Heed Exclusive: Malik Yoba Talks “Empire”, Mali Music & More!
As I arrived to the site of Malik Yoba’s photo shoot, I could hear him gently offering directions on how the day needed to flow. He inhabited the space with focus and intentionality, showing off his industry experience. As we sat down to chat, I took out my recorder and well-worn composition notebook and said, “I’m ole school in this respect…” He grinned and said, “I’m ole school too, so no worries”. He relaxed in his seat and we began to talk about his role on Empire, the craft of acting, and his latest business ventures.
Jade Perry: So, I know that Empire is focused around the music industry and there are some really interesting things that happen in the series, musically. But first, can you tell me who’s on your personal iPod currently?
Malik Yoba: I’ve been wearing out Mali Music… ‘We’re More Than Conquerors’ and ‘Yahweh’. They’re gospel tracks but I got turned onto him through a secular music outlet… a friend of mine who’s a DJ sent me the latest song, “Beautiful,” and I was like, ‘Oh shit! This is good stuff!’ I just kind of went down the rabbit hole from there.
JP: What attracted you to the role of Vernon Turner on FOX’S tv series, “Empire”?
MY: Well, it really wasn’t a role to speak of (at first). I’m familiar with the Producer, Lee Daniels, and his sister, Leah Daniels. Leah Daniels does casting and our work together goes back to Cool Runnings. I ran into her at FOX Studios, after I had met a young actor that I thought was really talented. So, I saw her and I was trying to put her on to this actor and she said, ‘Ok, we’ll see, but I want to see you on Wednesday’ (to audition for Empire). So I met with Lee and I liked his approach. He apologized for asking me to audition… you know, Hollywood still kind of plays the ‘We Need A Star Name’ game, and we know that “name” is relative. People forget that many actors have 20+ years of acting experience under their belt. He literally stopped me in the middle of the audition process and apologized, and said, ‘You know I’m sorry that you still have to audition for this’. That type of humility made me say, ‘I don’t really care how big or small the role is… I’m interested from a conceptual standpoint.’ The show has DNA that I’m familiar with because I did New York Undercover, which has transformed television before. So this was familiar to me… the music, the fashion element, the urban environment… all very familiar territory for me.
JP: The way that the industry understands Vernon Turner’s character is that he is the Luscious Lyon’s longtime friend and business partner. Can you tell us who this character is, in your own opinion?
MY: The reality is that I had to write the bio for the character because they hadn’t written it yet. Sometimes if it’s not on the page, you have to figure it out for yourself. So I see Vernon as the moral compass… what I wrote isn’t ultimately what they developed him into. But Vernon, for me, is the guy that went to college, got his degrees, and learned how to run the business. He has a strong street sensibility but he has the means to run the business aspect.
MY: It’s always interesting because you’ve got some young ones and some vets. Some of these actors, like Taraji Henson, I’ve known for a bit and it’s been nice to watch her star rise. One of my favorite Terrence Howard stories is that we were chatting right before he did Hustle & Flow and Crash, and he was contemplating quitting the acting industry. He had a few meetings for some independent movies and told me after those, he was quitting. Then, Hustle & Flow came along and changed his life. So, Terrence is like an old friend too. The young guys just became like my younger brothers… I’ve kind of become an “Uncle Vernon” to them.
JP: What has been one of the most challenging parts of your career and one of the most rewarding parts?
MY: There are many challenges when you choose to make a living as an artist. But the reward is that I’m still here. There are a lot of people who aren’t around, from when I started. You can start off very ambitious because you don’t know any better. The acting part is the best part… the creating of a moment. (I enjoy) helping other actors to tell the truth and understand the craft of telling the truth. It’s like tennis… you go back and forth with the other actors you work with. I think that’s the true reward, being able to work in this industry.
It’s always an interesting dynamic with actors, because you never know who knows your work. That’s always a funny thing. People don’t always know who you are. So, I think you have to stay humble. You can’t ever think that you have arrived. All you have to do is look around and see that it is a gift and a blessing to be of service. Acting is a service. Human beings need to hear stories. Throughout history, it has been something we need to feel connected, to see ourselves, to hear ourselves, to experience some things that we may not be willing to touch in our own lives. Acting is a community service.
HEED switched gears here to talk about some of Malik Yoba’s latest updates outside of Empire, and he told us about his business venture, Iconic 32. The Iconic 32 company and brand recognizes itself as “curators of content”. Yoba described, “We exist to create, promote, and amplify movements that exist for social good and highlight the work of individuals who are working toward a greater social purpose.” The mediums that they focus on are plentiful but typically fall within the range of pop culture, including music, fashion, technology, film. Since the company is over a year old, they have been able to grow and take on innovative projects such as shoe design, technology app development, art events, and documentary development. In the near future, Iconic 32 will be giving out their Creative Rebel award, which Malik Yoba explains, “It’s for that individual that works within pop culture, and whatever their specific profession is, they have done their job well and impacted the community in a positive way. They have done well for themselves and done for others. We want to recognize those people and lift them up”.
Before we ended our chat, I asked Malik Yoba what he thought our readers should take HEED to. He paused briefly in reflection and explained, “My father always said, ‘Build your own generator, so when they turn off the power, you still have lights’. This means that you can’t just sit around and wait for an opportunity. You have to proactively go after it. My brother also said, ‘While you’re waiting, keep creating’. So, these are the things that I live by”.
To learn more about Malik Yoba’s work with Iconic32, visit the website at http://www.iconic32.com. To stay connected and hear about Malik Yoba’s latest projects and acting endeavors, follow him on social media @malikyoba. You can also watch him weekly on the new series, EMPIRE, which airs on FOX, Wednesday nights at 8 EST / 9 CST.
All Photos © 2015 Kevin Kneeland & Nicole Oriatti of K&N Media