Mahershala Ali is having a moment right now.
You’ll probably recognize him as the smooth-talking Remy Danton in House of Cards, the Harlem kingpin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Marvel’s Luke Cage and the paternal drug dealer Juan in Moonlight. Having won a total of 24 awards—not to mention an Oscar nomination—for his latter role, the 42-year-old Oakland native is proof there’s no timeline for success, especially with talent like he has.
Aside from being one of the coolest, most respected actors in the business, Mahershala Ali is also the most hip-hop guy in Hollywood (all due respect to Ice Cube, Common and Childish Gambino).
Growing up in the Bay Area right around the time hip-hop was coming into its own, Mahershala listened to local favorites such as Hieroglyphics and Souls of Mischief while tuning into Sway and King Tech’s The Wake Up Show. With his father living in New York, he was also exposed to the likes of Biggie, Wu-Tang, Tribe, De La Soul and Nas (who, by the way, he named his cat after). Two MCs Mahershala credits for really sparking his romance with rap, however, are Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick.
“My first moment where I felt like I couldn’t live without this music [laughs] was when I heard Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s 'The Show' on the radio station in the Bay Area and I’m twelve years old. I sat by the radio station the whole weekend changing the dial from different radio stations to see if they would play 'The Show.' I felt like my head was going to explode. I love hip-hop. It’s such an appendage for me. It’s something that’s always shaped my experience out in the world.” — Mahershala Ali, GQ.
Unlike many other rap fans his age, Mahershala doesn’t just swear by the music of his youth. Putting some so-called tastemakers to shame, he cites Ka, Roc Marciano, EarthGang, Mick Jenkins, Westside Gunn and Conway as some of his favorite new acts. “I like and listen to some of the commercial stuff but the stuff I really spend time on is the stuff that you got to look for,” he toldXXL.
Mahershala’s deep love for hip-hop carries over into his acting career, too. For each role, the former NBA hopeful-turned-NYU alumnus compiles a playlist to help him get into character. For The Hunger Games’ Commander Boggs, he bumped Method Man and Wu-Tang. For Cottonmouth, he kept Big L, EPMD and Freddie Gibbs in rotation. For Remy Danton, it was everyone from Jay Z and J Dilla to Mos Def and Madvillain.
“The reason I came up with that [was because] I was a huge hip-hop fan and I remember when a Mobb Deep album would come out, I would play the heck out of that album, The Infamous album. I felt affected by it,” he toldVIBE. “When I started acting and thinking about these characters, I got more technical about it and started to form playlists specific to each character.”
Beyond being a huge fan, Mahershala Ali even had a short-lived rap career himself—and given his natural talent in front of the camera, it’s no surprise to learn he enjoyed modest success. Going by the name Prince Ali, Mahershala released two albums: Corner Ensemble in 2006, followed by Curb Side Service in 2007. The latter was released through Hieroglyphics’ Hiero Imperium label and featured collaborations with Planet Asia, Keith Murray and Dilated Peoples’ Rakaa, which should give you a clue to how wordy Prince Ali’s music was.
Mahershala’s rap dreams may have given way to a budding acting career in the following years—thanks to a small role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—but that hip-hop spirit has never left him. From the suave swagger of Remy Danton to the ruthless gangsterism of Cottonmouth, Mahershala brings an element of hip-hop to each role. His next one, in an upcoming biopic about ‘80s teenage rap sensation Roxanne Shanté, will truly combine his nose for a good script with his love for rap music.
“Usually when you look at hip-hop films and biopics you think, this is a story of this album or how so and so came up in the business,” Mahershala told The Daily Beast of the movie, which is called Roxanne, Roxanne and set for release in 2017. “But it explores why she kind of disappeared and got derailed, to some degree. I believe that’s going to be a film that really grabs people as well because it’s very nuanced compared to a lot of music biopics.”
Roxanne Shanté’s story is one often buried by revisionist history, but Mahershala’s willingness to tell her story highlights an even deeper parallel between his work and his love for hip-hop. As an African American Muslim, Mahershala Ali represents two groups of people who are especially vulnerable under the Trump administration—we’ve seen that already with his newly imposed travel ban on Muslim-majority countries and his almost cartoonish perception of black communities, like threatening to "send in the Feds" to stop the killings in Chicago.
All of this only makes Mashershala Ali’s continued success even more important. In the same way hip-hop has “tanned” America, actors like Mashershala are helping to bring more black faces, voices and narratives to the big screen without reinforcing negative stereotypes, whether it’s through a black superhero series Luke Cage, a coming-of-age drama about black gay love like Moonlight or a true story of black female triumph like Hidden Figures.
“I just think it’s important that the camera’s being pointed on people who haven’t seen their story told, and not told in this way,” Mahershala said in a recent interview with NBC while discussing Luke Cage. “Also, you add to that being in the superhero genre, you just feel included. You feel like you have a seat at the table.”
Word to Solange.
By Andy James. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: YouTube