about it.” Which begs the question: as an aspiring musician who believes himself to already be some level of famous, how much of this is for 15 minutes of fame? Lee was originally only facing six months and community service, but with the new charges could face up to 15 years — it’s possible that he thought a light jail sentence would be worth the publicity stunt.
It’s unclear if Lee is lying about his motivations. Being triggered as an LGBTQ+ person cushions his defense, while positioning himself into a martyr for the cause. He could just be saying these things, or they could be the reality of his identity. What is not up for debate, though, is that Chappelle made a transphobic joke even at the time of the attack, quipping “It was a trans man!” to much laughter, after Lee was pulled away. Chappelle has been riding a wave of transphobia since his latest string of controversial Netflix specials, including last year’s The Closer. In the special, he joked that he was joining J.K. Rowling on “team TERF,” with TERF being an acronym for “trans exclusionary radical feminist,” a term used to describe people who don’t think trans women should be allowed in women’s spaces, among other transphobic things.
He went on in the special to defend DaBaby. “A lot of the LGBTQ community doesn’t know DaBaby’s history. He’s a wild guy. He once shot a ni**a and killed him. In Walmart. Oh, this is true. Google it. Nothing bad happened to his career,” he said. “...Do you see where I’m going with this? In our country, you can shoot and kill a ni**a, but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings!” He ends the special blaming the trans community for his queer friend taking their own life after receiving hate online for performing with Chappelle.
While Chappelle ended The Closer by stating that he wouldn’t make any more jokes about the LGBTQ community, he has still been widely unapologetic, despite the special spurring employee walkouts at Netflix and mass outrage online. He’s even been twisting the attack into a transphobic joke, quipping on stage in a surprise set opening for John Mulaney, “I was attacked by a gun that identifies as a knife.” It’s a complex situation: comics certainly shouldn’t have to fear being attacked during a performance, and violence is always wrong, but Chappelle needs to understand how degrading, dangerous, and offensive his transphobia is. Lee’s actions were inexcusable and illegal, but if he’s to be believed, they’re an example of the ripple effect of Chappelle’s jokes.